IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu says she’s not in ‘the typical mold of a Boston politician’

The daughter of immigrants and mom of young kids wants to be the first Asian American mayor of the city.
Image: Michelle Wu Runs For Mayor
Michelle Wu speaks with the media after announcing she is running for mayor of Boston in Roslindale, Mass., on Sept. 15. Jonathan Wiggs / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Michelle Wu’s family avoided talking politics when she was growing up.

“My parents both immigrated from Taiwan. My grandparents had fled mainland China during the civil war. We never discussed [politics] at the dinner table,” the Boston mayoral candidate told NBC Asian America.

To her elders, “politics was corruption, politics was fear and famine, and we were supposed to keep our heads down and study hard and get a good, stable, high-paying job to support the family,” she said. 

Looking ahead at her future, “politics was not supposed to be in the cards.”

But politics ultimately became a central part of Wu’s life: In 2013, at age 28, she became the first Asian American woman elected to the Boston City Council; in 2016, the first woman of color to serve as council president. Now, at 36, Wu is a top candidate to become Boston’s next mayor. 

“I recognize the ways in which I’m not the typical mold of a Boston politician, but it’s really not just gender and ethnicity or age necessarily, although [it’s] all of those things,” she said. 

A June Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found Wu in a dead heat with acting Mayor Kim Janey, who took over in March when Marty Walsh became the federal labor secretary. Wu had 23 percent support among likely Sept. 14 preliminary election voters to 22 percent for Janey, the first Black woman to lead the city. More than one-fifth of voters polled said they were still undecided. The top two finishers in the field of mayoral candidates will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.

“I recognize the ways in which I’m not the typical mold of a Boston politician, but it’s really not just gender and ethnicity or age necessarily, although [it’s] all of those things,” Wu said. 

In Wu’s campaign — which she announced in September in videos she narrated in English, Mandarin and Spanish — “I talk a lot about schools, health and wealth,” she said. “These are the ways in which city government really can impact residents’ day-to-day lives. And the inequities that we see across the city can be — must be closed — through our action on these fronts.”

Wu grew up in Chicago, moving to Massachusetts to study at Harvard University. (Her parents wanted her to become a doctor, and she tried majoring in biology before they compromised on an economics degree.) 

She was just starting a career in consulting in Boston when her mother began showing increasing signs of mental illness. Wu returned to Illinois to help her mom and care for her younger sisters, and she tried her hand at opening a café. She soon got into Harvard Law — where she would study under Elizabeth Warren — and moved her mom and the girls back to Massachusetts with her. 

Her mother now lives downstairs from Wu, husband Conor Pewarski and their two young sons, Blaise and Cass. Wu has spoken and written openly about how stepping in as caretaker of her mother and sisters affected her.

“I’ve been driven in public service by knowing what it’s like to stay overnight with her in the emergency room waiting [for] a mental health bed to open up, or fighting for my sisters to have the supports they needed for their education, or scrambling to navigate the bureaucracy of city government in trying to open a small family business,” she said.

Equity issues figure prominently in how Wu sees herself, her campaign and the city of Boston. 

“So many of us [have known] our whole lives what it feels like to be both invisible and also always sticking out, but not seen for the person you are, [and] judged and discriminated against simply because of appearance,” Wu said.

Unlike other candidates, Wu notably favors rent stabilization, which she says will help keep people of color from being forced out of Boston. She’s also spoken out in favor of free public transit

“We put forward a food justice plan because many of our food [workers], particularly from immigrant communities, were the first to be affected with the economic impacts of the pandemic,” said Wu, whose platform on the food sector also includes raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick leave and boosting access to healthy, locally sourced foods, including in government purchasing for public school lunch programs. 

Her environmental and city-planning vision also touches on issues that disproportionately affect lower-income Bostonians, including addressing air quality in highway-locked Chinatown, which she pegs as “the most polluted census tract anywhere in Massachusetts.”

While polling shows Wu with significant support among Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, voters, they are a true minority in the city she wants to lead: Census figures show less than 10 percent of Bostonians identify as Asian, compared to more than 50 percent who identify as white and about 25 percent as Black. 

Wu is only the second Asian American, and the first AAPI woman, to serve on Boston’s City Council. For her, embracing her Asian heritage while trying to connect with voters of all backgrounds takes different forms.

When six spa workers of Asian descent were shot in an Atlanta-area rampage in March — intensifying the fears of Asians who had been scapegoated, targeted and shunned during the Covid-19 pandemic — Wu organized a virtual town hall so people could collectively process what had happened. What started as a small Zoom meeting grew to a gathering of more than 100 people representing AAPI communities across the state. 

“So many of us [have known] our whole lives what it feels like to be both invisible and also always sticking out, but not seen for the person you are, [and] judged and discriminated against simply because of appearance,” she said.

When her family was harassed with racist taunts when she was a kid, Wu’s parents’ focus was on “just ignoring it, keeping your head down, and working harder ... and now’s the moment for us to speak out,” she said. “It’s time to break the cycle of invisibility.”

“We need more working parents in leadership roles. It makes a difference when moms are in charge, and for me, being a mom and raising two boys in this moment in our city and in our country’s history gives me an urgency to make sure that we’re getting things done,” Wu said. “You put a Boston public school mom in charge [of] our city, and we will see changes to match the scale and urgency of our community’s needs.”

As much as being the daughter of Asian immigrants has shaped Wu’s story, so has being in politics as a mom of young children — one who’s “presided over meetings with mashed-up banana on my jacket, because that’s what the toddler had for breakfast that morning” — and it figures prominently in how she talks about herself and her campaign. 

“We need more working parents in leadership roles. It makes a difference when moms are in charge, and for me, being a mom and raising two boys in this moment in our city and in our country’s history gives me an urgency to make sure that we’re getting things done,” Wu said. “You put a Boston public school mom in charge [of] our city, and we will see changes to match the scale and urgency of our community’s needs.”