Does the Democratic Party Want Swagger? Or Does It Want Michelle Wu?
Last year, a few days after it was clear that Eric Adams would become the next mayor of New York, he addressed a crowd in Brooklyn, announcing with a signature assurance, that when you looked at him you were “seeing the future of the Democratic Party.” The buzz in Washington, D.C., suggested that this was not delusional. Eric Adams was a Black former cop, keen on rectifying inequities in the criminal justice system, liked by the elites he courted and charismatic. After eight years of a mayor who seemed to regard fun the way the vintner looks upon the spotted lantern fly, the impishness of someone who slid down a pole in a firehouse — as Mayor Adams did during his first week in office — was almost thrilling.
But there are signs that disillusion has set in, perhaps owing to his gaffes, the dubious staffing choices, reversals, the perception that his enthusiasm for a good time exceeds his interest in governance, that he lacks a grand vision for the city’s future. Results from a poll conducted the last week of May, while hardly conclusive, must surely be alarming for the mayor’s staff: More than half of all respondents maintained that the city was headed in “the wrong direction.”
Just this week, the mayor enraged advocates for the homeless with his suggestion that the city could house a new influx of migrants, many of them displaced by the state of Texas, onto cruise ships, as if they were contestants in a perverse turn of “The Price is Right.” A few days later we learned that his administration was likely to retreat from expanding the city’s preschool program to include all 3-year-olds.
Repeatedly calling himself the “get stuff done” mayor, the “nightlife” mayor, the mayor with “swagger,” Mr. Adams has, most of all, demonstrated the limits of masculine bluster as a liberal political style. By contrast, we might take measure of what is happening in Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu is operating in a distinctly different register and quietly achieving things without all the wasted energy of self-reference and branding.
A child of Taiwanese immigrants, she came to the office last year with a remarkable two-thirds of the vote, the backing of a strong multiethnic coalition, a moving biography and platform geared toward equity. Having taken charge of her siblings’ care while she was an undergraduate at Harvard and her mother suffered with mental illness, she went on to Harvard Law School, where she was a protégée of Elizabeth Warren.
Progressive but not aggressively ideological, she also has the advantages of youth. At 37, as a former member of Boston’s city council, she isn’t saddled with a decades-long history of transactional decision making and self-interested calculation. Neither is she a familiar technocrat in the mold of Gina Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor and current commerce secretary.
Mayor Wu lives in a two-family house with her husband and young children in the solidly middle-class neighborhood of Roslindale. Boston does not have a mayoral residence, and earlier in the pandemic her house was regularly besieged by vaccine opponents, which led her to file an ordinance prohibiting protests outside private homes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. After intense debate, the city council approved what was considered a very controversial measure.
“Her leadership style is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and an expert on local government, told me. “She’s remarkably un-Boston in that she’s not bombastic. She doesn’t throw her weight around. She has a serene confidence and a nuance around policy that people are responding to. She looks like the adult in the room.”
Unlike decades of predecessors, Ms. Wu does not sit down with real estate developers as a matter of course. She skips major ribbon cuttings and groundbreaking ceremonies, and she is working on a development review process that would prioritize broad urban planning and consider building and construction initiatives later, a sequence long absent in Boston, New York and other major cities, where deference to real-estate interests always seems to come first. It is worth noting that she is the first woman elected to the office in Boston’s history.
As it is in New York, the city’s transit system falls under the auspices of a state authority, but Ms. Wu has wielded her influence to make big changes, pushing for a monthlong shut down of the Orange line so that major repairs could be made to a portion of the city’s train system after a fire in July caused a passenger to jump out of a train car, off a bridge and into the Mystic River. On Mayor Wu’s first day in office, she moved to expand an experimental program that would make three bus lines, running largely through Black and brown communities, free for two years.
Of course there are caveats to these successes, and Eric Adams can claim victories of his own, even if they have largely been incremental. He campaigned primarily with an eye on public safety, and both murders and shootings are down his first eight and a half months in office. Boston also emerged from the height of the pandemic in much better fiscal shape than New York. The city’s revenue comes largely from property taxes, meaning that it was less susceptible to the sort of depleting vagaries brought on by the Covid crisis. New York’s population is more than 10 times the size of Boston’s, and it was greatly affected by plummeting tourism. Boston’s relative stability meant that it could direct federal funds coming from the American Rescue Plan toward more transformational objectives.
Like every politician who has come before her, Ms. Wu will alienate people and make mistakes. But, as Larry DiCara, a former member of the Boston’s city council and now a powerful lawyer in town, put it, she has a “favor, bank, political capital, whatever you want to call it,” that will allow her missteps. “She is the most cerebral mayor we’ve had since Kevin White,” he said, referring to Boston’s mayor in the 1970s. “Kevin was brilliant and distracted,” he continued. “Michelle is brilliant and very focused.”
“You all have a thing down there of not knowing where your mayor is for dinner. We know where our mayor is. She’s home with her kids.”