A majority of city councilors wanted to replace Boston’s appointed School Committee with an elected one. But they couldn’t persuade the mayor to sign the legislation.
They wanted a larger, paid board for a new city office dedicated to engaging the public in the budget process. But they couldn’t get enough councilors in the room to override the mayor’s plan.
And many wanted a stricter rent control policy. But on Wednesday, the City Council voted for Mayor Michelle Wu’s version anyway — one more instance when her policy prevailed despite criticism from the legislative body.
Historically diverse, ostensibly progressive, and armed with more formal authority than any before it, the current City Council swept into office last year as a force to be reckoned with. Councilors are supposed to be the voices of their neighborhoods — the most direct link residents have to their government. Now, half the body was new, untethered to old political loyalties. There was a substantial liberal bloc aspiring to transform the city, and, on some issues, to prod even the progressive Wu further left.
But over the last year — thanks to inexperience, internal divisions, and the mayor’s broad legal power and political savvy — Wu has continued to get her way with the council. And progressive councilors have struggled to wield influence even when the overwhelming majority of voters stand on their side of a key issue.
The councilors are “influential in intent, but not necessarily in performance,” said Sam Tyler, the former head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
The progressives, say current and former elected officials and close observers of the council, are just one faction on a body rendered feeble by its own dysfunction and divisions. The council has enacted relatively little substantive legislation of its own, aside from passing new political maps as required by law; only occasionally has the council made meaningful changes to measures proposed by Wu. Many of the body’s most significant measures either originated with the mayor or died on her desk; others await state approval.
Council meetings have sometimes grown intensely emotional and acrimonious, featuring extraordinary accusations of racism and predatory behavior, shouted expletives, and even one shocking allusion to sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.
Boston city government runs on a strong-mayor system, and historically the council was often seen as little more than a rubber stamp. Over the past decade, though, including during Wu’s time as a councilor, the body began to assert its authority, issuing subpoenas for the first time in decades, pushing back hard against then-mayor Martin J. Walsh during budget debates, and passing major legislation such as regulations governing short-term rentals including Airbnbs and a ban on plastic shopping bags.
In 2021, a ballot initiative granted the council broad new powers over the city budget. While previously councilors could only pass or reject the mayor’s spending plan, now they can all but rewrite it, so long as enough of them agree on how. And Wu’s pending plan to restructure Boston’s development agency could grant councilors more oversight on city planning — if they can get organized to use it.
But the council’s deep divides — some purely ideological, others racial and deeply personal — have made it difficult for members to work together effectively. That in turn smoothed the path for Wu’s policy preferences, even when the mayor rejected the view of most voters, as in the case of the elected School Committee. Last year, navigating the new process for the first time, the council left relatively few fingerprints on the mayor’s $3.99 billion budget, and abandoned its own unanimous position on cutting funding to the police in response to Wu’s veto.
“This council is a little more rambunctious,” said Councilor Julia Mejia. “Unfortunately,” she acknowledged, the caustic atmosphere makes it harder to get legislation passed.
“How do we move beyond petty politics?” she questioned. “We’re learning how to be a body of 13.”
Wu’s influence over the divided council was particularly clear during the rent control debate.
When the mayor proposed her plan, councilors to her left and right opened fire. One of the most vocal critics was progressive Councilor Kendra Lara, who said that the rent caps Wu proposed, 10 percent in high-inflation years, were “dangerous” and that she “could not” support them because they were too high.
“This is a historic moment, yes,” she said at a recent hearing. “But what good is a historic moment if we’re going to squander it?”
Less than a week later, Wu’s rent control proposal passed overwhelmingly, without a single change. Lara was among the 11 councilors who voted yes. She had already shared her concerns, she said, and she was “really happy with that compromise.”
While some lamented that Wu’s version won the day, others praised city leaders for finding broad consensus.
Wu “seems to be making significant progress getting support from the council, and that’s important,” said John Nucci, a former Boston city councilor. “It might have been politically more wise to dig in, but [councilors] have shown they’re willing to find common ground, and I think that’s a positive thing.”
To be sure, the progressive mayor and the largely progressive council agree on a great deal, and Wu often hails the body as an important partner. The council backed the housing spending in Wu’s $367 million plan for COVID relief funds, and negotiated $30 million in council priorities onto it; it urged the mayor to expand affordable housing requirements days before Wu announced a plan to do just that.
“The city elected a progressive council and a progressive mayor, and so in fact much of the time we’re naturally in alignment,” Councilor Kenzie Bok said. On housing and other issues, she added, “it’s good news for Bostonians that we’re rowing in the same direction.”
Under this mayor, some councilors said, their influence comes earlier in the process. If they privately shape legislation before it is filed, they don’t need to fight it in public later.
It’s not “mayor winning this, or council winning that,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who as chair of the powerful government operations committee has shepherded many of Wu’s priorities through the council. By the time legislation appears, he said, “there’s already been some measure of compromise.”
Some councilors pointed to the limitations of the strong-mayor system, which hems in council authority. Certain legislation cannot advance without the mayor’s signature, no matter how many council votes it wins. And on some failed efforts, such as the participatory budgeting office, progressives are planning to try again with another vote.
But in some cases, even when the council has both the votes and the legal power to override the mayor, it has folded in the face of her opposition. Last June, all 13 councilors supported a $13 million cut to the police budget — until Wu vetoed it, and they retreated. In October, all 13 councilors voted to raise councilor salaries by $21,500 — until Wu vetoed the provision, and they backed down, approving more incremental raises.
Acknowledging the sway Wu holds, Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said some of her colleagues believe “if they don’t align themselves in a certain way, they can’t be effective.”
“I don’t know if we’ve truly influenced her yet or not. We have to give it time,” she said.
While some councilors confer regularly with the mayor, others can go weeks or months without substantive conversations, they said. Though the council’s more liberal members theoretically constitute a veto-proof nine-member majority, they do not always coordinate, and vote tallies sometimes come as a surprise even to councilors. Further complicating the body’s ability to come together: its leader, President Ed Flynn, is in the political minority as one of the council’s four more-moderate voices. Flynn declined an interview request.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Wu praised councilors for approving her rent control proposal and took care to give them credit. But asked to identify what specifically the body had influenced, she did not give any examples.
“This is their vote, this is their legislation now that has been advanced,” Wu said. ”We’ve had many, many, many conversations over the recent weeks and months about what we can do for housing.”
Earlier that day, before councilors voted to approve two of her biggest priorities, Wu made a rare appearance in the chamber. She came to the rostrum for an unrelated reason — praising city emergency workers — but her presence made an impact nonetheless.
“Don’t worry,” she told the council with a laugh, “I’m not here to lurk for the entirety of the meeting. I know you have some very important votes today.”
Emma Platoff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.