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Michelle Wu Is Changing Traditional Boston

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Wu moved back to Boston to attend Harvard Law School, bringing her family with her. (Wu’s mother is doing better, but she still lives in a two-family home with Wu, her sisters, her husband, and their two children.) As a law student, while raising her then teenage sisters and finding her mother health care in Boston, Wu threw herself into politics, always seeming “a little surprised by how good she was,” as her professor and mentor Elizabeth Warren told me.

As an intern for Mayor Menino, Wu made the restaurant permitting process accessible and helped establish Boston’s food-truck program. When Warren ran for senator in 2012, Wu volunteered, then worked full-time for the campaign as constituency director, all while finishing law school, studying for the bar, and preparing to get married. She was late to graduation because she was organizing a campaign event at North Station, and so hopped on the T in her cap and gown, only to commute back after the ceremony to continue working.

When the campaign ended Wu announced, to the surprise of many, that she was running for city council in the fall of 2013. “Even my siblings told me … they weren’t sure this was the best idea given my personality, being on the soft-spoken and shy side,” Wu said. “[As] someone who really wanted to make people happy, wouldn’t this be really negative and all this public speaking?”

But as she wore out multiple pairs of shoes and her voice while campaigning, Wu learned how to tell her story, emphasizing her first-hand experience with education, health care, and small businesses as a way of promising she would and could make city bureaucracy more transparent and accessible. She often thought of, though never spoke of, something her mother had written down in a moment of clarity: “Remind Mimi”—her nickname for Wu— “to help people and think about government.”

At first, Wu was competing against an incumbent for an at-large seat, but the dynamics changed quickly when Menino announced he would not seek reelection. Dozens of people entered the mayoral race, including two of the sitting councilors-at-large, freeing up two spots. Wu now had a better shot at an open spot, but she still had to beat out 18 candidates. She didn’t just beat out the others—she came in second for total votes, trailing by less than one percentage point to Pressley, an incumbent.

Wu was primed to work on the “inside” thanks to her time with Menino and Warren. But Wu comes across as milder than both of her mentors (Menino, though beloved, was known for his temper), a quality that has enabled her to foster consensus on bold, progressive stances.

In her first term Wu was already challenging Mayor Marty Walsh, urging the city to withdraw its 2024 Olympics bid (citing its lack of transparency) in language that appealed to Boston’s pride. “In the drive to prove our status as a world-class city, let’s stay true to our democratic legacy and what Boston has already given to the world: informed independence and true debate,” she wrote in a post for WGBH. That summer, pressured by councilors and citizens, the city withdrew its bid.

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