Michelle Wu’s Path From Immigrant Girl To Boston Politics Top

One recent afternoon at Michelle Wu’s campaign headquarters in Jamaica Plain, the candidate was on the run, chasing one of her two young sons into the office.

Wu said her son did not go to school that morning due to “some problems and moods,” so she and her husband shared the day with him.

“We had popcorn strewn all over the office, a cup thrown in a temper tantrum and a lot of shopping,” Wu said.

In other words, life goes on, even in the midst of a historic election campaign. It’s a reminder that whoever becomes Boston’s next mayor next month will be a mother for the first time.

Until now, every elected mayor of Boston has been a white man. But in just a few weeks, voters in Boston will have a choice between two city councilors – Wu and Annissa Essaibi George.

Wu, 36, grew up in Chicago, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. She was often the unofficial interpreter of her Chinese parents. And she never imagined she would go into politics, let alone run for mayor in Boston.

Growing up in a Chinese family, Wu said she was discouraged from speaking about herself in public or being confrontational. And she didn’t have the traits she normally associated with politicians.

“I was none of those things,” Wu said. “Not tall, male, angry, loud.”

Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu spoke at the Solidarity with Haiti rally at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in downtown Boston. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

In 2003, Wu moved east to study at Harvard. And after graduating, she began a journey that eventually took her into politics.

Her mother suffered from late-onset schizophrenia, which turned into a real mental health crisis. This forced Wu to return to Chicago to help care for his ailing relative and two younger sisters. She opened a small tea room, but struggled to make it work. Then she returned to Massachusetts to study at Harvard Law School, this time with her family.

One of her sisters, of whom she was then official tutor, attended Eliot School, where Lydia Torres was vice-principal. Torres recounted how Wu became actively involved in her sister’s education, even joining the city’s parent council.

“I remember a lot of parents asking, ‘When did she have this child again?’ “Torres remembers. “She was his sister and she became his guardian. She was very young and she knew how to parent from a young age.”

At Harvard, Wu studied contract law with Elizabeth Warren, whom she described as “brilliant and terrifying.”

Warren, who supported Wu for mayor, recalled a brilliant student who sat in the front row and then worked on her first campaign for the Senate. Warren said that at the time, Wu was already focusing on how to help working families.

“Michelle and I have been talking for years about the importance of investing in child care,” said Warren. “So that moms can go to work, so that dads can go to work, so that children have good early learning opportunities when they’re really little.

Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu was joined by Senator Elizabeth Warren at a rally in Chinatown.  (Anthony Brooks / WBUR)
Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu was joined by Senator Elizabeth Warren at a rally in Chinatown. (Anthony Brooks / WBUR)

Wu says her own experiences, including battling her mother’s mental health crisis, her sisters’ schools, and her own efforts to start a small business propelled her into politics.

She said the experiments “burst the bubble by trying to stay away from politics and government.”

“It was so important, and so many other people in similar situations were grappling with it,” Wu said.

After graduating from law school in 2012, Wu married Conor Pewarski, who is now a Boston banker. She also made the leap into politics.

Wu won an extraordinary seat on Boston City Council in 2013 – the same year Essaibi George started his first race and lost. Wu became the first Asian American to serve on the council, joining Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman to sit on the council.

“That year, we doubled the number of women on the board from one to two,” Wu said.

Wu was also the first Asian American to serve as chairman of the board. She has been re-elected to the board three times and has been the top voter in the last two elections.

As a city councilor, she has championed a number of progressive causes, including the fight against short-term rental companies like Airbnb that housing advocates accuse of driving up rents.

Mayor Marty Walsh had a plan to bring them under control, but Wu pushed for a tougher plan. Her fellow city councilor Lydia Edwards says Walsh pressured Wu to take his approach and urged her to back down.

“And Michelle said,” No. You step back. “Edwards remembers.” And there was kind of a back and forth of who’s going to blink. And she did it all, in this little room, while holding her baby in her arms.

In the end, Walsh blinked first. Edwards said he learned that, when needed, Wu is “like a grenade: small, unpretentious, and when pushed, extremely powerful.”

Wu’s curriculum looks like a progressive wishlist: universal preschool education, affordable child care, and free public transportation. His version of New Green Deal includes not only more trees and electric school buses, but also initiatives to fight poverty and close the racial wealth gap.

Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu greets supporters at Readville Station in Hyde Park.  (Jesse Costa / WBUR)
Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu greets supporters at Readville Station in Hyde Park. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

Her opponent, Essaibi George, calls her “pie in the sky” and unrealistic. Essaibi George, a longtime Dorchester resident, also said it’s worth pointing out that Wu grew up in Chicago.

“I think it is relevant to a lot of voters whether or not they grew up in this city,” Essaibi George said recently on GBH. “Because I’ve seen this city for many, many years – being someone who went to St. Margaret’s High School, someone who went to high school here in Boston. All of these little experiences certainly inform the job that I will do as mayor of this city.

Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George addresses the media after voting on pre-election day.  (Jesse Costa / WBUR)
Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George addresses the media after voting on pre-election day. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

This sentiment might resonate with some Boston residents forever, which Wu understands. She recalled that when she first ran for city council eight years ago, voters often asked her about her background.

“People wanted to know where I grew up, where my mom lived, where I went to school,” Wu said. “Kind of ‘what tribe in Boston are you from?’ “

But in recent years, Wu said voters focused more on the issues than where people went to high school.

“In the 2019 election cycle, I’m not sure anyone knows which neighborhood each of the city council candidates came from,” Wu said. “It was a lot more about the changes you’re going to make? Which communities are going to come from? you represent? ”

A WBUR poll last week found Wu was largely leading Essaibi George across town. As the November 2 election draws near, Wu is counting on the support of a changing city – with a growing population of newcomers, including young immigrant voters.

Less than half of Boston’s residents were born in Massachusetts, according to census data.

Wu is therefore in good company in the city she seeks to rule.

Comments are closed.