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Michelle Wu will soon embark on a historic term as Boston’s mayor.
The Chicago-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Wu, 36, will be the first Asian American woman to hold the office and the first duly-elected woman in the city’s history once acting Mayor Kim Janey steps down later this month.
Wu, a city councilor at-large who also broke racial barriers when she was elected to the City Council, has made a name for herself at the heart of Boston’s progressive politics.
On the campaign trail, she put forward bold policy proposals and vowed to use the bully pulpit of the mayorship to push for change in arenas outside the purview of City Hall, such as rent control and a fare-free T system.
Such ideas left her critics painting her ideas as unrealistic and lacking in detail.
But Wu, a mother of two and Roslindale resident, is undeterred.
“I love being ankle deep in conversations about sewers and potholes. That’s where my heart has always been, and city government has the chance to get it right on both,” Wu recently told Boston.com. “We do the big things by getting the little things right for our communities.”
Here are seven things to know about Wu:
Soon after she graduated from Harvard University in 2008, Wu, then 23, moved back home to Chicago — not necessarily by choice.
Her mother was heading into a mental health crisis, according to The Boston Globe. (She later was diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia).
Wu quickly became her mother’s caregiver while also taking care of her two younger sisters.
She also dived into the challenges of launching a small business.
Her mother had long imagined opening a space for the community in her older age after the kids were grown, the Globe reported last month. Wu thought her mother would be able to take on the management of the business as she got better, but over time it became clearer that moment would never arrive.
Still, Wu opened the Loose Leaf Tea Loft, a cafe and stationery shop with a menu of teas that played on literary characters like “The Green Gatsby” or “Dorian (Earl) Gray.”
“The tea shop in some ways was the little spot of joy for all of us,” Wu said. “We could be talking about the decisions we needed to make, how we would create space that was truly welcoming to everyone.”
The shop also played a role in Wu’s yet-to-come political career once she moved herself and the family back to Boston as she attended Harvard Law School (where, as a student, she began her mentorship under then-professor Elizabeth Warren).
Her issues with Chicago’s permitting process ultimately informed how she would later redesign and streamline Boston’s process, making a kit for restaurant and small business owners to follow.
She often draws from her experience of being a small business owner when tackling public policy, she said.
“It’s figuring out how to serve your community in a different way,” she said. “Entrepreneurs are resourceful, resilient, and make such a difference in anchoring our neighborhoods.”
Wu won her first bid for public office when she was elected to the Boston City Council in 2013.
Then 30 years old, Wu became the second woman of color to serve on the body. (The first was now-Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.)
In 2016, she became the first Asian American and first woman of color to serve as City Council president.
Wu laid out an agenda to take on inequality and “uneven opportunity” in Boston under her stewardship.
“In too many parts of our city, we see skyrocketing housing costs, nightly gunshots, devastating opioid addiction, insufficient mental health supports, imbalanced schools, and stagnant wages that haven’t kept pace with the costs of supporting a family,” Wu said at the time. “Against this backdrop, the work of city government is more vital than ever.”
Not long after being elected to the City Council, Wu was already criticized by some who supported her.
A progressive, Wu was under fire over her support for fellow Councilor William Linehan, a conservative, to lead the council.
Linehan was an early supporter of Wu’s, as The New York Times recently noted. Wu’s support for his bid to serve as council president was seen as a political favor, an unpopular move among her progressive base.
Wu told the Times last month she remembers receiving thousands of calls and emails that left her “in bed crying, devastated and shaken” and uncertain about even taking office.
But Wu ultimately refused to bend, which earned her the respect of some of her other constituents.
“She is so nice, people sometimes mistake her niceness for softness,” Leverett Wing, one of Wu’s early supporters, told the Times. “It showed she wouldn’t succumb to pressure. It showed she had the mettle to lead the institution.”
In the battle to establish some of the toughest regulations on short-term rental properties in the United States, Airbnb targeted Wu for her proposals.
