Closing The Gap

Meet Michelle Wu, Boston's first Asian-American councilwoman, who is now running for mayor 

Former Boston City Council President Michelle Wu speaks with the media after announcing that she is running for Mayor of Boston in Roslindale, MA on Sept. 15, 2020.
Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Boston city councilwoman Michelle Wu is no stranger to breaking glass ceilings. In 2013, when Wu was first elected to her position, she was the first Asian-American woman to serve on the council, and from 2016 to January 2018 she served as the council's first woman of color president. 

Now Wu, 35, is running for mayor of the city. If she wins in 2021, she will be the first woman and person of color to lead Boston, as the city has never had a mayor who is not a White male. Boston's current mayor, Martin Walsh, has yet to announce if he will seek a third term. But Wu's colleague, city councilwoman Andrea Campbell, has recently announced her run for mayor as well, making her the first Black woman and now second woman of color to eye the city's leadership position next year.

Wu, a Chicago native who was born to immigrant parents from Taiwan, said she never thought she would have a career in politics growing up. "I'm the daughter of immigrants and my parents came to this country with nothing in their pockets and not speaking English and all of us kids were supposed to grow up and just get a stable job that kept us out of trouble," she tells CNBC Make It. "So, that was what I was always aiming for."

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 5: Incumbent Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu greets voters outside of St. George Orthodox Church of Boston in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on Nov. 5, 2019.
Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images

But, Wu says all of that changed when she was working her first job out of college as a consultant in Boston. 

"I had just graduated [college] and I was working in downtown in Boston and I got a call from my sister one day that said I had to go home right then and there and that something was very wrong and they needed help at home," says Wu, who studied economics in undergrad at Harvard. 

She explains that it was during that time that her mother started struggling with a very serious mental illness. "In the depths of her mental health crisis, I was 22 or 23 years old and had to start raising my sisters and become the caregiver for my mom as well," says Wu, while adding that her two sisters are six and 12 years younger than her. "So, in that moment, I went from being someone who had been actively pushed away from ever thinking about politics and government to then having to deal with the structures and systems of the government over and over again in our daily lives and in our struggles against it— whether it was trying to care for my sisters and get them into the right school placements or get my mom health care for her situation."

Wu, who eventually moved her mom and sisters with her to Boston, attended Harvard Law School. It was there where she got her first taste of working in politics when Elizabeth Warren, her law school professor, ran for senator for the first time in 2012.

"By my third year of law school, [Warren] was running for the United States Senate," says Wu. "And, I just showed up to office hours and asked how I could help. I was put to work knocking on doors and making phone calls and organizing in Boston."

Wu's experience on Warren's campaign, as well as her experience as a young caregiver trying to make ends meet, led her to run for Boston city council in 2013. 

"When I ran for city council the first time, a lot of very wise Boston political folks told me not to bother because it wouldn't be possible to win as someone who was relatively young, a woman and Asian American," says Wu. "And, at that time it made sense why they would say that."

Boston City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu canvasses on the MBTA Red Line in Boston to rally against fare hikes that go into place on Monday on June 30, 2019. Councilor Wu joined other politicians and volunteers to bring awareness to the increase in rail fare.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In 2013, Wu explains, Boston's 13-person city council had just one woman, Ayanna Pressley, who now serves as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts's 7th Congressional District. 

"When I ran that first year, I wanted to lift up the experiences of families like mine, who were struggling with issues that are very connected to city government and barriers that did not have to be there," she says. After helping to double the number of women on Boston's city council from one to two when she was elected in 2013, Wu says she's proud to say that the city elected its first majority women and majority people of color city council in 2019.

"That relatively quick transformation in terms of the representation and the diversity of the council has also been tied to a transformation in how people feel connected to city government," she says. "The issues that we discuss and the urgency better reflects the community's priorities because people see themselves reflected and they feel connected to a place where they can get involved and partner with the city council."

This connection and representation, as well as the need for "urgent leadership" is why Wu says she's running for mayor of Boston. 

"We are in an unprecedented moment in Boston, still facing a pandemic, experiencing an economic crisis, going through a national reckoning on systemic racism and grappling with our vulnerabilities in the face of a climate crisis as a coastal city," the 35-year-old says. "And, Boston should be a city for everyone. We have the resources, we have the activism, we have the ideas, we just need bold, urgent leadership that lifts up our communities."

Having announced her campaign for mayor just two weeks ago, Wu says she and her team have spent their first few weeks visiting neighborhoods across the city, speaking to small business owners, parents and young people. "The challenges that Covid-19 has exposed and deepened across the city were already challenges at crisis level before this pandemic started," she says. 

If elected mayor, the mom of two young boys says she will focus on ensuring that every kid in Boston gets a great education and that the city uses its "resources to close the racial wealth gap." Currently, the city's population is 52.6% White, 25.3% Black, 19.7% Hispanic, 9.6% Asian and 0.3% American Indian, according to Census data. In 2017, data from the Federal Reserve of Boston found that Black residents in the city had a net worth of just $8, compared to White residents in the city having a net worth of $247,500. 

In addition to focusing on education and the racial wealth gap, Wu says if elected she also plans to focus on improving the city's public health-care system, its transportation system and residents' access to affordable housing. 

"One thing that I've been trying to point out is that in this moment of crisis, it's not only possible to re-imagine our systems and what kind of a city and community we could be, but it is absolutely necessary," she says. "And so when I think about the future that my boys will grow up to live in and all of their friends and their kids after them, it's on our shoulders right now in this moment to take every possible action we can to exercise bold, urgent leadership for them when we are in this incredibly important and transformational moment."

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