Mayor Michelle Wu spent a portion of her progressive political capital backing candidates who lost in Tuesday’s primary, leaving Boston’s top pol with a less-than-stellar power-brokering record and raising questions about whether she’s done any damage to her own prospects.
Wu’s most prominent endorsement miss: The first-term mayor backed labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan in the Democratic primary for attorney general over Andrea Campbell, a former council colleague of Wu who ran against her in last year’s mayoral contest. Perhaps more importantly, Campbell was the hand-picked successor of Maura Healey, who is heavily favored to be the next Massachusetts governor.
Wu also endorsed Chris Dempsey in the primary for state auditor, only to see him lose to Diana DiZoglio, though Dempsey did win Boston. And then there was the messy and sharp-elbowed Suffolk district attorney’s race. Wu initially endorsed Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, but after years-old sexual assault allegations surfaced against the former public defender from Hyde Park, she pulled her support. Still, she made it clear she was not a fan of Arroyo’s opponent, Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden, whose campaign she publicly clashed with throughout the contest.
Ultimately, Hayden prevailed on Tuesday.
Relationships are the grease in the gears of politics, and Wu’s endorsement losses have sparked plenty of speculation in Massachusetts political circles about what Tuesday’s results mean for her. Several insiders said Wu’s endorsement of Liss-Riordan angered Healey, as did the fact Wu did not endorse Healey until after the candidate’s final Democratic rival, Sonia Chang-Díaz, departed the race in June.
However, insiders believe that despite the hurt feelings, pragmatic politicians like Wu and Healey are too smart to let any animosity linger.
Healey told the Globe in a statement: “Mayor Wu has been a great partner and friend, and I look forward to continuing to work together to build a Massachusetts where every person and business can thrive.”
Likewise, Wu said in a statement, “I’m looking forward to seeing two powerhouse women Democrats leading our state with Maura and Kim in those corner offices, and I know we’ll have a great working relationship that everyone in the city and state will benefit from.”
The endorsement drama, among other considerations, put a spotlight on the relationship of Campbell and Wu. Campbell, who failed to advance past the preliminary in last year’s mayoral race, didn’t endorse either Wu or Annissa Essaibi George, who competed in the final. Some political observers are already framing Campbell and Wu as Boston’s next big political rivalry, something the mayor firmly rejects, calling that narrative flat-out inaccurate and saying that legitimate policy differences, not personal animus, underpinned her endorsement in the AG’s race.
While the true impact of the endorsement misses remains unclear, the stakes are high for Wu. Some of the ambitious policy promises she campaigned on as a mayoral candidate require buy-in from Beacon Hill to become reality. She also has her own political future to think of.
She should be thinking about how to build alliances, not break them, some longtime political observers say. Endorsements should “move votes or move money,” said Jacquetta Van Zandt, a political strategist and host of the “Politics and Prosecco” videocast program, who says she would have advised Wu to be thinking of future donor lists when wading into a statewide race.
“She bet on the wrong horse,” Van Zandt said of Wu’s Liss-Riordan endorsement. “That’s not unusual in politics, but . . . Michelle will have to be more strategic in how she lends her name and who she lends it to.”
Backing losing candidates also exposes the limits of Wu’s clout, despite her sweeping victory last fall. “People may have assumed before Tuesday that she had more influence than she does,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the dynamics of Massachusetts politics. Legislators on Beacon Hill, for instance, may now find themselves wondering, when faced with a Wu priority, “if she can’t put any muscle behind it, why should I be afraid of her?”
Yet others saw boldness and a sign that Wu isn’t trying to play the political game the same old way.
Jay Gonzalez, whom Wu, then a city councilor, endorsed for governor during the Democratic primary of 2018, thought the mayor “doesn’t seem to make lots of political calculations. She seems much more interested in doing what she thinks is right.”
”From a political perspective, much easier for her to stay out of all these races, right?” said Gonzalez. “Not be controversial, not upset anyone and just sit back. And I think that when she leans in and expresses a view about a candidate, it’s because she believes that person would be best for the job.”
