She rallied residents by the hundreds to protest the MBTA fare hikes earlier this year. She helped spearhead an ordinance regulating the city’s short-term rental industry, sparking a public feud with the mammoth platform Airbnb. And, earlier this month, at-large city Councilor Michelle Wu once again topped the citywide ticket in the municipal election, far outpacing her opponents in a competitive field.
Over the last several years, Wu has emerged as a flag-bearer of a progressive-minded movement in city politics, a position that, political analysts say, would make her a credible challenger to second-term Mayor Martin J. Walsh — who has suffered substantial setbacks in recent months, including the criminal convictions of three top aides.
But will she run for mayor in 2021? And can she win?
“I think you take a serious look at it,” said Natasha Perez, a political consultant who advised John Connolly, the candidate Walsh defeated in the 2013 mayoral election for the open seat. The city’s electorate has been changing, she said, “and they’re interested in new and engaging candidates.”
“I think that elections are about timing, and opportunity,” Perez said.
Wu has sidestepped questions about a mayoral run, saying in an interview that “residents don’t need to be thinking years into the future. We should focus on now, and how we can see change now.”
A Chicago native, Wu, 34, graduated from Harvard Law School in 2012 and eventually settled in Roslindale. She and her husband have two young sons. She was first elected to the council in 2013 and two years later was the first woman of color to be named council president, becoming part of a historic transformation of the body: It will now be its most diverse in its history, with a first-ever majority of women.
In this month’s election, Wu said, voters sent a message for councilors to act boldly to move the city forward. The winning candidates campaigned on progressive platforms ranging from strengthening local protections for immigrants to enacting new affordable-housing policies and protecting neighborhoods from overdevelopment — issues that Wu, herself, has advocated.
“We saw across the board, with every race that was on the ballot, that voters want more from their government,” she said. “We all earned a mandate to bring change, and to do so in partnership with residents. At the moment, I’m focused on delivering results.”
To some analysts, that translates into: We don’t really know yet, let’s see how the immediate future goes.
“I’d expect that’s the conversation she’s having at the kitchen table at home,” said Larry DiCara, a former councilor and longtime observer of city politics.
The next mayoral election is two years away, and the city is still recovering from this month’s council election (there’s a recount underway). But analysts said there’s much to think about regarding 2021: Wu’s dominance in the last election and her prominence on a City Council that is pushing the mayor on policy issues as never before — weighed against the difficulties of challenging a sitting mayor who holds the power of incumbency, and, in this case, is still popular.
“She’s a hard campaigner, a good candidate, a good city councilor, but running for mayor is an entirely different story,” said Michael McCormack, a former city councilor who won the council vote in 1983, but wasn’t convinced he could run for mayor.
After the election, Walsh took Wu’s win and the advancement of a new slate of candidates in stride, telling reporters that he shared the candidates’ values and that they campaigned on the same reforms he has advocated for: tackling income inequality and improving access to housing.
“If you look at what we’ve done the last four years, everything that’s been pushed during this campaign season we’ve been pushing,” he said. “The progressive values and the progressive issues that were talked about [in the campaign], I’ve been all over them since I’ve been elected.”
As for a potential challenge by Wu, the mayor would only say, “We’ll wait and see what happens.”
As of mid-November, Wu had $328,000 in her campaign finance account, compared to Walsh’s $5.2 million war chest.
No Boston mayor has been unseated since 1949, when city clerk and acting mayor John B. Hynes defeated the incumbent, James Michael Curley, who was ousted only after he had served federal prison time while in office. Curley had still won reelection while facing a federal indictment, an achievement that speaks to the power of incumbency.
As mayor, Walsh has access to the podium at every ribbon-cutting and community event in the city. He can direct city funds or support to every neighborhood. He commands the loyalty of many who work in city government. Developers, lobbyists, and special-interest groups seek his attention and will donate to his campaign to try to get it.
And perhaps his greatest advantage: Walsh can say the city is doing great. The economy is soaring. Boston has recorded a fifth consecutive AAA bond rating, all on his watch. The city is ahead of an ambitious goal to build 70,000 new units of housing by 2030. Parks are clean, and crime is relatively low.
Political analysts said it will be difficult to unseat a mayor who hasn’t quite offended anyone. In the 2017 race, his first shot at reelection, Walsh trounced challenger Tito Jackson, winning 65 percent of the vote.
“The people who supported him in 2013 and 2017 are still there, and he’s grown his base, based on how successful he’s been,” said Michael Goldman, a veteran political consultant who advised Walsh during his first mayoral campaign.
Over the last two years, however, Walsh has suffered perhaps more political damage than he did in his entire first term. Two top aides were convicted by a federal jury of extorting union jobs from a concert promoter (they are appealing), and a third City Hall aide pleaded guilty to taking a $50,000 bribe to help a developer secure a favorable vote from the Zoning Board of Appeal.
Over the summer, neighborhood tensions erupted in the South End over the city’s handling of the opioid crisis.
Earlier this month came more dark clouds: The Globe reported that a federal grand jury is investigating Boston police officers for overtime abuse.
Meanwhile, many community advocates have pushed Walsh to go further to the left with environmental and housing changes. The city faces a crisis in affordable housing, streets are gridlocked with traffic, and the effects of climate change loom on Boston’s shores. Wu has called on the city to charge for residential parking stickers, a strategy to cut down on the number of cars parking on city streets and reduce congestion, and she has proposed the city’s first wetlands protection ordinance. She was a cosponsor of the ban on plastic bags.
Political analysts said Wu’s success citywide, along with the success of other candidates who raised similar platforms, show a progressive movement is burgeoning in Boston.
“I get the sense that there’s some bubbling up of energy,” said Rachel Poliner of the Roslindale and West Roxbury chapter of Progressive Massachusetts, which endorsed Wu. She pointed out efforts to organize new slates of progressive-minded candidates for ward committees in Hyde Park and East Boston, to unseat the traditional Democratic establishment.
“If we’re talking about the challenges the city faces and what needs to be done,” she said, “then we need people who think big.”
So, what could happen in 2021?
“There’s two years to go,” said McCormack, the former councilor. “A lot of things can happen.”