Welcome To The Wuniverse: How Michelle Wu Became Gen Z’s Favorite Politician
Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has the youth vote. Now, she wants everyone else’s vote.
When Michelle Wu was finishing college, her mother began struggling with severe mental illness, experiencing paranoia and delusions, and barely eating or sleeping. Within months, shortly after starting her first job at a consulting firm in Boston, Wu moved back home to Chicago to care for her mother, as well as for her two youngest sisters, who were 16 and 10 at the time. Wu’s mother and father had recently gotten divorced, and in addition to supporting her mom emotionally, Wu began to support the family financially. At the age of 23, Wu started a tea house business, and became the primary provider for her family.
As a small-business owner and de facto head of household, Wu suddenly found herself navigating government bureaucracies. She became increasingly frustrated by their roadblocks, especially for families who aren’t fluent in English. The oldest child in her family, Wu, now 36, was born in Chicago in 1985, just a year after her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. Growing up, she became used to translating and filling out documents for the family, which came in handy when her mother fell ill. If not for the bureaucratic barriers she encountered at that time, the Boston City Councilor and front-running mayoral candidate says she never would have ended up anywhere near elected office.
“That was really the only reason why I am in politics today,” Wu tells Refinery29. “It completely changed the trajectory of my life. I can still hear in my head the voices of my parents telling us, ‘When you grow up, get a job that pays you a lot of money, is stable, and doesn't get you in trouble.’ So, clearly,” she continues, laughing, “we were supposed to stay really far away from politics.” Wu’s parents, who are themselves the children of immigrants — both sets of her grandparents had fled civil war in mainland China to relocate to the island of Taiwan — rarely talked about politics at the dinner table. “For my family and our multi-generational immigration story, politics was fear and war and famine and corruption, and many things that we were trying to get away from as a family.”
Despite her family’s history, Wu was drawn to politics, and by the time she’d graduated from Harvard Law School in 2012, she had studied under Elizabeth Warren, worked in City Hall for Mayor Thomas Menino, and participated in Emerge Massachusetts, a training program for women seeking public office. Soon after graduation, she went to work for Warren’s successful U.S. Senate campaign, where she coordinated outreach to women, communities of color, and LGBTQ+ people. (Warren endorsed Wu for mayor on January 9, calling her a “fighter.”) An elected member of the Boston City Council since 2014, Wu, who is the first Asian American woman to serve on the council, has established herself as a rising star of the progressive movement with a “Wuniverse” of millennial and Gen Z supporters behind her, as well as endorsements from Sunrise Movement Boston and several major unions. The first city councilor to give birth while in office, she passed paid parental leave for Boston municipal employees, as well as language access in city services, and has advocated for small-business owners, divestment from fossil fuels, and late-night transit service on weekends.
Wu announced her candidacy for mayor in September 2020, coming in with multiple ambitious policy proposals, including a multifaceted plan for closing the early-education and childcare gap. She has also laid out the first comprehensive city-level Green New Deal agenda of its kind, creating a roadmap for delivering the major structural changes needed to support sustainable energy and jobs. In addition, she is deeply involved in issues of housing affordability, food justice, education equity, and closing the racial wealth gap, and she has long advocated for a fare-free public transit system.
When then-President-elect Joe Biden chose incumbent Boston mayor Marty Walsh as his nominee for Secretary of Labor on January 7, he cleared the way for Wu to become one of the frontrunners in the city’s mayoral race. Now, with three months to go until the primary and five months until the November 2 general election, Wu is among the top candidates, with 18% of Boston voters’ support according to a poll conducted by Poll Progressive LLC and the advisory firm Emancipated Group in late May. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George has 22% support; Essaibi George and Wu are closely followed by incumbent Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Boston’s first Black mayor, at 16%.
Both Essaibi George and Wu enjoy popularity with voters ages 18-44, with Essaibi George at 23% and Wu at 22% among this group, according to the poll. But among young progressives, Wu is the favorite, which political observers see as potentially critical to her rise. That same demographic helped elect Sen. Ed Markey, who defeated Rep. Joe Kennedy III in a primary challenge last fall. Wu’s supporters say she is the right candidate to lead the city during this era of rebuilding, because she’s focused on structural change that will help level inequalities which have been underscored by the COVID crisis, vocal about defunding and demilitarizing the police, and substantial on climate change. Some are also quick to note that unlike the other candidates, Essaibi George does not support defunding the police.
“Seeing Michelle releasing a citywide Green New Deal in August 2020 made me admire her work more, especially since the [launch] event had those most impacted by climate change and environmental inequities present,” Lillian Gibson, 18, one of the founders of Youth for Wu, which is independent from the campaign but meets with them frequently, tells Refinery29. “Michelle also entered the race before Marty Walsh was picked as Labor Secretary, which further shows how she doesn’t want to follow the status quo of past mayors.”
