No sweeping changes in first year of Wu administration
Wu plans to push for rent control in coming year
While the mayor has laid the groundwork toward rent control and some other big-ticket reform items she ran on — like fare-free transit, overhaul of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, and revamped police contracts to tamp down overtime — none of those changes have yet come to pass.
The Wu administration has, however, had a clear impact on how City Hall views issues of diversity. Perhaps the most significant is the $17 million contract with City Fresh Foods to service the Boston Public Schools. It’s the largest non-construction contract the city has awarded to a certified, Black-owned business.
Wu said her immediate priorities heading into her second year include debuting a rent control policy “late this year, or early next year,” and doubling down on diversifying the distribution of city contracts.
Asked to grade herself on her work as the city’s chief executive to date, Wu said it’s a work in progress. She pointed to recruitment processes for several key positions as an example.
“I would say that in terms of setting foundations, we’ve done very well. In terms of delivering impact, it’s been slower than I would have liked, but I like to move whirlwind speed,” said the mayor. “We did not see a fully complete cabinet until September. … I’m not sure what I could have done to make it go faster in this hiring environment and to get the caliber of amazing talent that we have been lucky enough to see join our team, but a lot of time did go by in many, many national search processes and interviews that I’m very glad to be past.”
In her first year, Wu had to confront two crises that were not on the political radar when she declared her candidacy: the hiring of a new police commissioner after Dennis White was terminated following resurfaced domestic violence allegations, and recruiting a new superintendent of Boston Public Schools after state education authorities threatened to put the school district into receivership because of a host of problems and inadequacies. The searches for these key jobs yielded appointments of Michael Cox, a former Boston cop who was a Michigan police chief, as commissioner, and of Mary Skipper, the highly regarded head of Somerville’s schools, as superintendent. Both were greeted by the city with a sense of optimism.
One key official who has so far kept a relatively low profile is Arthur Jemison, the chief of planning, who will absorb the functions performed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Jemison will be a key player in Wu’s ambitious plans to overhaul how commercial development takes place and how housing — affordable and otherwise — is built in the city.
“We’ve had to do a lot of rebuilding, filling leadership roles, building our team, setting new practices and defining the new way of doing business within City Hall,” Wu said, “and I’m really proud of where we’ve ended up after a year.”
David Hopkins, associate professor of political science at Boston College, said Wu’s first year is a testament to a mayor’s limited power.
“It sort of shows that, for someone who ran for office with a very, very ambitious agenda of policy change that actually sort of accomplishing all of those things requires more than one mayor and more than one government,” he said.
“She’s been able to do a few things like the free bus fares and some of the bus lines,” Hopkins continued, pointing to the trio of free buses Wu launched as part of a two-year pilot program expansion, “but the bigger systematic problems remain, to a large degree, out of her control.”
Still, Hopkins hypothesized that voters who supported Wu recognize the time needed for large-scale change and will be patient into the rest of her term.
Pandemic policy shifts and the protests in response
Early on, Wu made two major departures from the pandemic policies of her immediate predecessors, former Mayor Marty Walsh and former acting Mayor Kim Janey, by imposing new fees for North End eateries seeking to set up outdoor dining and mandating vaccinations for the city’s 19,000-member workforce.
The pushback of a handful of North End restaurateurs, some of whom did not live in the city, did not deter the mayor. Wu let her opponents blow off steam but won the day in enforcing safe citywide public dining guidelines.
The revolt of a relatively small but highly charged cadre of first responders who vociferously — and viciously — objected to Wu’s mandate was more alarming. It led to a winding court battle currently awaiting a hearing in the state’s Supreme Court, as well as a public harassment campaign against her.
For weeks, Wu publicly demonstrated a sense of resolve as protesters encircled her home in Roslindale where she lives with her aging mother, husband and two children. Attacks against Wu on social media were widespread, personal and racist. So vile were the social attacks that even longtime political opponents rallied to her defense. City Council responded positively to Wu’s request to limit the hours of public protest outside private residence.
Boston College assistant professor Masha Krupenkin, who studies attitudes toward race and inequality in American politics, said Wu’s experiences should be viewed within the context of national trends.
“Both the trend of anti-Asian racism since the COVID-19 pandemic, and also a trend towards more negative and vitriolic and sometimes threatening communication sent to lawmakers,” she said in a recent interview. “This is still a problem in America, even in places that are very progressive, unfortunately, including Boston.”
Wu echoed those sentiments when asked what people should make of the personal attacks against her.
“We’re in really volatile and toxic times,” the mayor said of the incidents that came with her entry to the office. “I think what we’ve seen here, though, is that there are ways to build a little bit of a firewall locally … with clear boundaries about the difference between free speech and hate or harassment. That is an important line to draw for anyone who might be looking to get involved in public service, or in leadership in our communities.”
