Michelle Wu is elected mayor of Boston.

By Ellen Barry

Ellen Barry
Nov. 2, 2021, 10:59 p.m. ET
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Michell Wu is the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston.CreditCredit...M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

BOSTON — Michelle Wu, who entered public service out of frustration with the obstacles that her immigrant family faced, will be the next mayor of Boston, pledging to make the city a proving ground for progressive policy.

Buoyed by support from the city’s young, left-leaning voters and by Black, Asian and Latino residents, Ms. Wu, 36, soundly defeated City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George.

Ms. Essaibi George, who ran as a pragmatic centrist in the style of former Mayor Martin J. Walsh, had the backing of the city’s traditional power centers, like its police, its trade unions and its working-class Irish American neighborhoods.

“From every corner of our city, Boston has spoken,” Ms. Wu said, to a jubilant crowd in the city’s South End. “We are ready to meet the moment. We are ready to be a Boston for everyone.”

Conceding the race, Ms. Essaibi George said, “I want to offer a great big congratulations to Michelle Wu.”

“She is the first woman, first person of color, and as an Asian American, the first elected to be mayor of Boston,” she said. “I know this is no small feat.”

Ms. Wu — who grew up outside Chicago and moved to the Boston area to attend Harvard — was an unusual candidate for this city, and her victory sets a number of precedents.

Ms. Wu is the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor in Boston, which has been led by an unbroken string of Irish American or Italian American men since the 1930s. Kim Janey, a Black woman, has served as acting mayor since March, when Mr. Walsh was confirmed as the U.S. labor secretary. Ms. Wu will also be the first mayor of Boston not born in the city since 1925.

Malaysia Fuller-Staten, 24, an organizer from Roxbury, was ebullient as returns came in, saying the scale of Ms. Wu’s victory would shatter the image of Boston as conservative and insular.

“Boston is so much an old boys’ club,” she said. “For her to win by that margin, it would be saying to everyone, Boston is not a center-right city. It would be saying, we are a city looking to change.”

Born shortly after her parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, Ms. Wu spent her childhood interpreting for them as they tried to negotiate bureaucracy in the United States. She was deeply shaken in her 20s, when her mother had a mental health crisis, forcing her to step away from her career to care for the family.

Emerging from that experience, she plunged into a career in public service.

She developed a close relationship with Elizabeth Warren, one of her professors at Harvard Law School, who became the state’s progressive standard-bearer and helped launch her in politics.

As a Boston city councilor, Ms. Wu often attended meetings with her babies, a sight that announced change for a body that, throughout its history, had been dominated by white men.

ImageConceding the race, Anissa Essaibi George said, “I want to offer a great big congratulations to Michelle Wu.”
Conceding the race, Anissa Essaibi George said, “I want to offer a great big congratulations to Michelle Wu.”Credit...Philip Keith for The New York Times

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a longtime friend and supporter, described Ms. Wu’s victory as the culmination of years of disciplined work on the nitty-gritty of governing.

“It’s not always flashy, it’s not always something that gets a headline,” he said. “She doesn’t come off as this huge presence when she walks into a room necessarily. But over time she chips away at the issues you care about. You start realizing how dedicated she is to the craft and to the work.”

Boston has been booming, as jobs in technology, medicine and education attract waves of young professionals. But that success has come at a cost, forcing working-class and middle-class families to leave the city in search of affordable housing.

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Ms. Wu has promised to push back against gentrification, with policies tailored to help lower-income residents stay in the city, such as waiving fees for public transport, imposing a form of rent control, and reapportioning city contracts to firms owned by Black Bostonians.

It will not be easy for her to deliver. Rent control, for example, has been illegal in Massachusetts since 1994, so restoring it would require the passage of statewide legislation. The most recent effort to roll back the ban on rent control was rejected resoundingly by legislators last year, by a vote of 23 to 136.

Her plans to restructure the city’s planning agency have worried many in the real estate and building sectors, which thrived while Mr. Walsh was mayor. And Ms. Wu will have to take control of a sprawling government apparatus whose powerful constituencies can slow or block a new mayor’s agenda.

Wilnelia Rivera, a political consultant who supported Ms. Wu, said she would face pushback.

“The reality about power is that it never wants to give up any, and we’ll see what that looks like once we cross that bridge,” she said. “She is going to have to recreate that power coalition. It would be nice to have a mayor who isn’t necessarily in the back pocket of all the power players in the city.”

Ms. Wu comes in with high expectations for change, and will face pressure to move swiftly. One of the city’s most popular progressive figures, District Attorney Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, warned that she ran the risk of disappointing many who have backed her.

“What I won’t do is allow our community to be sold a bill of goods and then when someone gets into the office, nothing happens,” she said.

Ms. Wu has responded repeatedly to such concerns throughout her campaign.

“The history and legacy of Boston as a city is one of putting forward bold vision to reshape what’s possible and then fighting for what our residents need,” she said, listing challenges she took on as a city councilor, like introducing a pilot program for fare-free public transport.

“Time and again, when people said it would be impossible,” she said, “we got it done.”

As they left polling places on Tuesday, several voters described the race as a turning point for Boston, which has elected a long line of men from the white, working-class, pro-union wing of the Democratic Party.

“Change in this city has taken a long time to come,” said Andrew Conant, 28, a filmmaker. “This is a very proud moment for my city.”