The Last Mayor of Boston
Progressives are gleefully heralding their transformation of a great American city into something unrecognizable.
A Michelle Wu supporter is pictured wearing a sticker on his forehead during an election party that was held at The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street in Boston on Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
As everybody was watching New Jersey and Virginia, the voters of Boston quietly carried out what the New York Times insists was a “historic” election. With only 28.9 percent of the city’s registered voters bothering to participate, Taiwanese-Chicagoan, double Harvard grad (bachelor’s and law school), sometime management consultant, and Elizabeth Warren protege Michelle Wu was tapped as the city’s first elected mayor who is neither white nor male. (City Council President Kim Janey, who has been serving as acting mayor since Marty Walsh stepped down to serve as Biden’s secretary of Labor, is black.)
In something of a landslide (64.2 to 38.5 percent), the cosmopolitan progressive beat the (only slightly) more moderate Boston-born Annissa Essaibi George, a Polish-Tunisian city councillor and early Ayanna Pressley ally who was raised Catholic in Dorchester and spent 13 years as a teacher at East Boston High School. The election was historic, the Times says, because it saw “two women of color vying for mayor in a city whose politics have been long dominated by white men.”
“Women of color” is (of course) a meaningless phrase, especially here: Essaibi George is the same color as Thomas Menino, the city’s only Italian mayor. It simply signifies that neither candidate came from any of the communities that have historically defined Boston and dominated its politics. Though it may be impolitic to say so, that’s a shame.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am infinitely more offended by the fact that Michelle Wu is from Chicago than I am by the fact that her parents are from Taiwan. Like the state’s first black governor, Deval Patrick, she only came from the Windy City to attend a hoity-toity school (for him, Milton Academy; for her, Harvard College). These people are outsiders, not because of the color of their skin but because—bear with me here—they are from outside.
Though we do not (and should not) have hard-and-fast rules about these things, there’s something to be said for a kind of radical localism in municipal and even state elections. There is a crucial degree of familiarity with a community and its problems that can only be attained by actually living there, and the longer the better. The politician who has been formed by a place’s environment and traditions from childhood onward has both a practical advantage and a personal stake that the outsider does not. The right cannot swear off of identity politics altogether: Who you are matters.
The New York Times‘ op-ed on the election, by Boston journalist Eileen McNamara, was titled “Boston Isn’t Boston Anymore. Michelle Wu’s Election Proves That” until somebody quietly changed it to “Michelle Wu Proved That Boston Isn’t the Same Old Boston Anymore.” The Cambridge-born McNamara meant, of course, that Boston isn’t that backwards, racist cesspool she read about in the ’70s while she was away at Barnard and Columbia. Now, it’s the sunny kind of place that elects forward-thinking Taiwanese girlbosses of the professional-managerial class to head up its city government.
Of course, the “same old Boston” of McNamara’s memory never actually existed. Then as now, the racial narrative, far from actually dominating the reality of the city, was pushed as either a distraction from or a misunderstanding of the class narrative. The conflict remains between upper-class progressives imposing a utopian vision with little concern for the actual city they seek to remake, and middle- to lower-class moderates who simply want their home to be preserved—a dream directly, if unintentionally, rendered impossible by the schemings of the former.
A breakdown of results by voting wards bears this out. Hometown politician Essaibi George carried communities that have historically been working class and still house large contingents of old-guard Bostonians who have not yet fled the new city, including East Boston (where she taught), Charlestown, South Boston, West Roxbury, and Dorchester (where she was raised). Wu carried everywhere else, and owes her victory especially to wealthy areas like Jamaica Plain and the cluster of dense yuppie neighborhoods in the center of the city.
For a long time, a strong mayoralty was the primary defense for people from places like South Boston against the predations of people from places like Beacon Hill. Throughout the long, intermittent reign of the great urban populist James Michael Curley (the 41st, 43rd, 45th, and 48th mayor of Boston from 1914-1918, 1922-1926, 1930-1934, and 1946-1950) Yankee liberals—Brahmin and suburban WASP Republicans opposed to working-class, ethnic ward politicians and the undesirables they represented—undertook multiple efforts both to restrain the power of the executive and to prevent a popular mayor from being reelected. Despite strict new laws and an antagonistic establishment—they even sent him to prison twice on trumped-up charges—Curley kept coming back. And every time he came back, Curley improved transit, schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public amenities in the city’s working class neighborhoods.
Contrast that with Michelle Wu’s agenda, as presented by the Boston Globe. On education, which has become perhaps the most prominent issue in local politics across the nation, the mayor-elect’s banner idea is to extend government child care to everyone, “including babies.” This would, of course, just enable the further integration of parents into the workforce and encourage the further disintegration of home life, while also presenting the opportunity for indoctrination at an even younger age. Her priority on the economy is that “more women and entrepreneurs of color get contracts.” Spectacular. She has big plans for racial justice and police reform, which is an effort demanded by national, aggressive pressure campaigns far more than local need. And of course, on that all-important Bostonian issue of “climate change” Mayor-elect Wu has released a 49-page rundown of her plan “to commit to citywide carbon neutrality by 2040, have the city run on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and achieve a net-zero municipal footprint by 2024.” Her bright idea is solar.
Your city could be next. When you sacrifice localism, you lose populism; when you lose populism, you get screwed. Politics becomes not about securing the conditions for communal flourishing, but about hitting the abstract planks of a national platform—a platform that professes to serve people without ever taking them into account. Progressivism thrives when our cities lose their inward focus, their sense of themselves and devotion to their own people.
Boston isn’t Boston anymore. Michelle Wu’s election proves that.