Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is not on November’s municipal ballot, but Election Day nonetheless offers an opportunity to expand her influence with three close allies vying for a spot on the City Council.
Victories by the three candidates would offer Wu the chance to work with a council that would likely feel friendlier to her administration’s aims, a welcome change for the city’s executive, who has faced opposition from both progressives and moderates at different times during the last two years.
While there are a bevy of contested council elections, Wu has made just three endorsements so far: Enrique José Pepén in District 5, which includes Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Roslindale, where Wu lives; Sharon Durkan in District 8, which includes Beacon Hill and Back Bay; and Henry Santana, who is vying for one of four at-large seats. (At-large councilors represent the entire city.) All three have worked for Wu.
This election cycle is Wu’s first since winning the mayoralty, and by backing certain candidates, she is trying to do what any shrewd politician should: continue to build a power structure that makes it easier for her to deliver on her agenda.
Eldin Lynn Villafañe, a public relations specialist, said he was not surprised that the mayor’s shadow loomed over some of the races, labeling her support of various candidates a “Wu flex.”
“She’s doing what every big city mayor has done since the days of the Roman Empire,” said Villafañe. “She’s flexing her power and consolidating her influence in order to carry her agenda forward. That should be no surprise to anyone that is playing in the arena of power politics.”
Wu has had little trouble muscling her agenda through the council over the last two years, even as the body gained significant new structural power, with independent budgetary authority. But the three endorsements, along with some recent council departures, could set her up for an even friendlier legislative body. With the retirement of Councilor Frank Baker, and the election loss of Councilor Kendra Lara, the council is losing two members who have at times been critical of Wu, on the right and left, respectively.
Given the discord on the council over the last two years, in which moderates and progressives alike clashed with the Wu administration at various times, it makes sense for the mayor to encourage allies to run for some of those seats, said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor.
“When you have mayors who come into office and maybe find a little difficulty right away working with the council or the majority of council, I think sometimes their response is ‘I need a few more friends around here,’” said Hopkins.
Durkan, a 32-year-old Democratic activist, already won the District 8 earlier this year in her first run for public office when she defeated Montez Haywood in a special election to replace Kenzie Bok. Durkan will again face off against Haywood in November. Durkan worked on multiple Wu campaigns, including acting as Wu’s finance director from 2015 to 2017, and committee director from 2017 to 2020. She was a political adviser to Wu from 2022 until this spring.
Santana most recently worked for Wu as her director of civic organizing, a $105,000-a-year City Hall post. A member of Wu’s City Hall press team, Michael Osaghae, took a leave of absence to work on Santana’s campaign. With three incumbents running in the at-large field — Julia Mejia, Ruthzee Louijeune, and Erin Murphy — many City Hall observers say the real race will be for the fourth and final at-large spot on the council. Santana, a first time candidate, is thought to be one of two serious contenders for that seat, along with Bridget Nee-Walsh, a union ironworker. The current fourth at-large councilor, Michael Flaherty, considered to be a moderate, is not seeking reelection.
Santana previously worked for former councilor Bok, whom the mayor tapped this spring to head the Boston Housing Authority.
The preliminary election for the District 5 seat was a clear example of Wu’s influence. Wu endorsed Pepén, who earlier in the year worked as the city’s executive director of neighborhood services, a $120,000 a year post, in his effort to unseat incumbent Ricardo Arroyo, a onetime Wu ally and a known and reliable progressive vote on the council. That may have been a crucial endorsement in a race that saw Pepén, a 26-year-old who had never before run for office, advance to the final election, along with another first-time candidate, former Boston police officer Jose Ruiz. Pepén topped the District 5 field, while Arroyo was eliminated in the preliminary.
Pepén’s campaign manager, John Paul Gervais, is also a Wu administration alum, having previously worked as an internal communications strategist and assistant to the chief of staff in the mayor’s office.
Pepén said the mayor’s support for his candidacy would not influence his votes on the council, should he win.
“I wouldn’t be running for City Council if I didn’t believe that office exists to be a check on the administration,” he said, adding that his strong relationship with Wu would only benefit his district.
Santana said he was proud to have earned the endorsement of Wu and he was looking forward to partnering with the administration to “deliver results in every neighborhood.”
Durkan, meanwhile, said that when she met Wu years ago she was “struck by our shared values and experiences.” The mayor’s support, she said, “is special and meaningful to me because we share a commitment to every resident of our city.”
Wu’s endorsements undeniably help, said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, as she has “incredible electoral connections.”
She added, “The Pepéns of the world, even if they disagree with her, they’re not going to make it a huge public display. They’re not going to go out of their way to light into Michelle Wu in any sort of way.”
Endorsing council candidates has been a tradition in Boston. (Indeed, former mayor Martin J. Walsh has publicly thrown his support behind Ruiz in the District 5 race and John FitzGerald in District 3.)
Sam Tyler, former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city government watchdog group, pointed to former Boston mayor Kevin White’s “Kevin Seven,” a spate of council candidates he recruited and endorsed in the early 1980s. Boston is still a “strong mayor, weaker council” government, even with the legislative body gaining more budgetary power in recent years, said Tyler.
Even with that, he said, “There are situations where issues are coming before the council — such as appointments — that the mayor would want to have a better chance at getting a majority.”
Given the controversies that have engulfed the council during the last term — which have included ethics violations, criminal charges brought against one councilor, expletive-laden public backbiting, and allegations of racism — it makes sense that Wu would want more allies on the body.
“Who can blame her?” he asked.
Emma Platoff of Globe staff contributed to this story.