Michelle Wu is a 36-year-old progressive champion who preaches the gospel of the Green New Deal and rent control for Boston. Charlie Baker is a 65-year-old moderate Republican who recently yanked an ambitious climate change program and opposes rent control.
This month, theirs became the most important political partnership in the state, with implications for everything from Boston’s global reputation to its snowstorm preparations.
The future of the city that is New England’s economic engine rests on the relationship between the Boston mayor and the Massachusetts governor. So far, there isn’t much of one: Aides say Baker and Wu don’t know each other well. Both have said they’re committed to building that bond and collaborating effectively.
“It’s important to us that the city be successful. I think the city and the folks at the city would say it’s important for the state to be successful. We’re locked in partnership one way or another,” Baker told reporters recently after he and Wu met in his office at the State House. “And I fully expect that we’ll be talking a lot.”
The two share Harvard pedigrees and backgrounds in government service, but occupy very different positions on the ideological spectrum. Now, they will have to work together on everything from housing to public transportation to the environment.
Those who’ve closely observed the relationship between Boston mayors and Massachusetts governors over the years say that occasional collisions are inevitable but that collaboration is crucial for the big things — recruiting corporate giants like GE, for example — and the small things — like eliminating parking spots to make space for a bus lane on Essex Street.
“Massachusetts is an interesting anomaly in that the capital is in the economic center and the largest city in the state. That forces a level of coexistence,” said Jane Swift, a former Massachusetts governor. The Republican worked across party lines with a Democratic Boston mayor, Thomas M. Menino.
“When it comes to big-ticket items about making the T free, they’re going to have differences. But there are an incredible number of other interactions that have nothing to do with political philosophy,” she said.
Both Baker and Wu have taken a collaborative approach in the past. And within days of her landslide victory, they had already been in touch.
Earlier this month, Wu joined Baker and other state and local leaders for a meeting at the State House about the challenges at the part of the city known as Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of Boston’s opioid and homelessness crises. There, Wu listened more than she spoke, and took careful notes, said Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who attended the meeting.
On Nov. 16, a Tuesday, Baker attended Wu’s swearing-in in City Hall. On Wednesday, she went to his State House office for an hourlong meeting. And on Thursday, they posed together at a Greater Boston Food Bank charity event, suiting up in plastic gloves, passing turkeys, and grinning.
“We are in a moment of unprecedented challenge and that will require unprecedented collaboration among all levels of government,” Wu told reporters after meeting with Baker following her swearing-in. “We represent all of Boston together, we share deeply the sense that the issues are urgent and families can’t wait.”
Baker has built a reputation for bipartisan collaboration with dominant Massachusetts Democrats; it is essential to getting anything done. Aides say he makes it a priority to maintain strong relationships with municipal leaders across the state.
And Wu has also demonstrated she’s able, when necessary, to work across ideological lines and challenge political expectations. In 2014, she backed City Councilor Bill Linehan for council president over Ayanna Pressley and other more progressive opponents, staying firm that Linehan was the best person for the job when supporters expressed anger.
Baker and former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh shared a close working relationship — numerous news stories used the word “bromance” — though they also had limited connection before both were in office.
Their bond grew over time, and was strengthened in times of crisis, when close cooperation was essential, aides said.
Shortly after Baker took office in early 2015, he and Walsh collaborated through the “Snowmageddon” that dumped a record 110.6 inches on the city during the winter season. They worked together to recruit GE to move its headquarters to Boston. Then, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, their shared emergency response rested on a foundation of good will and genuine affection, aides said.
But even for Walsh, who had served in the Legislature before being elected mayor and knew many state lawmakers, a strong relationship with the governor and legislators did not always translate into policy wins on Beacon Hill. He struggled to win state support on some housing issues and, when Boston failed to deliver on his campaign promise of universal free prekindergarten, he lamented that the city needed “a larger commitment on a statewide level.”
Just as important as Wu’s relationship with Baker will be her ability to move her agenda through the state Legislature, where Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The top-down and slow-moving body can be resistant to change, and legislative leaders have already signaled they are lukewarm on some of the new mayor’s priorities. But Wu enjoys one advantage: a powerful ally in State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the Boston Democrat who leads budget-writing for his chamber.
“The track record for Boston mayors is not that great” on Beacon Hill, said Samuel R. Tyler, former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, saying that historically, their major initiatives have often floundered at the state level. “It’s an uphill battle for a new mayor.”
Stan Rosenberg, a progressive and former Massachusetts Senate president who worked collaboratively with Baker, suggested the reason Walsh “didn’t get everything he wanted” from Beacon Hill was structural.
“[Walsh] had everything. He had all the politics of it lined up. But there’s only so much any one place is going to get,” Rosenberg said. “He only represented one community. I think that’s all there is to it.”
Even in reliably blue Massachusetts, Democrats rarely criticize Baker. Some blame that reticence on his high approval ratings, which make a public dispute with him unappealing. Walsh, for his part, maintained a chummy relationship with Baker.
It remains to be seen whether Wu will strike a more confrontational tone. As a city councilor, she was not afraid to needle Walsh, voting against his budget.
Some analysts say she’ll need to mobilize public pressure if she hopes to change the conversation on Beacon Hill and win support for initiatives like fare-free public transit and rent control.
Allies said she’ll have no trouble navigating the relationship.
“Her interpersonal skills are exceptional and I have no doubt that she and the governor, she and the legislative leaders, will work very well together cause that’s her style,” said James Aloisi, a former state transportation chief who supported Wu.
But to achieve her goals, she will have to be both “external facing and internal facing,” he said, successful in making her case to the public and in private political negotiations. “If you don’t understand that there are two components to it, you’re not going to be successful. I think she understands that quite well.”
Should she decide to mobilize an outside pressure campaign, Wu has a powerful tool: a decisive mandate from Boston voters, more than 91,000 of whom backed her for mayor. As she pushes her priorities on Beacon Hill, their support buoys her arguments, allies said.
“The mayor absolutely has a bully pulpit to drive her agenda,” said Jay Gonzalez, cochair of Wu’s transition team and the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. “How Beacon Hill reacts to that I can’t say.”
After he met with Wu, Baker seemed eager to note that he, too, has received a mandate from Boston voters.
“Let me just point out that, you know, I got 108,000 in votes in the city of Boston in 2018,” Baker told reporters after an unrelated question. “I’m willing to bet that a bunch of the folks who voted for me also voted for her. . . . We do have a lot of shared interests.”
One journalist asked Wu: What did it mean that she and Baker shared many supporters?
Her reply was characteristically careful.
“We’d have to identify the supporters to ask them,” she replied.