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Michelle Wu is stumbling out of the blocs

City Councilor-elect Michelle Wu’s backing of Bill Linehan’s bid for the council’s presidency is a bad move, writes Yvonne Abraham.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File/Globe staff

If it's a rookie mistake, it's a doozy.

And if it isn't? Well, that's more troubling.

Recently elected at-large councilor Michelle Wu was widely touted as the future of Boston politics. But now she's doing something distressingly old-school: supporting controversial South Boston Councilor Bill Linehan's bid to become the next council president.

Wu supporters all over the city are freaking out, with good cause. Linehan has made an art of fulfilling the worst stereotypes of Boston politics.

Where to begin with this guy? Arguably his most spectacular feat was his naked attempt to gerrymander his own district as chair of the council's redistricting committee, trying to split Chinatown (which supported his opponent Suzanne Lee) to strengthen his own incumbency.


There was also that gambit to score points with conservatives in his neighborhood by challenging the right of state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, who is black, to host the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast. Or his attempt to explain the exclusion of gays from the St. Patrick's Day parade by raising the specter of the Ku Klux Klan: If gays and lesbians are allowed to march, the Klan could too, he said. Never mind that, in addition to being offensive, Linehan was dead wrong.

Linehan was reelected, barely, in November. And now, he's this close to becoming the next president of the Boston City Council, thanks to Wu, who would join five men on the council to give Linehan a majority.

A lot of people are upset. Many who thought Wu would be a flag-bearer for progressive causes have been calling, e-mailing, and tweeting, urging her to reconsider.

"Like many of you, we were persuaded that Michelle Wu . . . was someone who was going to stand up for our values," went one e-mail blast to progressives in Jamaica Plain. "Voting for people who don't share your values . . . is not building bridges. It is caving in."


Ouch. A battered, exhausted-sounding Wu was calling around Wednesday to explain her position. She has known Linehan for years, she said. She chose him over other councilors not because she shares his positions but because she believes he will decentralize power and give councilors more autonomy.

"This is not a vote that changes my values," she said. "The role of a city council president is a procedural role. . . . If we want to get things done for inclusion in the city, we need to be inclusive and work with everyone."

OK, let's take these one by one. First, anybody who has watched Linehan on the council knows he is not a decentralizing power kind of guy.

Second, the presidency is about way, way more than procedure. A council president takes over if the mayor departs — that's how Tom Menino became mayor. That president decides who chairs each committee, and those chairs set the agenda for the whole body. The president can bury initiatives he doesn't like, in committees that won't move them. He also decides which councilors' offices get the most resources. He shapes, and sets the tone for, the entire body.

Third, you have to do some pretty fancy somersaults to see voting for Linehan as a giant leap for inclusion. Sure, Wu should keep talking with the guy who plays to the cheap seats and offends those who carried her to victory. That's inclusive. But voting to give this king of divisiveness the gavel? That's crazy.


On Wednesday afternoon, it looked as if Councilor Tito Jackson, backed by other minority and progressive councilors, was getting close to six votes of his own for president. That would make Wu, the only councilor of color on Linehan's team, the crucial seventh vote. If she ends up tipping the presidency away from Jackson, who is black, communities of color — also crucial to Wu's electoral strength — will find it hard to forgive her.

On top of that, every time a president Linehan says something offensive — and rest assured, he will — Wu will wear that, too.

It's tough to see how she recovers if she goes through with this. Voters took a leap of faith with Wu, seeing in this young, gifted woman a new face for city politics, one that could ascend through the political ranks of a city transformed.

Her first vote could give the lie to all of it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com