For more than a year on the campaign trail, Michelle Wu promised transformative change for Boston. Starting Tuesday, when she is sworn in as mayor, she’ll have to start proving she can deliver it.
Boston’s first woman and first person of color elected to the city’s top job, she carries the challenge of her ambitious policy agenda, lofty ideas she will have to slot into the rigid workings of municipal government. And she inherits a City Hall in flux after a chaotic year, a community still fighting a deadly pandemic, dozens of outstanding union contracts that portend tough negotiations, a scandal-plagued police department without a permanent leader — not to mention skepticism from her counterparts on Beacon Hill, resistance from some of Boston’s traditional power brokers, and a recalcitrant city that clings to its traditions.
“It’s very different going from campaigning to governing. . . . She made a lot of promises during the campaign that she’ll have to deliver on,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who was one of Wu’s rivals in the mayoral race. “Any time you’re pushing for systemic reform, it’s not easy, because there are folks who want to maintain the status quo.”
But Wu also takes the helm with a formidable advantage: The support of 91,239 Boston voters, more than her elected predecessor ever won. Allies say that landslide victory gives her a decisive mandate to cement in policy the plans she sketched out during the campaign.
To do that, those who know her say she will need to both engage in backroom negotiations with fellow elected leaders and utilize the megaphone her perch provides. And, when faced with gridlock, they advise her to lean into the loud chorus of supporters to make a case for her.
“Michelle needs to use both the inside game and the outside game,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, a mentor to Wu and herself a master of that political approach. “The outside game is what keeps elected officials focused — it’s what puts wind in her sails for a bigger vision. The inside game is how things really get done.”
Wu is set to be sworn in Tuesday at noon in the City Council chambers. Then, she’ll settle in behind her fifth-floor desk, and the test will begin.
Her first task is to fill out her staff. Wu has already named a few members of her Cabinet, but many crucial roles, including chief of staff, remain unfilled.
Her team has an ambitious agenda. And it will face significant political headwinds.
One comes from Beacon Hill, where even Boston mayors who served in the Legislature have a poor track record of winning support for their priorities. State leaders have already signaled they’re lukewarm on several of Wu’s signature issues, such as fare-free public transportation and rent control, both pitches that would require buy-in outside the city.
Republican Governor Charlie Baker said in a radio interview last month that he would “probably not” sign a bill reinstituting rent control in Boston, though he’d “leave the door open a little bit.” When asked about fare-free MBTA transit in another recent interview, Baker indicated he does not believe the state should fund it, saying “it does not make any sense to me” that taxpayers who live outside the Boston area “should pay to give everybody in Boston a free ride.” Democratic legislative leaders have sounded similarly skeptical notes, though they said they’d be open to meeting with Wu.
Beacon Hill may not take action immediately — or ever — on Wu’s ideas. But “the conversation gets elevated because of her candidacy,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who co-chairs the Ways and Means Committee and endorsed Wu.
“There are some people [on Beacon Hill] that don’t know her well enough,” Michlewitz said, but “she doesn’t let the fact that she doesn’t know someone get in the way of her trying to work with someone.”
Wu and Baker know each other, but not well, aides said. A spokesman for the governor said the administration “expects to be working closely with her team.” That has already begun: Wu attended a meeting last week with Baker, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, and other state and local leaders to discuss the crisis at the part of the city known as Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of Boston’s opioid and homelessness crises.
Wu will also need to shore up support for her agenda within City Hall itself, where the City Council recently won more control over the budgeting process.
To move the needle, advisers say, she should capitalize on the strong showing she had on Election Day, when she won the city with a decisive 64 percent of the vote.
Demonstrating public support “is a really important part of getting other elected officials . . . to support that agenda,” said Jay Gonzalez, co-chair of Wu’s transition team and the 2018 Democratic nominee for Massachusetts governor. They will “see that it isn’t just Mayor Wu, but the people of Boston and others who are wanting this agenda to be delivered on.”
National strategists pointed to a similar approach.
“One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen some progressives make when transitioning from campaign mode to governing is taking big fights behind closed doors,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed Wu. “Ideally, Baker and Wu are on the same side of popular positions. But if that’s not true, then the best way to increase leverage with him is to keep the public engaged and informed as a source of pressure.”
Wu will maintain that drumbeat without becoming “confrontational and snarky and nasty,” predicted Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who has known her for years and endorsed her. “That’s not who she is.”
Beyond, and perhaps before, the sweeping vision outlined in her campaign, there are the day-to-day challenges of the office — hiring staff, ensuring strong constituent services, preparing for snowstorms. Numerous Boston mayors have tried and failed to reform the city’s development process and to improve lagging city schools, challenges Wu now inherits.
And the mayor-elect has already been confronted with the unpredictable tragedies that can derail a leader’s best-laid plans. Last week, after three Boston police officers were shot and police killed a suspect in a standoff in Dorchester, her transition team was forced to postpone planned briefings on the department.
Those interruptions and challenges will only multiply after Wu is sworn in and the ultimate responsibility for handling them becomes hers officially.
According to city officials, every city and Boston Public Schools collective bargaining contract is currently expired — dozens of agreements that govern nearly 18,500 workers. Wu spoke on the campaign trail about the need to reform Boston’s police department and promised to push those changes as part of the bargaining process. But those efforts may be complicated after the recent violence, potentially leaving officers in a more sympathetic and powerful position going into the negotiations, political observers said.
Humming along beneath it all is the pressure of time. Campbell predicted that Wu’s “honeymoon period” may not last long, given her early swearing in. Major changes — including overhauling the development process — will have to start soon if they are to get off the ground, political observers said.
Allies acknowledged the radical change Wu envisions will not happen immediately. But many supporters will be watching closely to make sure Mayor Wu lives up to candidate Wu’s promises.
“Everyone knows things don’t happen overnight, but they at least like to see that steps are being taken,” said Lillian Gibson, a 19-year-old college student from Dorchester who helped organize the group “Youth for Wu” during the campaign.
But those close to Wu expressed confidence that she’ll achieve the goals she’s outlined.
Wu has a clear mandate, part of “a wave of change in what people expected from their elected leaders,” said José Massó, the announcer and producer of WBUR’s Con Salsa radio program and a supporter who is advising Wu’s transition team. “If I’m sitting at the State House, if I’m in the federal government… I have to pay attention to it.
“I don’t think that they can sit back and say ‘business as usual,’” Massó said. “How do you do business as usual when something like this has occurred?”