No leader, elected or not, can fully dictate their tenure. There are recessions and pandemics and simple surprises along the way, both good and bad.
Still, in an age when politics have been very much nationalized, it’s remarkable how America’s mayors and governors still possess unique platforms where they can shape a tone and set priorities for the areas they serve. They still have the proverbial bully pulpit.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s first State of the City address, delivered Wednesday night at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway, was notable for other reasons beyond a list of policy changes. Yes, it was the first address ever delivered by an elected woman. It was the first address in three years delivered in person. It may have also been the most progressive address ever, in terms of outlook.
Wu’s address also ignored some of the bigger questions the city faces, namely, whether the mayor will have the resources to fund her ambitious goals if not enough people from the surrounding areas return to work in the city.
Here are three takeaways from her remarks.
The unstoppable force versus immovable object paradox
Wu’s vision for the city has always been bold and delivered with a sense of urgency. The mayor has prioritized development, climate, education, and transportation since the very moment she became a candidate.
She addressed some of these goals Wednesday night, in particular offering plans to overhaul Boston’s development process and setting ambitious new climate targets.
There is no reason to doubt her sincerity on these issues. She is a force. Yet, she is nearly 30 percent into her first term and there are very few points on the board. The city, its process of governing, and its institutions are something of an immovable object that make it nearly impossible for any one person to make major changes in their first year.
There have been some wins. Wu has received good marks for how she immediately mitigated the Mass and Cass crisis, even if it is still an ongoing issue.
However, while her speech outlined some philosophical changes for the agency tasked with overseeing development, it didn’t go into enough detail about how that would lead to the improvements she seeks. There was no discussion of a “free T” as she pledged on the campaign trail. No big announcements on improving public health, closing the racial wealth gap, no mention of police reform, and no further details on who is heading up an effort to improve the city’s nightlife – all things she promised to tackle when she campaigned.
Improvements to school infrastructure might be the best example of the paradox. Wu is genuinely frustrated that it took a dozen years for the renovation of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown to be completed, but all she could offer in her speech was a streamlined approach that would make the process faster by a single year. And, as a broader discussion of improving Boston Public Schools, Wu said, “that’s for next year’s State of the City.”
For all her efforts, the city she leads that doesn’t simply bend to the will of a powerful mayor. It takes planning, patience, and buy-in from others to make these changes happen.
Forced to the nitty gritty
This was perhaps Wu’s the most high-profile policy speech ever. The campaign never forced Wu to get specific. Wu’s lopsided wins in the primary and general elections meant she didn’t have to offer much detail. Her main rivals criticized her lofty talk as a series of unrealistic goals.
So it was in this speech that she gave her more thorough explanation about what she wants to do as mayor, even though she picked her spots in terms of what she was really ready to discuss. There was a partnership between BPS and UMass-Boston to allow high school students to earn college credits. She announced new executive orders overhauling a key zoning code and ensuring new city projects won’t rely on fossil fuels. She also announced more youth programs.
A mayor as team manager
One major throughline in the night was her flat management approach while leading a city of roughly 19,000 employees. Many were honored with pictures in the lobby of the event. Wu began her speech by talking about the inspirational backgrounds of some of her department heads.
She talked about her own approach as mayor, riding with the superintendent of streets for her first major snowstorm and saluting all the behind-the-scenes workers of “so many people whose faces most of us will never see.”
Wu wanted to be clear that Boston is a city run not by her alone -- and she also may have been seeking some buy-in from the city’s career workers to help her achieve her ambitious goals down the line.
In the end, Wu contended that the state of Boston is strong. As for her time as mayor, it’s in progress.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.