Wu Do You Love?

Why Michelle Wu’s vote for Bill Linehan as city council president is hardly the apocalypse.

You might be surprised to hear this, but historically there is very little evidence that significant numbers of the electorate will alter their vote based on who the incumbent supported for city council president.

But you never know. Progressive activists are very, very angry at councilor-elect Michelle Wu, who last week decided to support Bill Linehan for that post. Linehan—whose district includes Wu—now apparently has the seven votes he needs.

This is very upsetting to progressives, many of whom supported Wu. Linehan is to them a South Boston dinosaur, who marches in the gay-excluding parade, tried to redistrict himself into an easier win over progressive challenger Suzanne Lee, and suggested that Linda Dorcena Forry not be allowed to emcee the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

All true. But in fact Linehan is more a symbol than an actual conservative monster; I would argue that he is less conservative than Sal LaMattina, who I thought might win the presidency, and perhaps even Stephen Murphy, who is currently holding the gavel. Linehan is clumsier with his public image than most politicians, but I really don’t find him to be as retrograde in his impulses as… well, as others who might hold that seat.

There is other bad symbolism at work here as well. Wu is the only woman and the only racial minority supporting Linehan. But let’s be fair: there are only two such in the opposing coalition (Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley—Charles Yancey was flying solo).

Also, it’s been presented by some as a choice between Linehan and Jackson; my impression is that Jackson wasn’t going to get to seven votes (in part because he antagonized folks like Murphy, Tim McCarthy, and Michael Flaherty by supporting their opponents). If that’s right, the choice was Linehan or Matt O’Malley—who, although he has solid progressive support, is hardly an Arroyo-esque liberal.

More problematic symbolism: this is Wu’s first vote. Plus, she’s the only woman or minority among the four new incoming councilors.

And, of course, the council presidency is a largely symbolic post itself. As is the whole council, to some degree, when you get right down to it.

None of this means progressives shouldn’t be expressing their displeasure with Wu. I certainly think that the council will be less independent, less open and transparent, and more cautious under Linehan than it would have been under O’Malley.

And progressives probably need to accept that Wu is not, at heart, a real progressive. There was never much reason to think she was (she’s a former small business owner with a law degree who focuses on streamlining business regulations). But she certainly courted the left, and they heard what they wanted to hear and saw what they wanted to see.

The bottom line is that the city council is not a progressive body, and is not a diverse body, and as I’ve noted before, this year’s supposed big-change election did nothing to change that.

The best to hope for is more independence in action from the council under a new, less politically controlling mayor. We’ll see over time whether that happens; the selection of Linehan is not a positive sign for that, but it’s hardly the apocalyptic omen some are taking it as.

  • Steve Abraira

    If I hear one more asshole politician call themselves a “progressive”, I’m going to punch them in the face

  • Steve Abraira

    Btw Dave, keep up the streak of wrong predictions!

  • Joel Wool

    I am strongly displeased by the idea that Bill Linehan may be council president, disagree with the decision, and am quoted in two news outlets saying as much, but think this scenario has gotten out of control. Michelle’s explanation for the vote – that, after speaking with every councilor about what they wanted in a president, and for those who were trying, what they wanted to do in the presidency, she felt Linehan’s opinions on the role of the presidency would be the most beneficial – was acceptable to me. I’m not going to dig much into the ideas here. It’s not a POLICY agreement with Bill Linehan; rather, the idea that more budgetary control would move to councilors who chaired the various policy committees, instead of sitting with the top of leadership. I don’t necessarily think the risk is worth it, but it’s a legitimate argument.

    There is a separate question on the symbolic impact of making Linehan the face of the council. There was a clear mistake here – she has said openly that she expected disagreement but was surprised by the degree of hurt. I think it’s worth weighing carefully what the responsibility of an elected official to factor the symbolic value of decisions into their calculations. Linehan’s had some serious gaffes in the media and all can hope he is stepping out of what seems to be entrenched homophobia — as a number of other politicians representing South Boston and Dorchester leading up to the fight for marriage equality.

    I view terms like “progressive” as fairly empty, in the same way I few “sustainability” as a blanket concept that only has substance if the issue-areas it is supposed to cover have meaning themselves and are inclusive.

    The idea that someone interested in law or removing barriers to small business is not progressive is more than a little irritating to me. We need people who are willing to support the arts, support equitable distribution of funding, support health and safety standards and the enforcement of existing regulations while also ensuring that there aren’t ridiculous barriers to opening small businesses or selling food.