Power Lunch: Michelle Wu

Boston’s new city council president reflects on her 2016 agenda, facing criticism, and balancing power and motherhood.


Photographs by Ken Richardson

When Michelle Wu became a city councilor at large at age 28, she was dubbed a rising political star—until, that is, she supported old-school pol Bill Linehan for council president and lost many progressives’ goodwill. That risky move is now paying off. With crucial support from Linehan’s council faction, Wu announced last November that she’d lined up the votes to succeed him. She was named council president on January 4. Erick Trickey met Wu, 31, for lunch at Shōjō, in Chinatown, to talk about her rise to power and her plans for the new term.

Why did you run for council president?

After the election, I realized my track record of publishing weekly city council notes and pushing for changes to our online streaming so that more people can follow what’s happening week to week on the council—that’s what I wanted to see from the next council president. So I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Two more women were just elected to the council, and you and Ayanna Pressley were the top vote-getters. Are you all tapping the same support base?

Across the city, there’s energy for new ideas, fresh thinking, and a focus on what families are going through. Having a representative and reflective city government body is the best way to make sure all voices are heard.

What was it like to get criticism from progressives for supporting Bill Linehan?

It was a very difficult time. I really learned the importance of not just making a decision, but communicating it. Over the past two years, we passed legislation that brought paid parental leave to the city. We unanimously voted for protection for immigrant communities. We passed a diesel-reduction ordinance regulating city vehicles. We’ve shown we can accomplish progressive goals.

What do you most want to accomplish in 2016?

Many of my colleagues want to make sure that the city is creating housing and addressing the affordable-housing crisis. I imagine we’ll replicate some of the innovations in different pockets of the city, exploring ideas like land trusts, thinking about the city’s parcels and how to seed affordable housing, and public-private partnerships to make sure that prospective homebuyers can compete with bids from developers who pay in cash.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s eminent-domain powers are up for renewal in April. Has it had those powers for too long?

Urban-renewal powers are granted in a certain geographic area, so we need to consider each area individually. The South End, which still very freshly remembers the scars of urban renewal, is pretty opposed to renewal. Then I’ve heard from residents in Charlestown who want to see more development and feel this could facilitate that.

Should all Boston police officers wear body cameras on patrol?

Yes. They’re an important tool for accountability and building trust. Having that unbiased record of law enforcement and community interaction benefits both sides. The tricky part is how to balance accountability with civil liberty. When do you turn the camera on and off? What situations require notification and consent? Who gets to access the footage?

Last March, there was chatter on Twitter when you brought your 11-week-old son, Blaise, to an Olympics hearing. Do you make decisions about balancing motherhood and your job with the sense that the public may notice?

I’m always honest about how hard it is to juggle everything. His slot at daycare hadn’t opened up, but I had a job to do. Some said it was disrespectful to the institution, and that if I couldn’t balance motherhood and working, I should consider resigning. These are things you don’t expect to hear in 2016. Constituents go through difficult struggles with work-life balance. That’s why we need reforms like paid parental leave and more affordable childcare. Our country does a pretty horrible job of supporting working parents.

The paid-parental-leave law you sponsored applied only to nonunion city employees. Does it have any impact beyond that?

Yes. The discussion with Mayor Walsh and his administration was always about how to do the most that we can do immediately and then expand it as much as we can. It sets the tone, and it creates a new default for what acceptable working conditions are for every round of collective bargaining after this. Mayor Walsh has said that he’s very committed to expanding this to all of the city’s employees.

How big a role do you think the council’s questions played in stopping the Olympic bid?

I think the city council’s role was crucial to giving residents a voice. We highlighted the concerns we’d heard around the financial guarantee and impact on neighborhoods, and that the International Olympic Committee would ask for a blanket authorization to make major changes in land use and zoning. I’m proud that the council’s voice was very strong.

Late-night T service might be cut. What’s your reaction?

Having reliable and affordable public transportation is fundamental to so many across the city. We need hard conversations about how to properly fund it. [But] I don’t buy the argument that late-night T service should be first on the chopping block. It’s less than one percent of the T’s expenditures. Yes, it’s about nightlife and young professionals, but also the healthcare and hospitality industries and arts and culture, and workers who can’t afford to take a taxi or Uber home every single night. To say it’s a subsidized service and therefore we need to cut it is premature. It [started as] a one-year pilot. You’re not going to open a business that will need to operate late-night hours if you’re not sure if the transportation is going to be there in three years.

Should the city be doing more to help the Theater District?

The city plans to truly assess what cultural assets exist through the Boston Creates planning process. We’re going to wait for that process to unfold completely. To build the case for finding more funding for the arts, it’d be helpful to have that very strategic map.

How has your move from the South End to Roslindale worked out?

We’re almost completely unpacked! We moved in August, and we now have a little more space for the baby and we’re closer to my mom. Housing prices in the South End are unattainable for many of us in the city. Also, Roslindale is an incredible community. I love the energy there.