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By Elaine Dunn | November 2021

Not since the 2020 presidential campaign of Andrew Yang has another significant public office involved another Chinese American, until now.  Michelle Wu, daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is campaigning for the November 2021 Boston mayoral spot. 

 

The Oct. 22 Boston Globe editorial on the Nov. 2 mayoral election said,

The next mayor of Boston will inherit a city that, by and large, has been prospering.  The population is growing, high-tech businesses are thriving, new construction has been sprouting up across the city like dandelions, and the city’s neighborhoods are — for the most part — safe and vibrant … In this election, that choice is very clear: The Globe endorses at-large City Councilor Michelle Wu of Roslindale, the first-place finisher in the preliminary election who has both an expansive vision for the city’s next chapters and a proven record of ethical leadership.”

Boston is the fourth most densely populated region in the United States, after New York Metro Area, Greater Los Angeles and South Florida Metro Area.  The city itself is the 21st largest in the country with a population of 695,506 (in 2020).  According to Census data, only half of the current Boston residents were born in Massachusetts.  Approximately 9.34 % of the population is Asian – since the 1980s, there has been a sizable wave of Vietnamese immigrants.  Boston also has the 10th largest East Indian population in the U.S.

Until this year, every elected mayor for Boston had been a white male.  In 2021, Wu is one of two women of color vying for Boston’s top job.  

Wu was born and raised in Chicago, oldest of four children.  She was labeled the “official interpreter” for her Mandarin-speaking immigrant parents, who eventually divorced when she was in college.  She was valedictorian of her 2003 high school class and selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar from Illinois.  She did her undergraduate work at Harvard University, where she concentrated in economics.  After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007, she went on to pursue a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.

She had started working as a consultant after college, but had to leave the job and return to Chicago when her mother’s health deteriorated.  (Her mother suffered from late onset schizophrenia, which developed into a full-blown mental health crisis.)  She assumed the guardian/parental role of her two younger sisters, age 10 and 15 at the time, while coping with her mother’s care.  She tried opening a teahouse business to generate income, but the city bureaucracy was too overwhelming and that failed.  It was a sad and scary time for her.  “Honestly, it was just pure survival.  Of how hour by hour we could go on," Wu said.  "And I cried every day, for probably a good year.”

In 2009, she decided to return to Harvard Law School, with her youngest sister and ailing mother in tow.

Her youngest sister’s school assistant principal in Boston remembered Wu.  She said Wu actively participated in her sister’s education, even joining the citywide parent council.  "I remember a lot of the parents would ask, 'When did she have this kid again?'" the assistant principal recalled, following up with, “This was her sister and she became her guardian.  She was very young and she knew how to be a parent at the young age.”

Wu’s then fiancé, now husband, Conor Pewarski proposed in December 2011, a few months before Wu graduated from law school in 2012.  They also married in 2012.  (Wu studied for, and passed, law exam while planning the wedding!)  The couple now has two young sons and shares a two-family house with her mother.

It was through her personal experience with the struggling small business, with healthcare, with the public school systems, that compelled her to dip her toe into public office.  These experiences made her see how much government matters and how alone, voiceless and powerless the general population can feel. 

Whether it was fighting to get my sisters what they needed in schools, fighting to open a neighborhood small business, or navigating Boston Public Schools with my own children, we met barriers from city agencies that were supposed to provide support.  And when I met others in the same situation - caring for a family member, raising kids, trying to open a business - I heard the same frustrations of fighting a system that wasn’t designed to work for everyone ... I saw how government and politics can help solve problems, remove barriers, and empower people. That’s why I ran for City Council in 2013, and why I work every day to build community and push for the future that our kids deserve” Wu said.

However, it probably still came as a surprise to her to find herself entering politics!  As Wu recalled, growing up in a Chinese family, she was discouraged from talking about herself in public or being confrontational.  And, she did not possess the traits she associated with Boston politics: tall, male, angry and loud!

In 2013, at the ripe old age of 28, Wu won a seat on the City Council - the first Asian American to serve on the Council - and went on to win three re-elections.  In June 2014, the Boston City Council Special Committee on Small Business, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation released a report making 25 recommendations to streamline the city's licensing and permitting process for small businesses.

Wu is “tough and known for standing up for her principles.  In an episode between former Mayor Marty Walsh and her where Walsh asked her to “back down,” a fellow council member said Wu stood her ground and told Walsh, “No.  You back down,” all the while holding her infant son!  “Wu is ‘like a grenade: small, unassuming, and when pushed, extremely powerful.’”

From Wu’s website:

Readers of Boston magazine voted Wu to be named the magazine's 2013 "Rookie of the Year," one of three political awards given by the magazine that year.  In 2017, the Massachusetts Democratic Party awarded Wu its Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Award, which it considers its highest honor.  In March 2018, Wu was among six finalists to be honored as a "Rising Star" by EMILY's List, a national group that supports female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.  The next month, Wu was listed as one of the "100 Most Influential People in Boston" by Boston magazine.  In 2019, Rachel Allen of The Atlantic wrote that Wu had emerged as one of Boston's "most effective politicians."

In September 2020, Wu announced her candidacy for the 2021 Boston mayoral election

And how is Wu’s mother these days?  “She’s great," Wu said.  "She asks me every few weeks or so, are you still doing the politics thing?"

To decompress, Wu immerses herself in nature or indulge in caramel fudge brownie ice cream!  She’s human, after all.

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Photo credit: Boston University News Service  (Jenny, pls run photo credits in small type and vertical along right edge of image)

 

 

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Mom, city councilor, mayoral candidate Michelle Wu getting older son off to first day of kindergarten

 

 

 

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