Reviews | Michelle Wu is neither white nor male. She was elected mayor of Boston.



BOSTON – It’s time to pull away the tired old tropes on Brahmin swells, Irish parish heels and the little parochial spirit that for too long has defined this city on the national stage. A Taiwanese American from Chicago is set to become mayor of Boston, a city that until Tuesday had elected only white men to the post.

Michelle Wu beat Annissa Essaibi George, a city council colleague whose father is Tunisian and mother was born to Polish parents in a German refugee camp.

The election of Ms. Wu, a 36-year-old lawyer, represents a radical change in a political landscape in which “white” and “male” were prerequisites for being elected mayor since the post was created here in 1822. Ms. Wu will join at least 11 women (and possibly 13, depending on election results) as mayors of US cities with populations over 400,000.

Ms Wu and Ms Essaibi George, both Democrats, emerged in September as the top voters in a non-partisan preliminary election that did not include a single white male among the five candidates. In winning the second round on Tuesday, Ms Wu will succeed acting mayor Kim Janey, who in March became the first black Bostonian and the first woman to hold the post when Marty Walsh resigned to join the Biden administration as secretary of the Job.

We are far from the Irish domination of the town hall which began in 1884 with the election of Hugh O’Brien, a native of County Cork. The post was held continuously by men of Irish descent from 1930 to 1993, when Thomas Menino became the first Italian-American to claim the post.

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That was almost 30 years ago, but like most of this city’s cartoons, the idea of ​​Boston as being more Irish than Guinness stout retains a nagging hold on the national imagination. In fact, Boston has been a “majority minority” city since the turn of this century, when census figures first confirmed that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites had fallen below 50 percent (to 49.5 percent). percent). The latest census data shows the city is becoming even more diverse, with the proportion of Asian, Hispanic and multiracial residents on the rise.

This reality contrasts sharply with the images of Boston etched in memory – white women in dressing coats and hair rollers throwing stones at school buses full of black children, and a white teenage thug assaulting a black lawyer with an American flag. at City Hall Plaza during a demonstration against a federal court order for the desegregation of public schools by bus. These photographs are over 40 years old, but their power to define the city as insular and racist remains intact.

Certainly, the legacy of this era continues in a school system abandoned by those who oppose integration, leaving behind a student population that today is only 14% white. Under Mayor Ray Flynn, control of chronically underperforming schools shifted in 1991 from an elected school committee to a panel chosen by the mayor, a change many have denounced as a measure that denies minority parents their rights. . A non-binding question on the city’s ballot on Tuesday asked whether voters should again be allowed to elect its school committee, as voters do in every other city and town in Massachusetts (it looked like it was about to pass ). Ms. Wu supports a hybrid model with a majority of the committee elected by the voters and a number of experts appointed by the mayor.

It’s a measure of how much Boston has changed that Ms. Essaibi George, who grew up in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood and taught in public schools, failed in her attempt to label Chicago-born Ms. Wu as an outsider. . Ms. Wu first came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard. A Suffolk University / Boston Globe / NBC 10 poll last month found that 59% of likely voters said they didn’t care that a candidate was born and raised in Boston.

Electing an Asian American woman will not erase the high cost of housing, increased crime or the racial disparities in education, wealth and medical outcomes that persist here, as it does. t is the case in most major American cities. But Ms Wu comes to work with bold plans to tackle gentrification and climate change and to reform the police, many of which are inspired by her former Harvard Law School teacher and mentor, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Some of these ideas that she cannot adopt unilaterally. His proposal to reintroduce rent controls, banned statewide by a vote initiative in 1994, would require approval from the state legislature and Governor Charlie Baker, who would most likely oppose it.

And, despite all the hype about the historic nature of this race – two women of color vying for mayor in a city whose politics have long been dominated by white men – public interest in the campaign was at best. anemic. Many Bostonians did not participate in the election, and the turnout is expected to be no more than 30% of the city’s 442,000 registered voters.

Ms. Wu should not be misled. These home voters will be paying close attention when she takes the oath in two weeks. Politics in Boston may have become more diverse, but it is still the favorite sport for spectators in this city.

Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. She won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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