Then-Mayor Marty Walsh initially filed the rules intending to free up apartments that essentially served as “de facto hotels” as Boston faces a severe housing crisis.
The law, signed in 2018, allows landlords to rent out spare bedrooms and owner-occupied units no more than 90 nights a year, among other provisions, according to the Globe. (The city fended off a lawsuit from Airbnb in an out-of-court settlement in 2019.)
As officials were hammering out amendments, though, Airbnb targeted Wu in particular.
In an email, the company urged its Boston customers to oppose the “unreasonable restrictions” Wu proposed, such as a 30-day cap on renting when the unit owner is not home.
The problem? Wu didn’t propose a 30-day cap. In fact, she didn’t think the 90-day cap went far enough, according to the Globe.
“Not sure where you’re getting 30-day cap, but spreading fake news doesn’t bode well for credibility that you’ll be a partner to the city as work to address the housing crisis,” Wu wrote back to Airbnb in a tweet.
Wu’s tweet was among many that defended her. She also said she received emails in support of the city’s crackdown on rentals.
“The unregulated status quo is deepening our housing crisis; we’re working on policy that balances benefits of homesharing for residents while closing corporate loopholes,” she wrote at the time.
In 2015, Wu was the lead sponsor of an ordinance that brought Boston its first ever paid parental leave for city employees.
The law provides six weeks of leave after birth or adoption of a child for both mothers and fathers and to same-sex couples, the Globe reported at the time. Leave is also available to employees whose infants are stillborn.
Wu has been direct about how her experience as a mother informs her policy decisions.
For a while, it was common to see Wu at City Hall with one of her two sons in tow — or on her hip.
“Every morning, I take the double stroller on the subway, drop Blaise off at City Hall’s on-site childcare center, and bring Cass with me to meetings and events,” Wu wrote in a piece for CNN in 2017 while serving as council president. “Sometimes I’m the only one standing during a discussion, bouncing Cass to sleep. Often I reach for the nursing cover to breastfeed, whether I’m checking in with my staff or speaking before an audience. I always have a burp cloth nearby. I’m tired but grateful: choosing to blend parenting and public service has made me a more confident mother and a better legislator.”
When she takes office this month, Wu will inherit the years-long debacle surrounding the area known as Mass. and Cass — the epicenter of the region’s struggle to adequately address substance abuse disorder, mental health, and homelessness.
The city has already begun rolling out a controversial plan announced last month by acting Mayor Kim Janey, which calls for removing the encampments in the area in the interest of public health and safety. Janey has said city workers will connect those living in tents with treatment and shelters.
Wu, last month, said she supports Janey’s plan.
“When you look through the executive order, it is clear that the city and this administration is pursuing an approach that will lead with services, not criminalization, and connect those seeking treatment and shelter to beds that are available,” Wu told Boston.com. “We know that there are dozens of available shelter beds right now in our city. But they’re not always accessible to people because the barriers to entry might be higher. We need low-threshold beds that are appropriate and have the transportation for residents who are unsheltered, who are seeking treatment. And we need to get this in place right away.”
During her campaign for mayor, it was rare to see Wu’s name mentioned without some variation of the word “bold” also uttered.
Over the past two years, Wu has laid out a progressive vision for Boston.
In 2019, Wu announced she wants to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency to overhaul how the city approaches new development.
Last year, not long before launching her bid for mayor, Wu unveiled her plans for a Boston Green New Deal, outlining how the city can combat the ramifications of climate change and its intersecting issues, from affordable housing and economic opportunity to transportation and racial justice.
She’s also made waves in her calls for a fare-free T and bringing back some form of rent control in Boston, a city where residents find themselves pinched more and more by rising housing costs.
But Wu has long said something must change.
“Business as usual has been failing Bostonians since well before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated deep inequities across our city,” Wu said as she announced her candidacy last year. “In this moment of crisis, it’s not only possible but necessary to reimagine community-based leadership with the vision and conviction to act.”
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