“I love this job,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu with a straight face during an interview with us last week. “I believe it’s the best job in the world.”
If true – after close to two years of nasty heckling, vile online trolling and a smorgasbord of intractable problems – it begs a question: what’s the world’s worst job? (Spoiler alert: US House speaker.)
Wu’s Horatio Alger-esque career arc and the daunting number of professional and personal responsibilities she juggles should compel respect for her determination and optimism. Instead, she has to fend off disrespectful rumors like the recent fantasy about her quitting the mayoralty for a long nap in the Crimson Casket, a.k.a. a no-sweat sinecure at Harvard. Betting odds on a re-election bid, we asked? “Very, very high.” (Meaning low; we’re guessing Wu lacks time to get familiar with the DraftKings app.)
And in our interview, the most solid sign that she’s in this for the long haul was her answer when asked to identify the biggest surprise of the first two years in office. “We often know what to do. We often have a sense of why we need to do it and how urgent it is to do it,” she says. “But there’s some underlying challenge that hasn’t been solved or invested in. We often focus so much on the point where a resident experiences government, but it takes so many steps before it gets to that public point.”
In other words, it’s one thing to critique the sausage as a councilor or candidate, quite another to be head butcher at the slaughterhouse with a close up view of how the sausage is made.
For instance, to address what is arguably the city’s biggest problem – the NIMBYISM that loads burdensome delays and cost-overruns on the development of needed social-service and housing infrastructure – Wu wants reform of the city’s zoning code in order to bring the obstructionists to heel.
“We need to find ways to boost more housing, and the only way we’re going to be able to do that predictably, fairly and consistently is to change the rules and get us out of a system where…there’s a ton of engagement happening, but it’s not very meaningful.” Instead, Wu wants to “set the rules for uses in terms of what is allowed to be built there…. And then once those rules are set, we won’t litigate every single project along the way because the feedback has been put into the process [upfront].”
Translation: it may be a city councilor’s job to carry their constituents’ beefs all the way to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but it’s up to the mayor to make the ZBA the court of last resort, not the gatekeeper.
And Wu’s struggle to clean up the Mass and Cass crime scene has prompted something of a…mayormorphosis. Gone is the hyper-critical rhetoric on cops from her 2021 campaign website (“Delivering public safety…requires urgent action to rebuild the culture and structure of the Boston Police Department…[and] dismantling racism in policing.”) A bunch of ride-alongs with the cops and heart-to-hearts with her handpicked commissioner later, this is the new Wu, arguing for her proposed ordinance making it easier for police to clean out those tents: “When our police department comes to me and says that they need to be able to move more quickly and have the clear delegated authority to address the issues that Mass and Cass presents, I’m going to make sure that I do what I can to provide that.”
This surely ticks off the hardcore police skeptics. Zoning reform is a shot across the NIMBY bow. Perhaps they all expected more obedience from the uber-progressive mayor they supported.
But gritty reality has intervened, something Wu has had plenty of experience with. Playing pretend and pandering to unrealistic ideological expectations?
That’s a game for a short-termer angling for Harvard Yard, not someone who’s spent her entire career aiming to leave her mark on City Hall.