During the Monday morning commute, hundreds of volunteers are expected to fan out on trains and at stations across Greater Boston to protest the MBTA fare hikes — part of a grass-roots mobilization that includes activists, candidates, and several elected officials.
Their lead organizer? City Councilor Michelle Wu, of Roslindale, a 34-year-old transplant from Chicago by way of Harvard who has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the management of the MBTA.
“This is one example of many deep issues that are in crisis state, or approaching crisis state, that are entirely fixable if we just marshal the urgency and political will,” Wu said last week in an interview ahead of the protests.
Wu lives in the southwest corner of the city, far from the South Boston and Dorchester domains that have traditionally generated Boston’s political machines. A protégé of Senator Elizabeth Warren, she picks battles the city’s establishment politicians have avoided, such as advocating for residential parking permit fees as a means to cut down traffic congestion. Her prodding from the left on issues such as transportation and the environment has made her one of the leaders of the city’s new progressive wave — and sparked speculation about whether she might run for mayor in two years.
But first: this fall’s municipal races. Wu’s moves have grabbed headlines, but political analysts say November will demonstrate just how far left Boston voters will be willing to go, in a forecast of the city’s — and Wu’s — political future.
Wu declined to address her political ambitions in the interview, only saying she was running for her at-large council seat this fall. On the city ballot, she’s joined by a bevy of progressive candidates — a slate that she described as “a real test for Boston.”
“I think we are going to see a different trend this year, and I think it’s because residents across the city are ready for a change, they are ready to see bold action, and they’re ready to get involved in shaping the future directly,” she said.
Local elections have failed to excite much of the city in recent years. But since President Trump took office, analysts have noted a wave of voter energy in the country’s more progressive pockets. In November’s statewide elections, some 40,000 more voters citywide cast a ballot than is typical, pushing turnout closer to that of a presidential contest.
Similarly, in the September primary, historically less active precincts came out in droves to boost then-Councilor Ayanna Pressley in her groundbreaking victory over Representative Michael E. Capuano, as well as to advance Rachael Rollins as the first black woman for Suffolk County district attorney over an established insider. Both went on to win the general election.
“It doesn’t feel to me that people in the traditional power center of the city have noticed the city is changing, not only demographically but ideologically,” said Rachel Poliner, of the Roslindale and West Roxbury chapter of Progressive Massachusetts. (Wu was the only incumbent to get the group’s support.)
In recent candidate forums, Poliner said, members were less focused on neighborhood matters and more driven by big-picture issues: housing, transportation, the environment.
“There are issues that we really need action on,” Poliner said. “And there are processes that we believe we can engage in, in ways the city isn’t.”
New progressive strongholds have sprouted within the city, as well. The city’s highest turnout in 2018, by the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots, was in Wu’s neck of Boston: along the Southwest Corridor that stretches from Jamaica Plain through Roslindale and into West Roxbury, what Larry DiCara, a former councilor and longtime city politics observer, called Boston’s new “lefty strip.”
In the November election, he pointed out, 95 percent of the voters in some of those neighborhoods’ precincts went with Warren over her Republican challenger, compared to 75 percent citywide. “We’ve always had precincts to the left in Boston, but they never voted with big numbers,” said DiCara.
But Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College politics professor, said it could take multiple cycles to truly determine where the city’s political power settles. He said it will be difficult to judge how far the electorate has strayed, if at all, to the left of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who also considers himself a progressive Democrat.
“Boston has a more complex political structure — it’s not a hard-left city, it’s always had a strain of conservatism and tradition, a strain of pragmatism,” he said. “The question is, are folks who are pragmatic but left on issues, are they more likely to view Marty Walsh as an ally to them or an obstacle?”
He added, “There is a difference between being progressive and now marshaling to dislodge Marty Walsh. That’s a different outcome altogether.”
In the last council election, in 2017, Wu placed first in the citywide vote for the four at-large seats with 24 percent, outpacing Pressley, who had 21 percent. Pressley was far stronger in the heart of Roxbury, Boston’s historically black neighborhood, where Wu has centered her campaign headquarters this year.
Councilor Michael Flaherty, who placed third in the last at-large race and is seeking re-election this fall, controlled his home turf of South Boston with more than 30 percent of the vote in that neighborhood. Flaherty, who was at odds with Wu over the parking-permit fees but has partnered with her on lobbying rules and the Community Preservation Act, welcomed the councilor’s agenda, saying officials should be pushing against the status quo.
He said the city is always evolving, and he was called the “new Boston” when he was first elected two decades ago. He said they have both worked across neighborhood lines.
“We have a lot of shared priorities across the city,” he said.
First elected in 2013, amid a shift on the council and the election of the first new mayor in two decades, Wu has always been the youngest member on the panel — and she became the first woman of color to serve as its president. The eldest of four children born to immigrant parents from Taiwan, she arrived in Boston in 2004 to study economics at Harvard, where she later got a law degree.
After taking Warren’s law class, Wu worked for the future senator’s campaign to unseat Scott Brown in 2012. In 2015, she and her husband moved from the South End to Roslindale, where they live with their children, ages 2 and 4.
In an interview, Wu said that city voters in recent years have raised issues that have transcended neighborhood borders and are far more universal, such as housing, transportation, and equity in schools.
“These are issues and problems that cut across every demographic, every neighborhood, every community,” she said. “We can’t afford not to act, and I also feel we can’t afford to put civility and delay before progress.”
She has also shown willingness to cross ideological lines, such as when she backed then- Councilor Bill Linehan for the presidency after her first election in 2013 (her supporters were frustrated seeing her endorse a more conservative, older white councilor from South Boston). But Wu has stood by her decision, saying Linehan had the best administrative potential at the time to unite the council on a common agenda.
Meanwhile Wu has pushed and often needled the administration on other matters, ranging from regulating short-term rental and lobbying industries to advocating for a wetlands ordinance and for the city to purchase clean energy only.
She was among the earliest, fiercest critics of the MBTA fare hike, sparking a petition drive in February. Her staff said they expect hundreds of people to participate in what Wu is calling Monday’s “canvassing effort,” during which volunteers will pass out informational fliers and engage MBTA riders.
Her call for free public transit across the system has raised the eyebrows of even some of her supporters, who question where the funding would come from. In response, Wu said the city should step up to the challenge just as it did when it built the country’s first park, or opened a school, or a library. She has also called for local representation on the MBTA’s governing board.
“The goal [of Monday’s efforts] is to encourage riders to speak up,” she said.
“Let’s set the bigger vision,” she later added. “What are we aiming for? What do we actually want to see, what are the possibilities that we want to create for the next generation, and then how do we marshal the resources to get us there? And that conversation isn’t happening right now, and the action steps aren’t happening right now.”