Before she sat down around 9 a.m. Tuesday at the conference table in her City Hall office, Michelle Wu had already contended with the following: a predawn television interview (complicated by a bit of Zoom passcode confusion); an encounter outside her Roslindale home on the year’s coldest day yet with angry antivaccine protesters hurling rebukes; and an 8 a.m. Orange Line commute, where between questions from a reporter, greetings from an acquaintance, and a brief stretch without Wi-Fi, she edited remarks that she would deliver that day about the merits of rent control, all on her iPhone.
It was one busy morning in the young Boston mayor’s young administration. They have all been like that. Sworn in two months ago, Wu enjoyed a whiplash two-week transition period followed by a seemingly incessant barrage of new challenges — not least of which has been a resurgent pandemic driving record levels of infections, filling hospital beds, and sending the city’s school system to the brink. Rather than having a honeymoon, Boston’s new mayor is confronting crises that could define her administration before it’s really begun.
It has been, especially last week, a crash course in urban governance, a collision of the emergencies she cannot avoid and the priorities she refuses to delay.
By Monday, COVID-19 had infected so many Boston Public Schools employees that some campuses risked closure. Wednesday marked Wu’s self-imposed deadline for clearing a homeless encampment in the area known as “Mass. and Cass,” an immense housing, treatment, and cleanup effort that stymied her predecessors. (Friday was her 37th birthday, but that was hardly a priority.) And Saturday launched a new vaccine mandate for some indoor establishments, measures that earned Wu praise from public health leaders and vitriol from protesters — some of whom have taken to screaming through bullhorns outside her home.
By Tuesday morning, it was clear that the week promised some of her greatest leadership tests yet. But if all this was causing her stress, she didn’t show it. She settled into her office cheerfully, with hot tea and a muffin.
“Every week so far has been a big week,” Wu said with a laugh during an interview.
The mayor had to know that the stakes were considerable, that her performance during these early days could set the tone for her tenure. In politics, momentum moves mountains; wins now can equal wins later. Wu has already made Boston history as the first woman, person of color, millennial, and mother elected mayor. Now, with the fate of her early initiatives, she’ll show whether she can transform the city’s future.
Her City Hall office, which she entered for the first time as an intern more than a decade ago, has impossibly high ceilings, wide windows overlooking Faneuil Hall, and blunt cement walls. But there are already some light touches of her own: beanbags embroidered with the names of her two young sons, Blaise and Cass, a place for them to play; a Yamaha upright piano where lately she has been relaxing with some exceedingly difficult Rachmaninoff. Behind her desk hangs a framed green placard reading: “YES,” her one-word answer to challenges others have labeled impossible.
The week’s big deadlines felt less like a test, she suggested, than an opportunity. “Now we get to roll up our sleeves and just do it,” Wu said. “It’s empowering to be reminded every day of how much city government can do and how quickly we can do it.”
After a beat, she added: “If we choose to.”
With the Wu administration, the city’s political winds have turned. While she is careful not to dig at the previous occupants of her office, Wu is well aware of the problems they left unsolved — and the difficulty of this work. Now, she says, Boston has the chance to tackle “the things that residents have been talking about for many years” — “the big things that we knew we should have been doing all along.”
The limits to Boston’s progress, she is suggesting without saying, have sometimes been its leaders. And the people left out of that leadership.
“Oftentimes, when it comes down to it, we have everything we need” to address the city’s greatest challenges, she said during a podcast taping on Monday. “We have the resources, we have the expertise, we have the activism and the energy. And it’s about who is actually part of making those decisions.”
Now, she is the one making those decisions, and they are coming at a rapid clip. On her first full day in office, Wu launched an $8 million plan to make three city bus lines free. Within a month of her swearing-in, she’d set an ambitious deadline to provide enough housing for everyone living at the Mass. and Cass encampment. When she took office, Boston was not requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, unlike cities such as New York, and city workers could opt out of inoculation by submitting to regular tests. Wu quickly tightened both requirements, drawing a lawsuit from three public safety unions and shouts of opposition that sometimes ring more personal than political.
She hasn’t retreated. It’s no more than what those who know her expected.
“She’s such a big thinker ... [now] she can be the big doer,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards. “Those big thoughts became big actions.”
Ascending to the city’s top job, with all its challenges, has been “thrilling and exciting,” Wu said. After four citywide council runs, a decade working in Boston government, 14 months of mayoral campaigning, and a 14-day transition period, taking over the corner office felt at once unfathomable and “familiar.”
Wu has long been versed in the city’s challenges; now, she has the “freedom to address them in ways that she wouldn’t have been able to as a city councilor or even when she was City Council president,” said Bob Rivers, the chairman and CEO of Eastern Bank and a longtime Wu supporter. “That is really liberating.”
As Wu sees it, the greatest limit on her administration’s potential is not political but organizational. The faster she can build her team, the faster she can move on the issues that move her. Right now, she’s still leading the city with a partially staffed administration, trying to make sure her ambitious progressive agenda doesn’t fall off her desk between crises.
