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Council leader reflects Boston’s newfound youth, diversity

January 17, 2016

BOSTON (AP) — Before entering the office of city council President Michelle Wu, visitors pass a wall lined by photographs of the council’s past leaders, faces that are mostly male, mostly white and nearly all middle-aged or older.

Recently elected president by colleagues on the 13-member board, Wu is the first Asian-American and only the third woman to hold the influential post. At 30, she also embodies a youthful surge in the city that has energized Boston economically, culturally and now, politically. Another surprise: Wu didn’t grow up in Boston. Suspicion of outsiders once made growing up in Boston’s neighborhoods a virtual prerequisite to political success.

Wu spoke to the Associated Press about her meteoric rise in Boston, a city moving beyond its 20th-century reputation for tight-knit neighborhood enclaves and Irish-Catholic dominated politics.


Q: How have you been able to navigate the historically insular nature of Boston politics?

A: People always point out a number of ways in which I don’t fit the mold of a traditional Boston politician. Ethnicity is one of them, gender is one of them, place of birth, as well as age. Age is mentioned the most, but young people have to step up as soon as they are ready. It’s not who has the most years of experience or if you have accumulated titles, but who can think creatively to solve problems.


Q: You grew up in Chicago. Was political office something you aspired to?

A: I didn’t grow up with a familiarity with government or politics at all. The focus at home was always doing well at school, finishing your homework, taking care of your little siblings, and making sure you are working hard. The traditional immigrant work ethic. My parents emigrated from Taiwan to Chicago. Both sets of my grandparents (left) mainland China ... in the midst of civil war and the Communist revolution. So I think to them, politics represented civil war and people being sent to the countryside, famine and marshal law.

There wasn’t anyone who looked like me in politics. I never met anyone who had run for office before. People used to tell me when I was younger I should be a figure skater because Michelle Kwan was the only visible Asian-American woman in mainstream culture at the time.


Q: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was one of your professors at Harvard Law School. What did you learn from her?

A: I remember the first day of class. It was the first day of law school and most of our other professors would start with a very nice, fluffy introductory spiel and welcome ... she walked in, opened the book and started calling on students. Pure Socratic method. Terrifying Socratic method, I should add. We all grew to know that you had to be prepared for Professor Warren’s class.

When she announced for the Senate, I became a field organizer in Boston and ended up as statewide constituency director. My job was to reach out to groups ... communities of color, immigrants, non-English speaking, veterans, LGBT. That was a very powerful experience for me.


Q: What was most difficult about running for office on your own?

A: I wasn’t used to being the person out front. It was a lot easier to push a candidate that I really believed in or a cause that I really believed in, but to ask people just for me is something I still struggle with, the fundraising asks and all that.


Q: Boston is changing a lot. What are toughest challenges for the city?

A: The big question is: How can Boston remain a city where people from all backgrounds and income levels can affordably live?

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