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The mayor, the business community, and so many fragile egos

A certain part of Boston’s business community is freaking out.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu attended the March 8 Boston City Council meeting before a vote on rent control. The council approved the rent control proposal and BPDA restructuring.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Ernest Hemingway once produced a powerful short story with a grand total of one sentence: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. This comes to mind as a rumor pinballs around a certain set of Boston’s self-anointed power brokers, one that speaks volumes with very few words.

Abigail Johnson called Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Wu didn’t call back.

Abigail Johnson, to be clear, is the chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments. She’s the wealthiest resident of Massachusetts, with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine at $21.6 billion. She’s very purposefully not a regular in the city’s social circuit, meaning people clamor for her time that much more aggressively.


We’ll get to whether this rumor is true in a moment, but the reality is, it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that no small number of people believe it, have spread it, and are reading deeply into it.

Stated plainly, a certain part of Boston’s business community is freaking out. It’s neither subtle nor contained. You can’t talk to anyone in an executive suite these days without the conversation swerving toward the fact that Wu hasn’t texted them, invited them to her office, sought their advice, attended their groundbreaking, wielded scissors at their ribbon cutting, or spoken at their benefit dinner. They are in a collective state of disbelief, typically revealed in haughty umbrage that masks a deep sense of hurt.

It’s to the point where you can easily imagine a support group of well-dressed people gathering in a circle in a chandeliered meeting room at The Langham. “My name is Jim,” one of them might say. “She won’t go to the Bruins with me.” Many people nod solemnly. Others gasp. Someone cries out, “She can’t treat us like this!”

Oh, but she can, she is, and she will. And it’s for a fairly straightforward reason that these people can’t seem to grasp: When Wu sets her priorities, as she literally counts the remaining days in her term to get things done, when she imagines her legacy, she’s not gazing at the city’s skyline or at the people who are building it. Rather, she’s obsessed with the seemingly intractable problems that fester in the shadows of those gleaming towers.


Put another way, Boston is in a strange place. We are a city, really a region, of possibility. Our hospitals are the best in the world. Diseases are cured in our labs. Our universities are attracting students and faculty from every continent. Shiny new neighborhoods are rising from old gravel lots in nearly every part of town. Unimaginable wealth is being created across industries and many neighborhoods, making us one of the most enviable places on the planet.

And yet.

We are a high tech hub, steeped in innovation, and yet our mass transit system, running some of the oldest subway cars on the planet, creaks along at half speed and has become a full-bore danger to too many of the people riding it. It’s somewhere between an embarrassment and a disgrace.

Our colleges and universities are brimming with money and brains and basically set the standard for everyone else, and yet the public schools in Boston — physically, the schools — are falling apart in front of our eyes while the system routinely botches fundamental administration and fails thousands of students on a daily basis. We can’t even get a technical school right.


This is after a boom time with little precedent, a stretch during which we’ve been flush with money and intellectual capital, and yet the city couldn’t — can’t — find the will and the way to address the biggest problems of our day. Add in the explosion of housing costs and, of course, rampant and growing inequality of opportunity, and there’s an immovable sense that the region’s leaders — public and private — didn’t take advantage of the best chance for change that the region may ever have.

So if you’re a developer or part of the legion of people who support them, worry not about the little slights that you feel, the private invitations to the mayor’s office that haven’t come. You’ve been coddled for many years, with an open door and a mayor on speed dial. A lot has been accomplished toward the greater good, but there’s far more to do. And now this mayor looks not toward the sky but at the people on the ground.

Back to the rumor. It’s not true. Word from City Hall, as well as from a Fidelity spokeswoman, is that Wu and Johnson talk regularly and others have suggested that they’ve established a good rapport.

One final point: Just because some members of the business community are entirely wrong in their increasingly petty complaints, doesn’t make Wu entirely right. There are leaders of significant nonprofits across the region, institutions that are in many ways the backbone of this economy, who flatly say, not in a whiny way, that they have little connection to the mayor. That, among some other things, should change.


But her priorities? No. We’re seeing a different kind of mayor, with a different view of her city. Give it time, give Wu space. Boston will be the better for it.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at