On an early December evening, champagne and sangria are flowing at the new D’Laly’s Hair & Nails Salon Spa in Roxbury. On hand to help celebrate the store’s grand opening is Mayor Michelle Wu, who is all smiles and speaking in Spanish as she works her way through the buzzing crowd of employees, customers, and relatives. It’s a moment of joy on Warren Street, where, literally, a red carpet has been rolled out on the sidewalk for the occasion.
Just weeks into her nascent administration, we are getting a glimpse of Wu’s vision for Boston, where the center of attention isn’t trained on Newbury Street or Seaport Boulevard; where City Hall meets everyone where they are and leaders look like the multicultural metropolis the city has become. Here, a person like Leodalys Montero, the shop’s owner, can immigrate from the Dominican Republic with nothing to her name and put her stamp on the community.
This is the third store Montero has opened, but the first time she has felt inspired to ask a mayor to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Montero had met Wu during the campaign, and with the help of City Councilor Julia Mejia extended an invitation. As Wu circulates, so too does a palpable sense of women’s empowerment. It is hard to imagine many of Wu’s predecessors working the room of Afro-Latinas with the same ease.
“This is a new era,” says Mejia, who was born in the Dominican Republic, and whose office has been helping Montero and other salons survive the pandemic.
On November 2, Wu broke so many barriers it can be hard to remember them all. She became the first woman, person of color, Asian American, mother, and millennial to be elected as the mayor of Boston. Voters gave her a resounding mandate for change, endorsing her progressive ideals and bold policy proposals, from rent control to a Boston Green New Deal. Wu not only won by a landslide, but she captured more votes than Marty Walsh or Tom Menino ever did.
The victory itself was an accomplishment — part of a sea change in Boston politics that has redefined what leadership in the city looks like — but Wu seems intent on showing the world just how much representation matters, from the makeup of her Cabinet to her refusal to separate motherhood from her career.
Even Wu’s official business card embodies a message about inclusion — the word “mayor” is written in no less than 12 languages.
“People are very excited to see that everybody should be represented and reflected in how we shape our future, from sweeping policies and the laws on the books to the little pieces of paper that you hand people to directly connect them into government,” Wu explains.
She has taken the torch of change from her predecessor and political ally, former acting mayor Kim Janey, who became the first Black woman to run City Hall after Walsh resigned in March to become President Biden’s labor secretary. Wu’s first days in office have been spent, in part, building an administration that reflects the majority-minority city Boston has become.
Of Wu’s first six Cabinet picks, three are women and three are people of color. She had Boston Municipal Court Judge Myong Joun, a Korean American whose career as an attorney has focused on civil rights and criminal defense, swear her in as mayor.
The commitment to make sure all of Boston’s residents feel seen extends to Wu’s security detail, which comprises four police officers of color: an Asian American/Native American woman, an Asian American man, a Latina, and a Cape Verdean man.
And the 36-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer is just getting started.
Walk into Wu’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall, and you’ll spot something a little different: In addition to traditional elements — the desk, sofa, long conference table — the space features two personalized bean-bag chairs for her sons, Blaise and Cass.
The kid-friendly accommodations are more than just a practical touch for their visits: For the city to fully embrace its residents, Wu believes, it must normalize working motherhood and provide better services for families.
“There’s a very outdated way of thinking about professionalism that you have to separate home and work,” Wu says. “We need to shatter that because it’s impossible to separate being a mom from being mayor, from being a caregiver, and even though that juggle makes it more intense to coordinate everything, it makes me a better elected representative.”
For those who have followed Wu’s political career, this should come as no surprise. In 2014, Wu became Boston’s first sitting city councilor to give birth. The next year, she successfully spearheaded an ordinance that gave city workers six weeks of paid parental leave; that benefit has since been expanded to 12 weeks. After she rose to City Council president in 2016, she was sometimes seen in the chamber with a gavel in one hand and a baby in the other.