“Endorsements can be a political risk, because if you endorse a candidate who doesn’t win, it can make you look politically weak,” said David A. Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College. “Just the fact that she would decide to wade into all these races, it suggests a kind of courage to do it.”
To be sure, Wu’s track record on Tuesday included some winners. Wu backed Christopher J. Worrell in the state representative race for the Fifth Suffolk district. He won, as did, Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins, another candidate who had Wu’s backing. There were races Wu stayed out of, including a lieutenant governor’s contest that featured a trio of Democratic candidates and a crowded field for a state Senate seat that includes Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and the heart of Roxbury.
And Wu has been quick to offer olive branches after Tuesday’s results, a sign she’s eager to assuage any relationship strain. The mayor downplayed any tensions with fellow Democrats who won on Tuesday in a phone interview, saying that the primary represented “an exciting, history-making moment for the state” and that she was looking forward to supporting the slate of Democratic nominees in the November general election.
After the polls close and the votes are tallied, those who are elected deserve the “full respect of all of our colleagues and community members,” she said. She has already spoken with Hayden and she said she looks forward to her administration partnering with agencies such as his office.
Regarding the perceived rivalry with Campbell, she called such framing “ridiculous.” She said when considering endorsements, she looks at track records, policy agendas, and coalition members.
”There have been places of real policy disagreement in the past and in our records,” she said. “I know our attorney general Democratic nominee cares about the city of Boston and the state and doing the work of this office.”
She added, “We are in a moment of urgency and we all need to be taking action to get at the changes that our communities deserve.”
She made a peace-offering of sorts following Hayden’s victory, congratulating her fellow Roslindale resident in a tweet and saying “My team & I are committed to partnering with him & his office over the next 4 years for the safety & health of our city.”
Similarly, on Twitter, she called Campbell a “barrier breaker” and said that the Mattapan resident “represents the best of the city of Boston.”
Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, did not think those primary day “L”s would prove to be much of a problem for Wu. He did, however, acknowledge that to the extent endorsements were a way for Wu to flex political muscle beyond Boston, that “did take a bit of a hit.” But within the city, he did not think the endorsements would curb her ability to continue to gain political support.
“A lot of Democrats are going to be wearing egg on their face for their endorsements,” said Watanabe.
Lou DiNatale, a longtime political analyst and veteran Massachusetts pollster, thought there is “very little juice left in endorsements” and invoked the legendary sway of Boston’s longest serving chief executive, Thomas M. Menino. who died in 2014.
“People used to have machines, the Menino machine, that’s when they’ve been around for 100 years,” he said.
In contrast, Wu was just elected last fall. DiNatale thought she would need “at least two terms” as mayor “to be able to have any kind of influence on the results of a Boston election.”
”There’s no Wu machine that she can turn over like Menino could in the old days,” he said. “That stuff is gone.”
Doug Rubin, a high-powered Democratic political consultant who had a hand in Deval Patrick’s winning gubernatorial bid and also worked for Arroyo’s DA campaign, called Wu’s choices “refreshing.”
He said while some insiders believe the losses will hurt the mayor, the common belief system shared by Democrats in the state will prevail. For example, Rubin said, Healey and Wu must depend on one another to further their own goals — many of which they share, such as affordability, housing, and improving public transportation.
“For the state to do well, Boston has to do well. They both understand that,” said Rubin, who is advising the Democratic nominee for auditor, DiZoglio (whose primary opponent, Dempsey, Wu endorsed). “Being on opposite sides of the race won’t get in the middle of that relationship.”
Not even Menino batted a thousand when it came to endorsements. For instance, when Patrick ran for governor, Menino endorsed his opponent in the primary — Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.
“It had zero impact on his relationship with Governor Patrick,” said John E. Walsh, a longtime operative credited with rebuilding the Massachusetts Democrats’ grass-roots infrastructure and scoring Patrick’s first gubernatorial victory. “These relationships are only a small percentage political.”
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.