On her first day at Harvard Law School, Michelle Wu was struck by a “terrifying and brilliant” professor who taught contract law. When that professor — Elizabeth Warren — ran for the U.S. Senate a couple of years later, Wu showed up at office hours asking how she could help.
Wu, now 35 and a mother of two, announced her run for Boston mayor on Tuesday, in a campaign video available in three languages: English, Mandarin and Spanish.
The news was not necessarily surprising to residents of the city — the Taiwanese American lawyer has served on the city council for seven years and in 2015, was the first woman of color to be elected council president.
With the election more than a year away, Wu has a long runway to make her case against a popular incumbent, Mayor Marty Walsh, who has yet to confirm that he will run for a third term. If she wins, she would be the first-ever woman to lead Boston, a city that has only elected White men to be its mayor. (Among the 25 most populous cities in the country, only Boston and Indianapolis have not elected a woman or person of color to the city’s highest office.)
Wu, who was raised in Chicago and started off college as a biology major, did not grow up expecting to run for office. Her mother’s battle with her mental health took her off a more typical track, as she returned home to care for her family.
That experience of steering her family through that crisis coupled with working for Warren made her realize “how important politics is.”
Boston does seem to be hosting a more progressive streak recently. Wu’s former fellow city council member Ayanna Pressley beat incumbent Michael E. Capuano in 2018 for his congressional seat. Recently, incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey beat the more centrist candidate Joseph P. Kennedy III, marking the first time a member of the famed Kennedy family lost a political race in Massachusetts.
During the Trump presidency, mayors, especially Democrats, of big U.S. cities have gained more prominent national profiles as the leaders of urban centers that often clash with the administration on issues such as sanctuary cities, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and protests following George Floyd’s death in police custody in May.
Wu spoke with The Lily ahead of campaign events heading into the weekend.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Soo Youn: I’m not sure our readers all know you. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Michelle Wu: I am a mom of two boys who are three and five, and I’m someone who growing up, never, ever thought I might be an elected official one day. I’m the daughter of immigrants, and my parents came to the U.S. from Taiwan. The mantra in our house was always to keep your head down, work hard, stay out of trouble. Basically, everything opposite of politics. A lot of, you know, practice piano and violin and all of that, too.
So life changed suddenly, when my mom started struggling with mental illness, pretty seriously about a dozen years ago. I was 23 when I took over raising my two younger sisters and becoming a caregiver for my mom. All of a sudden it became very clear just how much government matters and exactly what it’s like when you most need help but there are lots of barriers standing in the way.
SY: At 23 — had you even graduated from college at that point?
MW: I was working in consulting. I got a call from my sisters that I had to go home immediately. Something was very wrong with our mom. When I went back to the house that I grew up in, she was in the depths of crisis, not sleeping, eating, experiencing delusions and not able to take care of herself for a period of time, much less my two younger sisters.
SY: How old are your sisters?
MW: One is six years younger than me and the other is 12 years younger than me. At the time they were something like 10 and 16.
SY: What was her diagnosis?
MW: So it’s a couple different things. The first diagnosis that we received was late-onset schizophrenia. Later, it was revised as severe depression with psychosis.
She grew up in a culture where you don’t talk about the struggles that you’re going through and you certainly don’t talk about mental illness. There was very much a cultural component to feeling stigmatized and living with that stigma and feeling it, and therefore not wanting to talk to anyone about it or ask for help.
SY: As a consultant weren’t you traveling a lot? Wasn’t it hard to work at that time?
MW: I went back immediately at that point and took leave from my job and realized that this was going to be very intense.
It was such an intense situation that I knew I needed to be there full-time in trying to stabilize the family.
SY: But it must have been hard, giving up a salary like that when you probably did need the income.
MW: It felt like an impossible situation in so many ways. In those moments, there were many days where we just didn’t know how we were going to go on.
I think often how the very systems that are supposed to be there to help us in fact can’t hear people when they most need that help and aren’t built to help to reach everyone.
SY: Were there particular government agencies or government policies that drove that home?
MW: All these experiences directly related to my mom’s care, both the emergency care as well as trying to find mental health care for her in the language that she was most comfortable with, and culturally appropriate and competent, that our insurance covered. It was just a new barrier and headache every single day.
Then, in terms of taking care of the family and trying to get my sisters into the right educational placements. Whether it was fighting to make sure that the schools understood what was happening at home and being able to explain that.
When I moved my family to Boston [from Chicago] with me as I was starting law school, needing to have to go to court and go through a week-long process of making sure that I had the official legal guardianship papers because there was just no way to register my sister for school even though she was here living in the city. It just was hoops to jump through and an incredibly complicated, frustrating system where you just feel invisible and unseen and unheard.
The last big piece of that in terms of government agencies is that when we were still in Chicago, I opened a small teahouse in the city. It had always been my mom’s dream. She always had talked about how one day when we were grown up, she would retire from being a stay-at-home mom and run a little teahouse, and that would be her dream life, when she could really focus on herself.
As suddenly as her mental health crisis came on, part of me thought, if I can help get this going and work with her, then maybe she would come out of it, just as quickly as it had happened.
I had read the entire municipal code related to restaurants, and still it made no sense. Here I was, someone who could speak English fluently, graduated with a degree and who had even worked for a little bit in business. It was nearly impossible to navigate. Then when I talked to business owners all down the street on either side of us, everyone had had the same experience.
SY: One of the criticisms that has or would be leveled toward you is that you’re not from Boston. You didn’t grow up there. What changes would you like to see?
MW: My sisters graduated from schools in Boston, and my mom’s health-care situation has been ongoing in Boston. [Wu’s mother lives with her family.]
I wasn't lucky enough to be born in Boston. But I know from my family’s history of immigration over multiple generations that it's important to create a city where everyone can be welcome and where everyone can find a home.
SY: What’s most important to you?
MW: I would say my top priorities include education, closing the racial wealth gap, planning for our city [and] a public-health infrastructure that truly keeps everyone safe and healthy.
SY: I was wondering where you stand on reparations.
MW: We have seen over since the founding of our country that Black Americans have been systemically, and through policy, marginalized and deprived of the opportunity to pass on wealth generationally and to access security, right? Housing security and stability and job security. So, yes, I support reparations. I support policies that we can take at the city level to ensure that we are prioritizing equity and using the powers that we have in city government to reverse what has already been carried out through policy.
SY: You’re challenging a popular incumbent, or at least someone whose gotten attention on the national stage. What particularly about his administration has been problematic for you that you’d want to challenge, or you feel that you need to challenge?
MW: We are in an unprecedented moment. From this pandemic, the economic crisis, this national reckoning on systemic racism — it is impossible to ignore how much business as usual has been failing Bostonians. This isn’t about a single person or a particular office, but the fact that communities have been facing crises and calling for bold action for generations. In this moment, it’s not just possible to reimagine our systems, but absolutely necessary to do it.