Politics

One hundred days in office, Mayor Wu talks vaccine mandates, freeing the T, and making Boston green

"We have gotten even more done than I imagined was possible."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Nov. 22, 2021. Wu just completed her first 100 days in office last week. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu didn’t have much time.

Just two weeks after a sizable victory to become Boston’s first elected woman and person of color to serve as the city’s chief executive, Wu took office — a stunningly short transitional period thanks to an unusual election year and, mostly, to the city charter.

But Wu, the 37-year-old former city councilor at-large and mother of two, has wasted little time in rolling out the progressive agenda applauded by voters.

The day after she was sworn in, on Nov. 17, Wu moved to eliminate fares on three MBTA bus routes for at least two years — the initial growth of a long-championed vision of hers to eliminate financial burdens on public transit, or, simply put, to “Free the T.” The new policy takes hold on Tuesday.

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Days later, she began to make good on molding Boston into a pioneering city in the nation’s response to climate change by signing into law an ordinance barring city funds from being invested in fossil fuel industries.

In February, Wu’s administration also announced it would begin a municipal harbor planning process for East Boston, signaling a focus on bolstering climate resiliency in neighborhood waterfronts outside the city’s core downtown.

Michelle Wu

And in between, Wu has navigated the city’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, issuing mandates that masks be worn indoors and, for a time, proof of vaccination be required upon entry to certain establishments — policies that elicited strong opposition from a vocal minority of groups and residents.

Backlash grew particularly heated over Wu’s sought-after policy to require city employees be vaccinated against the contagious virus or else lose their jobs — a proposal Wu’s administration has credited with boosting city vaccination rates, despite not having taken hold.

Several unions representing the city’s first responders took Wu to court, eventually winning over a state appeals court judge, although city attorneys filed an appeal of that decision on Friday.

Since the mandate rollouts in December, Wu has received criticism that has often morphed into racism and sexism. There have been continuous demonstrations outside her Roslindale home since January.

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Still, speaking with Boston.com by phone on Friday, it was clear Wu’s belief in city government as a force for positive change and a mandate that City Hall do “the big and the small” remains untarnished — and she herself, undeterred.

“I have an even greater sense of gratitude for the work that city workers put — how many people are involved with every single teacher and service that is provided and decision that is made,” Wu said, when asked what she knows about the job now that she didn’t when she took office. “I knew going in, or I believed on Nov. 16, that there’s this power to make a difference in city government. And still, we have gotten even more done than I imagined was possible in just 100 days.”

Here’s what Wu said about her transit initiatives, her response to COVID-19, her plans for Boston to be a green city leader, and her critics on the City Council.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Boston.com: The day after you took office you, probably unsurprisingly, moved to make three MBTA bus routes fare free. Why did you choose transportation as your first action as mayor, and what signal did you want to send about your administration to residents?

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Wu: Transportation is fundamental. It’s what we all rely on to make the pieces of our lives fit together, and public transportation should be a public good.

This is an issue that I and many residents and activists have been fighting for for years. But it’s also important to shift what’s possible in this city.

It was an issue that we had been told for years was never going to happen because you could never make the T free or you could certainly never, even if you could pilot it, you couldn’t do it for longer than six months. And so, it’s taken significant effort and persistence and conversations all the way up to the secretary of transportation in Washington, D.C., but our team has gotten it done, and starting March 1, we’ll have proof of what it means to make changes that our communities need.

To top it off, we just found out that the Green Line extension is actually happening, finally.

Yeah! I just found out yesterday, too, that there was another community that just launched free service.

Starting March 1, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is going fare free under a two-year pilot program.

I just wanted to take a second to talk about some of the vaccine mandates. Are you concerned about the long-term impact like City Hall’s fight with the first responder unions over the mandate will have on your relationship with those departments?

Does there come a time where you have to reconsider or realize/realign (that you) can’t reach consensus here, especially since — and I don’t want this to get lost — but, by and large, the vast majority of these employees did get vaccinated?

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We will always make decisions guided by what’s best for the health and safety of Boston.

We’re in a moment in our country and our democracy where there are strong emotions connected to misinformation that’s being spread, very intentionally, because of politics.

I don’t see this as a fight. Various leaders are doing their best to try to reconcile what it means to lead in this very divided moment, and we might come down on different places on what the responsible way to lead looks like. But there are many issues that we will continue to partner with our municipal unions and institutions across the city on.

So this is one place where we disagree and are continuing the conversation, continuing to be at the table. But unfortunately, this won’t be the last time that we’ll need to discuss COVID with our city workforce, and it’s certainly not the last issue that we will be coming to agreement on with with our city unions.

Do you think there are valid reasons for opposing the vaccine mandate or the mask mandate or is a lot of the opposition we’re hearing like, solely, “trolls in the comments, so to speak?

I think there’s a lot of misinformation being spread about what the policy is saying, in addition to misinformation about vaccines, and the virus, right?

So I don’t know if you followed the City Council hearing yesterday.

At the request of Councilors Frank Baker and Erin Murphy, the council held a hearing last week to examine why Boston remains in a state of emergency. One panel invited to speak included anti-vaccine-mandate advocates, who pushed false claims about the vaccines’ federal approvals.

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It is staggering that there was an official platform given to anti-vax conspiracy theorists, and we are, right —

The policy has clear exemptions for religious purposes. There are medical exemptions as well. So, some of what is being communicated that, you know, this would force people to do something that will harm their health, or go against their religion, is simply false. And it’s irresponsible to be pleading for the absolute right to stay unvaccinated and get to do a job that involves serving the general public every single day.