The rent control rollout is also likely to spark controversy. The mayor’s hand-selected committee has worked on the issue for at least six months this year, a fact that is not lost on Greater Boston’s development sector.
“I think it’s going to be vitally important to see how much she believes in a free market economy versus a command and control government regulated sort of a real estate industry,” said Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. The organization, which is opposed to rent control, has about 12,000 members according to its website.
Vasil said such a policy would be difficult to work through amid heightened interest rates and high construction costs.
“We’ve seen that Mayor Wu has been a proponent of rent control, but in the market that we are currently in, it’s going to be fascinating because what she may end up doing is totally affecting production, which is something we can’t afford because we really need more places for people to live.”
Mass. and Cass
Another issue that may cause voters to lose patience with Wu’s pace of change as she enters her second year: the throngs of people living along the streets near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, commonly referred to as Mass. and Cass.
One of her first acts as mayor was to pledge to move the approximately 150 or so people then living in the area into permanent supportive housing. Today, the crowds have moved along various streets in the area, but the problems that come with criminal activity, substance abuse, homelessness and mental health challenges all remain.
“It’s sort of an old political story that sometimes these problems look easier to solve before it’s actually your responsibility to solve them,” Hopkins of the situation.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who was criticized over a plan to house a portion of the population in a space formerly reserved for ICE detainees, said the Wu administration has circled back to reexamine his offer. But, he said, use of the facility would not come without the administration taking a strong stance to buffer against progressive ridicule.
“If we were going to be accused of criminalization again, then I’m not interested,” Tompkins told GBH News. “Clearly, we will entertain the discussion because we’d like to be able to help. … We have everything that they could possibly need — shelter, food, medicine, family reunification, case workers — and we’re right across the street, so we thought it was a good idea.”
Wu has defended the city’s approach to first house the population and called on the state to fund 1,000 units to house people currently living on the streets.
Wu’s second-year goal to diversify the distribution of city contracts falls under her pledge to foster more racial equity throughout the city, something she has already made progress on. The mayor created an Office of Black Male Advancement, giving it a $2 million budget, and appointed former Black Economic Council of Massachusetts President Segun Idowu as chief of economic opportunity and inclusion.
“I’m encouraged by the administration’s commitment to equity,” said former Roxbury city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson assessing Wu’s first-year moves on the issue. “I see progress.”
Jackson, who sits on the city’s 21-member Black Men and Boys Commission, believes the Wu administration will continue to take the issue seriously through her term, and that it is critical to set concrete goals for the diversification of city contracts.
“There’s a lot that we have to do for encouragement to change over to being convinced because there’s a burden that elected officials have to bear,” Jackson said. “But I do want to give props and credit where it’s due relative to Mayor Wu putting the people and infrastructure in place to move the dial.”
Looking ahead to year two
As the mayor enters second quarter of her term, looming questions revolve around outstanding policy pledges and the relationships she will need — namely with Governor-elect Maura Healey — to move those forward.
Wu acknowledged relationships will be crucial for advancing her agenda and said she’s looking forward to working with the incoming governor.
“Pretty early on in my tenure, Gov. Baker announced that he wasn’t running for reelection, and that just changes the dynamic of what you plan for and how when you know that there’s going to be such a large change coming very soon,” Wu said. “I’m excited to have that sustainability and in alignment with someone who knows our city really well, who has a demonstrated track record on many of the issues that we most need the state to partner with us on, whether it’s in the opioid crisis or housing or energy prices for residents.”
One other relationship that could make an aspect of Wu’s future governing difficult is the one between her and newly elected Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden.
Wu waded into the bitter primary race backing Hayden’s opponent, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. As scandal engulfed both candidates — Arroyo for the Boston Globe’s reporting on a pair of past sexual assault allegations, and Hayden for alarming the Transit Police with an apparent attempt to dismiss an officer misconduct case — Wu stopped short of blaming Hayden for fomenting negative headlines about his opponent with a document leak, something that Hayden has denied.
Those familiar with the interactions between a DA and a mayor say the two paths typically only cross when it comes to planning how to address crime, an issue Wu has weathered criticism for amid a recent uptick in shootings, particularly in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
For Hopkins, the outstanding question now is whether Wu can create a legacy that leaves lasting impacts on the day-to-day lives of people in Boston.
“It’s tough to do,” he said “You’re always up against a lot of powerful people who are invested in the status quo … and voters who sometimes can be in favor of change in the abstract, but not so much when it gets to be about a specific change.”
“She’s made her mark symbolically,” Hopkins said of her election to the office as an outright progressive, “but does that translate into tangible differences in the policy of the city government and differences in the way that city government related to the state government and other relationships in the political system. That really is not yet clear that she’ll be able to do that … I think, after two years or three years or four years, maybe it’ll be a better place to answer it.”
Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.