As mayor, Wu hopes to build on that work to deliver better child-care services. Among her plans: guarantee affordable early education and care for all Boston children from birth to 5 years old, set up an office of early education and care that would serve as a one-stop shop for families, and make it easier to open up child-care centers in homes and municipal buildings.
And her sons, now 4 and 7, will continue to visit the mayor at work, she says, so people won’t forget her other title: “Mama.”
Wu is seated in an Orange Line car, making her way downtown on a recent morning. It’s a novel look: Boston mayors are typically ferried around in a sleek sport-utility vehicle.
Like anyone who regularly takes public transportation, she’s worked out a reliable schedule: Most days, she gets a lift from her Roslindale home and gets dropped off at Forest Hills to catch the Orange Line to State Street station. From there, it’s a short walk to City Hall.
For Wu, it’s not only faster than driving, it’s a way to stay connected to constituents.
On this morning, commuters appear shy to approach her, though a group of ninth-graders from Margarita Muñiz Academy, a bilingual Boston public school, begin to open up at the prodding of this reporter.
Taking the T is also another example of Wu’s lead-by-example approach. A vocal proponent of public transit, she staunchly believes a thriving public transportation system is good for the economy, equity, and the environment.
On the first day of her administration, she proposed the city spend $8 million of its federal relief funds to eliminate fares on three bus lines for the next two years. The council approved the measure, quieting skeptics who wondered how Wu might deliver on one of her signature policy goals of making transit free.
On the subway, Wu uses the downtime to catch up on reading and sending tweets, but she prefers it if people talk to her. “I love when people have something to share or have a question,” she said during a GBH radio interview in November. “Blanket invitation to anyone who sees me on the T: Please don’t feel like I’m going to bite.”
Since taking office, Wu has tried to retain a sense of normalcy for her children, picking them up from school and eating dinner as a family a couple of nights a week.
None of this is easy: The family orders takeout more often than Wu would like, dinner time ranges widely between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and her husband, Conor Pewarski — the city’s first gentleman — recently resigned from his banking job to help the family adjust.
Still, her sons have noticed something is different — their mother is not working from home as much. “They were saying the other night, ‘There’s just a lot of meetings as mayor,’” Wu says with a chuckle.
It’s the latest life change for Wu, who burst onto the Boston political scene in 2013 as a protégé of Elizabeth Warren, who was Wu’s professor at Harvard Law School.
Wu grew up in a Chicago suburb but fell in love with Boston. The daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, she often tells a story of riding the T to Chinatown and feeling like she had found home.
Politics was never part of the plan. But when her mother fell ill, Wu quit her consulting job in Boston and moved back home to care for her younger sisters. As she was navigating the health care system to treat her mother’s mental illness, Wu decided to open a tea shop in Chicago. Both experiences turned into bureaucratic nightmares, which made her want to run for office to make government better.
Wu got her first taste of politics as a policy fellow in the Menino administration, where she helped launch the city’s food truck program, and later worked for Warren’s inaugural Senate campaign.
Those who met Wu during the early days of her City Council run often share a similar memory of their first encounter, impressed by her poise and astute knowledge of local politics. “I said to myself, This woman is going to be mayor of Boston some day,” recalls Helen Chin Schlichte, a longtime Asian American community leader.
That day has come. So is being mayor the job Wu had hoped for?
“It’s more, everything and more,” she says. “There’s almost unlimited possibility at the city level to move quickly, to build coalitions, and to innovate, showing what impact policies can really have on our families.”
If Wu can deliver on her campaign promises to create a more equitable and greener city, Boston will be better for it. It won’t be easy, and the naysayers will be out in force, but Wu is prepared to stay the course while staying true to herself.
“I’m very determined to make sure that the same person who was elected is the same person who sits in the seat and builds our team, with the same philosophy that we are there to do the big and small in city government, that we get to do the big things by getting the small things right.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.