After months of speculation, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu made it official Tuesday: She’s running for mayor in 2021, possibly against the incumbent, Marty Walsh, and possibly not, if Walsh doesn’t run for reelection. (It's possible, for example, that if Joe Biden wins the presidency, he'll tap Walsh for a post in his administration.)
So, does Wu have a shot? There’s reason to think she does — but also reason to be skeptical, especially if Walsh does seek a third term. A rundown follows.
Take Her Seriously
She’s an electoral force. In 2019, Wu topped the ticket in Boston’s at-large City Council race with 21 percent of the citywide vote. (Voters could back up to four candidates, from a field of eight.) She also finished first in 2017, winning 24 percent of the vote, ahead of now-Rep. Ayanna Pressley. In 2015, Wu finished second, just behind Pressley, and in 2013, her inaugural run for office, Wu almost edged out Pressley for the number one spot. Boston’s municipal elections have low turnout these days, especially when there’s not a mayoral contest. But among the city’s active voters, Wu has an impressive base of support.
She’s a master at picking her spots. In 2019, as the MBTA prepared to hike fares despite months of high-profile meltdowns, Wu wrote a Boston Globe op-ed arguing that the T should be free and then led an ongoing campaign to protest those hikes, branding the events on Twitter with the hashtags #unfairhikes and #BostonTParty. It was a rare example of a Boston elected official speaking out, forcefully, on an issue of statewide interest, and it highlighted Wu’s knack for homing in on topics that voters care passionately about. Another example: Her lead role crafting legislation regulating short-term rentals in Boston, which prompted Airbnb to identify her as a nemesis — a move that backfired for the company, while also boosting Wu’s political profile.
Massachusetts politics don’t work like they used to. True, it’s been a long, long time since an incumbent Boston mayor lost an election (more on that in a bit). But assumptions about what’s permissible in Massachusetts politics have been evaporating over the past few years. Incumbency used to be sacrosanct, but then Seth Moulton ousted John Tierney, and Ayanna Pressley crushed Mike Capuano. Kennedys didn’t used to lose races in Massachusetts, either — but as you may have heard, one just did. The rules of #mapoli are being rewritten in real time, and as a great former Bostonian once said, anything is possible.
The Markeyverse is already becoming the Wuniverse. Joe Kennedy’s aforementioned loss to Ed Markey was driven, in large part, by the passionate support Markey received from young progressives, not just at the polls but also with organizing and fundraising. Among them: 16-year-old Calla Walsh of Cambridge, who was a co-founder and lead organizer of Students for Markey — and is now a Wu volunteer.
“Michelle is one of the few politicians in Massachusetts who is proposing solutions that match the scale of the crises we face,” Walsh said in a Twitter DM, citing Wu’s calls to abolish T fares, dismantle the Boston Planning and Development Agency, and create a Green New Deal for Boston.
“We saw with the Ed Markey campaign how, when young people are given leadership and empowerment...we can transform the political landscape in Massachusetts,” she added. “I’ve jumped in as a volunteer because, even with over a year until the election, we need to get on the ground organizing as soon as possible.”
Before you point it out: No, Walsh can’t vote in the 2021 mayoral election. She won’t be old enough, and she doesn’t live in the city. Still, she can leverage the network she built for Markey to motivate people who are able to cast a ballot, and to boost fundraising and online engagement as well. Judging from the Markeyverse activity on my Twitter timeline the day of Wu’s announcement, there are plenty of other young political activists who plan to do the same thing.
Her candidacy has a terrific storyline. Wu would be the first female mayor and first mayor of color, in a city where Americans of Irish ancestry — with the notable exception of the late, great, Italian American Tom Menino — have dominated politics for the past century. That could help Wu bring voters interested in expanding political representation to the polls — with plenty of help from the media, which loves both a competitive race and a compelling narrative.
History is not on her side. Yes, the rules that govern Massachusetts politics are changing. But — with all due respect to the Kennedys — it was less surprising to see Ed Markey win the Democratic Senate primary than it would be to see Marty Walsh seek reelection and lose. An incumbent Boston mayor hasn’t been defeated since 1949, after Mayor James Michael Curley got back from prison (!) and then insulted his replacement, John Hynes, who got his revenge by taking Curley’s job. It just doesn’t happen; as a rule, it’s not even close. In the 2017 mayoral race, Walsh beat Tito Jackson by 31 points. During Menino’s two decades in office, no challenger got closer than 15 points.
She doesn't have enough money. Walsh’s most recent campaign-finance report shows he has just over $5.5 million cash on hand. Wu’s total? Just under $350,000. Yes, progressive activists from across the state and maybe even the country could help Wu close that fundraising gap. And yes, deep pockets alone are no guarantee of political success (looking at you, Jeb Bush!). Still, that’s a massive disadvantage for Wu as she begins her run.
Boston’s demographics are a wild card. In a race against Walsh, how many of Boston’s voters of color would gravitate to Wu out of a belief that — as Pressley put it during her challenge to Capuano — representation matters? There’s no way to know. Recent census data puts Boston’s racial composition at 45 percent white, 25 percent Black, 20 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 10 percent Asian. Black and Hispanic/Latino voters might relish the thought of electing a candidate of color. Conversely, they might not be as enthused as they would be if the candidate were Black or Hispanic/Latino. Questions of demography, race, and identity will get even more complex if Wu’s colleague Andrea Campbell — who's Black, and said to be considering a mayoral bid of her own — enters the fray.
On COVID-19, Walsh has been strong. While Gov. Charlie Baker gets high marks for his handling of the pandemic, Walsh has been, on balance, more aggressive. For example, he ordered mandatory masking a month before Baker did, and Boston’s numbers have been better than those from many other cities for months. That’s not to say that Walsh’s response is above criticism — see, for example, Wu’s recent assessment of how he's managed COVID relief funds. But at this point, it’s hard to suggest the mayor hasn’t taken the pandemic seriously.
Young people don't vote in municipal elections. The Markeyverse proved that youth is no barrier to getting incredibly passionate about a U.S. Senate race, but a mayoral contest is something else entirely. As a rule, younger voters are far less likely to vote in municipal elections than older voters are, and Boston is no exception. If Wu can’t change that dynamic, her path to victory becomes significantly more difficult.