City Council Candidate Chat: Michelle Wu
David S. Bernstein: You started running for an at-large seat late last year, before it was known that there would be openings. Why?
Michelle Wu: I’ve seen first-hand from my family experiences that city government has such a huge impact on daily lives: as the legal guardian for my younger sister, as a local restaurant owner, taking care of my mom. Then, having worked in City Hall, I’ve seen that when you have good ideas you can really get a lot done in city government, relatively quickly. I have always believed that Boston is a city of resources, and basically I’m running because I want to connect resources to families. That’s been my driving force since December. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but what I talk to people about on the campaign trail has been the same.
What have you done in city government that you saw have an effect?
I worked for Mayor [Tom] Menino on restaurant permitting and food trucks. At the end of my time in City Hall, I had created a guide called the Restaurant Road Map, still on the City of Boston website, that explains all of the permits involved from start to finish, all the fees, all the contact phone numbers. The mayor hosted a workshop with all the department heads, so that real aspiring entrepreneurs could ask questions about the process. It’s on the website in English, Spanish, and Chinese, so that immigrants can have access, too. I’m very proud of getting all of the permit applications and instructions online by the end of my time in City Hall as well, which I think is just a huge step for people who might not be able to afford taking a day off work to plan their new venture, to be able at least to start thinking about it. And the food trucks, too. I’m glad to see the fruits of that effort.
What’s your favorite food truck?
Bon Me has a very special place in my heart because when we put on the food truck challenge we selected three winners: Bon Me, Momogoose, and Clover. Momogoose and Clover were both expanding their operations, but Bon Me was a complete startup at that point. It was just an idea, and today they have I think three trucks and a brick-and-mortar restaurant, which has brought a lot of jobs to Boston and the region. And they have great food.
You had a busy year last year: you finished law school, you worked on the Elizabeth Warren campaign, and you got married. Had you been thinking all along that you were building toward running for political office?
It was really the process of working on the Elizabeth Warren campaign and being out in the community. I was the constituency coordinator for the campaign, so my job was to coordinate outreach to all constituency groups —communities of color, LGBT community, veterans, women. Many of these groups are not as traditionally involved in politics, but when you take politics out to the community and meet people where they are, they have so much to say, and they want to participate. That was an incredibly powerful experience.
You talk about your experience with your younger sister, and how that’s informed your view on the schools. How can you be sure your experience isn’t anecdotal, that it resonates with other people’s experience?
I went on a tour of eight or nine different schools at the end of this past school year, to hear directly from principals and teachers about the challenges they are facing. I’m always out trying to hear from parents, what challenges they are seeing, what they would like to see improved or different. There are a couple of key takeaways. One is that Boston has a very diverse portfolio of school options, and many great options in there, but it’s hard to get information about schools. The process of sorting through them is very time-intensive, often reliant on word-of mouth. If we just made it a little bit easier to access the information, maybe a website that would help you sort and filter by what’s most important for your child, that would make parents’ lives easier right away. There is an issue of quality, too. A good starting point is what many schools have done, which is partnerships. My sister, when she was at the Eliot School in the North End, got to go through the woodworking program at the North Bennett Street School. They got to put on those thigh-high rubber boots and go out in the harbor and test water quality. All of that funded by outside partners. However, each principal that I talked to said, “this is something that I take on on my own time; it’s time that takes me out of the classroom.” We should have some sort of district-level support so that every single principal has a starting point in building some of these relationships. I’d love to see a school expo, where the schools could come and present what they’re interested in doing, the community partners could come meet those principals, and start those relationships right away.
You sound like someone who likes to identify practical ways to make a difference. The City Council can’t always do that. Are you concerned you might be headed for some frustration with what you can actually do with the office?
My goal is always to have in mind the big picture, long-term, ideal solution, and be working toward that, but in the meantime identify little things that can be done to make people’s lives better immediately. On Monday, when there were 50 days left until the preliminary election, I released a list of 50 ideas for Boston families—everything from schools to parks to voting to small business. As I visited the neighborhoods and presented some of these ideas, people responded with different ideas. If my only role is to help shape the conversation, and bring some of the ideas that I’m hearing in the neighborhoods into the public sphere, I think that will be a positive contribution.
That’s a nice gimmick. How did you put those ideas together? And how do you prioritize 50 ideas?
The point was to start a conversation about the many ways in which Boston could take small steps to make life better for families immediately. Many of the ideas came from the eight months that I’ve been on the campaign trail, being out and about. The school tours, visits to neighborhood associations, tours of senior centers, and different non-profits. Everybody who’s doing the work on the ground already has so many ideas about how to support their work, and take it one step further.
Everybody who campaigns citywide ends up learning more about parts of the city they might not have been as familiar with. Any examples of something you learned, about a neighborhood or part of the city, that you didn’t know before?
Even in little pockets there is such incredible diversity. We were door-knocking in South Boston a few weekends ago, and in one single precinct, I got to speak four different languages to voters.
What languages do you speak?
English, Mandarin, Spanish, and my French is rusty, but it was enough to get by.
Do you find Boston different from Chicago?
Boston has everything that I loved about Chicago: very strong neighborhoods, strong sense of community and family. But additionally, we have this overarching connection to our history. And an even deeper connection to the very local in Boston. As I go around, I meet people who volunteer time every single month to talk about three streets in their neighborhood, or a park that they spend time cleaning up on their own.
The other way to describe what you’re talking about is parochialism: I only care about my little area, and I’m not so concerned about your little area.
It’s a fine line. But the key piece to me is that each of these little areas is so diverse. Every single one has been very welcoming, and people have been very eager to talk about ideas that permeate citywide. Every neighborhood’s issues are unique and specific, but there are over-arching ideas that resonate throughout the city.
You are aware that we already have, in one of the four at-large seats, a minority woman from Chicago? You really think there’s room for two?
[Laughs] You’re imposing quotas now?
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.