Michelle Wu, the next mayor of Boston?
Not so fast.
Wu, a 34-year-old Boston city councilor, is still riding the hype from last April’s super-flattering profile in The Atlantic.
Maybe she can unseat Mayor Martin J. Walsh and make history as the first woman to win that office. But if she runs, she must also beat history.
Over the past six decades, a laundry list of city councilors have tried and failed to defeat an incumbent Boston mayor. They include Gabriel Piemonte, Joe Timilty, Thomas Atkins, John Saltonstall, Joe Tierney, Peggy Davis Mullen, Maura Hennigan, Michael Flaherty, and Tito Jackson. Indeed, no challenger has defeated an incumbent Boston mayor since 1949 — and that was John Hynes, a city clerk who served as acting mayor when the mayor, James Curley, was in jail.
Of course, rules were made to be broken. And they were, last November, when Michael Capuano, a 10-term incumbent, shockingly — to him, anyway — lost his congressional seat to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. Wu is smartly raising her profile by taking on issues like public transit and climate change, and the establishment, from City Hall to Beacon Hill, is taking notice.
After she spoke up against MBTA fare hikes, Walsh came out against them, too.
The mayor also considers himself a progressive Democrat. But everything Walsh does is increasingly viewed through the prism of the Wu effect on city politics.
For example: When the mayor’s office put out a press release announcing that during the US Conference of Mayors, Walsh led a coalition proposing a resolution that called for support of the Equal Rights Amendment, is that Walsh thinking ahead to the prospect of a female challenger? Or, just “Marty being Marty . . . 22 years of support for this,” as an adviser put it when questioned about it.
Officially, Wu is running for reelection to the City Council. But asked if the dashed mayoral hopes of past city councilors discourage her, she said, “We’re in a moment of transition and great significance for the city and the country. People want to get engaged. Residents across every neighborhood want to have a stake in shaping their future.” Translation: No, that doesn’t discourage her.
And it shouldn’t. But the traditional power of incumbency can’t be dismissed either. On paper, Walsh, 52, is a popular mayor, with internal polls showing his favorability at 70 percent-plus in every city neighborhood. Like his predecessor, the late Thomas M. Menino, he’s a constant presence at events, big and small. “You underestimate Martin J. Walsh at your peril,” said Michael Goldman, a veteran political adviser who was the lead consultant on Walsh’s first mayoral campaign. Walsh, he said, is unafraid of Wu or any other challenger, and is prepared to “make his case” to the people. “He has done nothing to weaken himself politically,” added Goldman.
But do those political strengths still mesh as well with the needs and desires of a changing city?
“History is on the side of whomever the incumbent is,” said Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and one-time mayoral candidate who studies and writes about Boston political trends. “But whomever the incumbent is has to understand that different people are voting.”
What DiCara describes as “left-center white people” now dominate some Boston neighborhoods — and they vote. “There’s a string of precincts along the southwest corridor of the city. They are full of bright young people from someplace else, who don’t go to church and could care less who your grandfather was,” said DiCara.
If any candidate is going to be a legitimate contender for those votes, Wu, a Chicago transplant via Harvard, “has the profile,” he said. Just like there’s a short list for pope, he said, she’s on “the short list for mayor.”
Based on history, that short list can still leave Wu a long way off from beating an incumbent mayor. But you don’t make history by bowing to it. You make history by defying it.