Are you disappointed with some of how your fellow councilors have responded to this? I mean, a lot of these people are people that you worked with for a couple of years, and I know a couple of them, or at least one of them, have been very outspoken against the policies or approaches or calls, decisions — whatever you want to call them — you’ve made. But are you disappointed?

I will always have the deepest respect for the City Council as an institution and my colleagues on the council as leaders who have been elected by our shared constituents.

I came from the council. I know how important it is for Bostonians to really have that level of direct representation and a place where people can be heard and be directly involved in our government.

Every elected official has to make decisions about what we choose to prioritize and spend our time on and what we choose to elevate into the public conversation. It’s dangerous to elevate some of the misinformation and conspiracy theories that are spilling over from national politics to the local level.

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But I understand the impulse of wanting to make sure that people who are upset have a chance to be heard.

Does that dangerousness apply to what we’ve been seeing happening outside your house?

I am reminded every morning, how important it is for Boston to take strong leadership and to take action in this moment because we’re up against a lot. We’re up against misinformation and a very loud political fringe that wants to put individual conveniences above our collective health and safety.

We’re starting to see little bits and pieces in the news about future (virus) variants or things changing, not obviously substantially Massachusetts yet, but, you know, this is the world we live in now.

How are you balancing that pressure between “the return to normal” while also ensuring that Boston’s public health infrastructure is prepared if there is another surge?

There is no normal anymore. There’s no normal to return to, and we know from history what happens at this point in a pandemic, right? One hundred years ago, by the third year of the pandemic, people were tired of extra restrictions. People were done with the pandemic, and that’s when we saw more spikes and surges.

I’m in regular contact with epidemiologists and other public health experts, just to check in on what the numbers look like and big picture what everyone is thinking about the long term. Every single public health expert tells me that we will likely see another surge next fall and winter. So the pandemic is not done with us.

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We can take actions given what we know at this point, so that future surges don’t become intense emergencies. But we still need to take action. So our goal now is to communicate about public health in a way that is clear and gives some stability as possible for our residents.

I think it’s been stressful and jarring to feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and we’re just waiting for the government to tell us what to do, lurching from one surge to the next. So we have to shift away from that dynamic and get to a point where we help map out what metrics we’re looking at and what points in time we need to add more protections and then can lift them when we’re out of those danger zones again.

So that’s why we’ve been moving towards a metrics- and thresholds-based decision making and just putting that out there instead of picking a date at which we will lift certain protections, being really clear with everyone that is why we need additional protections: It’s for our hospital capacity; it’s to ease strain on our health care system; it’s to reduce community transmission, and these are the numbers that we can track that day to day.

As soon as it’s safe, given these metrics that we’re tracking, then we can see the policies reflect that. And so we’ll continue to move in that direction because the virus will stay with us, and we need to figure out a way to live with it that is more predictable for everyone in our communities.

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You signed an ordinance to divest city funds from the fossil fuel industry by 2025. Last week, we also learned that your administration is launching a municipal harbor planning process with the aim to better protect East Boston from rising sea levels. More broadly speaking, where do you think Boston can really lead as a green city and where can we learn from?

There’s limitless potential for Boston to lead the way on climate, resiliency, and adaptation.

We’re a coastal city. We’re already seeing the impacts of intense storms and flooding and heat. So this is a moment where it’s not only possible to transform our systems, it’s necessary. We have no other choice but to step it up on climate and make sure that we protect the health and well-being of future generations and tap into the great jobs that the green economy brings.

I read The Boston Globe story about your social media accounts and, you know, you might be the first mayor of Boston to be so directly accessible.

For better or worse. (Laughs)

That said, you’ve been, for lack of a better term, maybe more outspoken on your personal social media lately, and I wanted to ask, what’s changed about your stance on Twitter? Is it that one of your staffers is, you know, letting you open up a little bit more or …?

(Laughs)

That was a joke because I was replying to Mary Lou (Akai-Ferguson), who was the campaign manager for our campaign. So she knows how it’s always been me on Twitter. So kind of an inside joke.

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But I mean, I don’t think I’ve (changed). I’m a millennial. I text and tweet. I’ve had Twitter for a long time, and it’s always been me running my Twitter even throughout my City Council days.

On the campaign trail when things got quite busy and the schedule was packed with event and event … it made sense for the team to help pre-draft some tweets that I would approve or edit or sometimes we would change together right before posting. But a lot of it was still me posting directly when I had time. This is the first time since becoming mayor that I have had two accounts.

So that’s what’s changed in some ways. Maybe if it seems like I’m becoming more outspoken, it’s just that more of the formal documenting of what I’m doing in my official capacity as mayor is happening through the @mayorwu account that the team runs. And I still generally approve and edit tweets on that end, but now because the team is running that account, I have @wutrain all to myself again. (Laughs)

Last year’s election was historic and your victory marked an important step toward representation and inclusion in Boston. What, if anything, have you heard from your young constituents about that since you took office and what, if anything, did you say to them?

At this point, one of Wu’s two sons can be heard in the background of the phone call saying something to her.

I think I just heard one of them.

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Wu, laughing, decides to ask her son the question.

What do you think about mama being mayor?

There is a long silence before Wu laughs again.

He’s already too diplomatic.

No comment.

(Laughs) Exactly.

It is one of the best parts of the job to get to spend time with young people and students across our city.

There is so much energy for doing, there’s so much energy for taking bold action, and there’s already so much leadership from our BPS students on where where we need to go as a city.

Yesterday, we were out at the Boston Children’s Winter Festival and I got to meet some of the young volunteers who were helping staff the event and… people are excited. I always find joy in getting to ensure that our young people are seen and valued and see themselves reflected in what happens in our city.

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