She is aided by her well-honed scheduling strategy. On New Year’s Day this year, as Boston slept off its hangover, Wu designed her January scheduling “buckets,” dividing her available hours (including some, but not all, weekends and evenings) among her priorities. Google Calendar events are color coded and tagged with a category: Is this independent “thinking time” (two hours per week), or a meeting with her Cabinet, or the two afternoons per week she aims to pick up her sons from school? Geography gets accounted for, too: Is she spending enough time in each city neighborhood, not just the ones that issue the most invitations? At the end of the week, she can check to see “if I’m accountable to how I was supposed to be spending my time.”
It’s one way that Wu, as she puts it, can “do the big things by getting the small things right”: Her calendar holds her to big priorities no matter how many emergencies pop up. It’s indicative of how she approaches her work. Some of Wu’s greatest challenges are the ones she’s defined for herself — addressing the homeless encampments by Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, for example, where last week’s deadline was her own. Why pose a test for herself at a time when so many issues are hurtling toward her already?
“It’s important to have accountability,” she said. “We needed to do something different.”
Near the end of the week, Wu assessed her own performance frankly: “We did not solve homelessness,” she emphasized. But more than 150 people were housed, the city said, and the streets were clear of tents.
What’s striking, as the high-stakes week proceeded, is not the frenzied chaos but the apparent lack of it in her busy fifth-floor office. Wu carries herself with the practiced stillness of a longtime public servant, hands folded neatly, expression neutral and attentive. Her Cabinet is stacked with experience, but many of the aides she interacts with most are young, bringing levity to an office sometimes seen as stuffy. There is laughter during the meetings Wu leads. She signs this ordinance or approves that language, balances her laptop on four books for a Zoom call, takes notes with her right hand while her left scrolls her phone, breaks for a takeout lunch of pork with bamboo and stir fried pea shoots. She estimates that she has to make more than 100 decisions each day. In meeting after meeting, when the agenda has been exhausted, she asks her aides to think more broadly, look further ahead: What is the “big picture,” she wants to know? What comes next?
As Wu works, her city rumbles along outside the picture window behind her, plane after plane taking off from Logan Airport over the inner harbor. Education officials are scrambling to keep schools open; public health officials are scaling up testing and vaccine clinics. And a fractious minority of city employees is busy battling her vaccine mandate, taking to court and to public squares. Their loud voices echoed through this month’s City Council swearing-in; on recent mornings, their bullhorns have also greeted her children, her elderly mother, and her neighbors.
Wu says she is trying not to take the protests personally, but they seem to be weighing on her. She mentioned them during a podcast taping in her office, to a state senator during a business tour in Allston, while chatting with the woman in the information booth at the Forest Hills T station. She blames divisive national politics and a pervasive culture of mistrust.
The attacks may land particularly hard for a public figure who has never been fully comfortable in the public eye. A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself. When she started as a city councilor, she was “terrified” of the media, she recalled. Now, she endures the spotlight as the unavoidable cost of elected office — and, whenever possible, she drags someone into it beside her.
Standing in the hallway before a press conference on Monday, she approached a law enforcement officer to ensure she had his name right. “I just want to make sure to acknowledge you,” she said.
During a tour of Allston businesses on Tuesday, when the owner of a salsa studio asked for a photo with her, Wu waved her arms to the other city officials in the room: “Would everyone get in?”
If Wu’s increasingly public role is taking a personal toll, the signs are subtle. Recently, the mayor has had a tickle in her throat that sometimes swells to a quaver in her voice, cutting her off prematurely in conversations and news conferences.
“I’m feeling a little rundown, you can hear it in my voice,” a hoarse Wu said earlier this month on the Facebook live show “Java with Jimmy.” “Whether or not my mind and my heart is like, ‘We’re still going,’ my body’s like, ‘You gotta slow down a little bit.’”
And on this Tuesday, Wu forgot her notebook, a slim green volume where she records thoughts big and small. Typically it accompanies her to every meeting and takeout run — who knows which restaurateurs may alert her to a pothole? — and its ubiquity earns her the gentle ribbing of her colleagues. She left it at home in the chaos of the morning. In its place, as the day wore on and the muffin sat half-eaten on the conference table, yellow post-it notes began to breed at her desk, covered in her neat blue ink.
Later that afternoon, she left the warmth of her office for a frigid walk between Allston businesses. She briefed their owners on the city’s new vaccine mandate, answering and posing questions in a gym and a bar, trading a vaccine requirement notice for a takeout menu at Dumpling Kingdom on Harvard Avenue. The sun began to set as Wu gave one more outdoor television interview. Then she got in the car and went home.
Tuesday was not over yet. After her sons are asleep, Wu often fits in more work, sometimes engaging with constituents, reporters, and fellow government officials on Twitter. That night, there was a colleague to congratulate for winning a special election; there was rent control to promote; there were neighboring city leaders to praise for instituting the same vaccine policies as Boston. There was another long day tomorrow, with the nation’s eyes on her city, for Wu to pitch herself toward the next challenge.