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Shirley Leung

Visibility key for Asian-Americans

Michelle Wu, an Asian-American, wants to be the next council president. SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2015

Michelle Wu is only Boston’s second city councilor of Asian descent, and at 30 years old, she wants to be the next City Council president.

This is what the new Boston should be all about. The idea that the young and talented can be someone in this town even if they aren’t from around here. But as we all know, ambition is never the problem in Boston — it’s acceptance.

What will her peers on the council do? Will they go with their highly capable colleague, or decide it’s not her turn yet?

The vote, scheduled for early January, will say a lot about our establishment’s appetite for change. It’s also an opportunity to consider something that hardly any of us dwell on: Asian-Americans as a political force.


“This would be a seminal moment for our community,” said Leverett Wing, a Wu supporter and longtime Asian-American political activist who was a top aide to former Senate President Tom Birmingham. “It’s not just her winning. It’s all the offshoots of her winning. It would inspire other people to do that.”

When we talk about dearth of diversity at the top, the conversation almost always turns to blacks, Hispanics, or women. Asians tend to be out of the mix. Quick, name the most visible Asian-Americans in town — and if you count me, then we’re all in trouble.

New Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang and Dan Koh, the energetic chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, come to mind. Then there’s Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung. But with Boston Harbor Association president Vivien Li and Boston Redevelopment Authority chief planner Kairos Shen out of the picture, the ranks of Asian-Americans in the power structure are thin.

There are no Asian-Americans in Governor Charlie Baker’s cabinet; there were none in the two administrations of Deval Patrick. Now, Patrick did hire nearly a dozen Asian-Americans for other prominent posts, including Navjeet Bal as revenue commissioner and Geoff Why as telecommunications commissioner. Patrick also appointed a half-dozen or so Asian-Americans to judgeships, including making Fernande R.V. Duffly the first Asian-American justice on the Supreme Judicial Court.


There are a handful of Asian-Americans in senior levels of the young Baker administration, including Nam Pham, assistant secretary for business and development; Daniel Tsai, assistant secretary for MassHealth; and Mary Truong, executive director of the Office of Immigrants and Refugees.

Both Patrick and Baker show progress on hiring, but it’s hardly enough when you look at the number of Asians and Asian-Americans who fill college campuses around Boston. They are visible in the research labs, hospitals, tech and biotech companies, and law firms that power our local economy, yet they remain invisible in the corner offices and boardrooms.

“There is still a long way to go,” said Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff.

Asian culture is in part to blame. Public service isn’t something to aspire to — and there are few role models. Stereotypes persist of Asians being smart and hardworking but too quiet and docile to be leaders.

While the establishment may be slow to change, voters increasingly have been helping Asian-Americans break the bamboo ceiling. Six years ago, the voters sent the first Asian-American to the Legislature by electing State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is also the first Latina in the Massachusetts Senate. Today she is joined by state representatives Tackey Chan, Keiko Orrall, Donald Wong, and Rady Mom. In 2007, Lisa Wong became the state’s first female Asian-American mayor when she won election in Fitchburg. And just last week, the city of Quincy, where Asians account for 24 percent of the population, elected its first two Asian-American city councilors, Noel DiBona and Nina Liang.


“The traditional process of waiting in line for a long time until something opens up and waiting your turn — that has been upset a bit,” said Paul Watanabe, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies. “You can be a newcomer, you can be a bit of an outsider, and you can be younger and still be elected.”

That was the story of Wu, who came to Boston more than a decade ago to attend Harvard on a scholarship. The daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, she graduated in 2007 and hung around to take a job at Boston Consulting Group. But she soon had to return home to Chicago to take care of her sick mom and help raise her two younger sisters.

Wu opened up a tea shop to support her family but waded through so much municipal red tape to open a small business that it sparked an interest in fixing government. She returned to Boston to go to Harvard Law School and brought her family with her.

One of Wu’s professors was Elizabeth Warren, and she spent the last year of law school working on her professor’s US Senate campaign. Wu vividly remembers going straight from her 2012 graduation — hopping the T with robe in tow — to a campaign event afterwards.


Wu caught a political bug, and after Warren unseated Scott Brown, Wu launched her own bid for City Council in 2013. She had interned in the Menino administration and helped craft food truck policy. Her own campaign focused on making government accessible to everyone. When she won, she became the city’s second Asian-American councilor, after Korean-American Sam Yoon.

“Leadership comes in many different forms,” said Michelle Wu. “I am very conscious it is my role to encourage young people to step up and see themselves in these positions of leadership.”Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2014

Last week, Wu, who lives in Roslindale, won reelection for her at-large seat, garnering more votes than anyone but Ayanna Pressley. Days later, Wu declared her candidacy for City Council president.

At least two other councilors — Mark Ciommo of Brighton and Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain — are also vying to replace Bill Linehan, who is stepping down. Wu rankled liberals when as a newly elected councilor she supported the controversial councilor from South Boston over progressive colleague O’Malley.

Now the question is whether Linehan will throw his support behind Wu. She prefers not to talk about how individual councilors will vote, but Wu will tell you that she wants to be president because she’s the best person for the job. Her biggest achievements have been to push through a law that provides some city workers six weeks of paid parental leave, and another measure that guarantees transgender municipal employees access to gender reassignment surgery and other related services.


Wu doesn’t consider herself as just representing Asian-Americans — 9 percent of the Boston population is Asian — but she does feel a responsibility to address the community’s biggest concerns, such as preventing immigrant worker exploitation to streamlining the smallbusiness process.

She also feels the need to show the world that Asian-Americans can be leaders on their own terms.

“I grew up a very shy, obedient girl,” Wu said. “Those qualities are not what you think about in a public official. Leadership comes in many different forms. Even though people say I can be soft spoken or [of] smaller stature physically, I am very conscious it is my role to encourage young people to step up and see themselves in these positions of leadership.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.