Calla Walsh, 17, who along with Gibson was recently featured in a New York Times story about how “an army of 16-year-olds” is taking on middle-of-the-road Democrats, was a leader in “Markeyverse” during Markey’s campaign and is now a volunteer with Youth for Wu. Along with campaigning for various progressive candidates, including Markey and City Councilor Julia Mejia, and co-organizing a 7,000-people strong climate strike in City Hall Plaza when she was 15, the Democratic socialist and DSA member maintains an extremely detailed spreadsheet of greater Boston political candidates, including mostly mayoral and city council candidates for Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, along with endorsements and columns noting whether they get “fossil fuel money,” “cop money,” or “developer money.”
“Unlike most other candidates, Michelle launched her campaign before it was an open seat as a challenge to Marty Walsh, and to me, that really shows that she understands the urgency for change in Boston and is not just trying to move up the career ladder,” Walsh (no relation to the former mayor) tells Refinery29. “This is also shown in her policy platform, and Michelle has the boldest and most comprehensive policy plans of any candidate in the field. Young people are ideological and we choose our candidates to support heavily based on policy, so Michelle's advocacy for a citywide Green New Deal, lowering the voting age to 16, giving students a vote on the school committee, and making public transit free stands out to my generation and shows us that she won't just fight for us with words, but with real action.” Walsh says Youth for Wu is putting a big emphasis on relational organizing, the grassroots tool of leveraging personal relationships, which proved incredibly effective in reaching younger voters during the Markey campaign. It’s what undoubtedly helped the 74-year-old Markey, co-author of the Green New Deal, defeat his much-younger opponent, who couldn’t compete with all the memes, TikTok videos, and fan groups, like Hot Girls for Markey.
Young people are ideological and we choose our candidates to support heavily based on policy, so Michelle's advocacy for a citywide Green New Deal, lowering the voting age to 16, and making public transit free stands out to my generation.
calla walsh, 17
Wilnelia Rivera, president and founder of Boston-based Rivera Consulting, which counts among its clients Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s congressional campaign, says that come fall, a lot of people will be paying attention to whether the Gen Z electorate will help expand the all-important metric of overall turnout in the race. “Michelle has really demonstrated what it means to not just build an intergenerational team, but really execute an intergenerational plan,” Rivera tells Refinery29. (Full disclosure: Rivera considers herself a Wu supporter.)
But, Rivera adds, it remains to be seen whether the success of Markeyverse can be replicated in Boston city politics. “What Gen Z has shown, at least in 2018, in the federal races, is that they're exponentially expanding their share of the electorate,” she says. “It's why they made a difference in Ayanna Pressley’s campaign, and made a difference in Markey's race. So citywide elections is actually the ultimate test for this Markeyverse, and the reason I say that is that federal election turnout is very different from local elections. And even though a mayoral race that's obviously history-making is not the same as any other cycle, we can't get the kind of turnout that we would if it was for Congress or [the] U.S. Senate.”
She continues, “So I think for a lot of those in the political chattering class, there's a lot of holding breath of whether or not that block of the electorate will really expand this year. Sort of traditional city of Boston politics folks will tell you that tradition says it will be a low turnout, and there will be a little bit of expansion, a little bit of excitement, but it won't be amongst the younger electorate.”
But what makes Wu stand out in the race, Rivera believes, is not just the support of Markeyverse but support from both “Old Boston” and “New Boston,” a dynamic often invoked in conversations about the city. “We're a city of both people that have been here for a very long time — five, six, seven, eight generations — and people that are constantly coming in. And then everyone in the middle, like myself.” In a heavily Democratic city, it’s not just the “D” next to someone’s name that matters, nor whether they consider themselves a progressive, necessarily; within a citywide elections context, people identify less with political ideologies and more as Boston residents, Rivera says. Wu clearly understands that, and is, in Rivera’s view, both the “ideas” candidate and the one who will get things done. “At the end of the day, we're not fighting a Democratic-Republican sort of agenda here from a policy perspective. We're fighting for a neighborhood. Why does Ward 4 get to have the recycling picked up twice, and why does Ward 18, Mattapan, only have it picked up once a week? Could it be income differences? Or could it be something else, like race? What she really needs to deliver on is equity.”
There are many ways in which Wu is making clear she plans to do that. Her commitment to helping root out anti-Asian hate is something that has inspired young voters to gather around her. This long-standing issue has been particularly prominent this year following a mass shooting in Atlanta in March in which six of the eight victims were Asian women, as well as a surge of other anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide. Long after the headlines have moved on, Wu is attending events and speaking out on the topic, knowing that combating anti-Asian racism is a long-term commitment.
“There’s a long history of scapegoating and otherizing the Asian American community in this country, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans, to many race-based hate crimes over many decades,” Wu says. “Some of my most visceral childhood memories are of strangers coming up to my family and me and yelling slurs or making racist sounds, simply because of the way we looked,” she continues. “Conversations in my family afterwards were always about brushing it off, ignoring it, trying not to stick out, just keeping your head down and working harder. But that perpetuates the invisibility of Asian Americans. I think in this moment, we are recognizing how interconnected all of our communities are and that the ongoing reminders of how Black Americans experience our systems of public safety and law enforcement, of how vulnerable we all are, especially when we're pitted against each other, should be the catalyst to build community and to making sure that we are standing together to end racism.”
There are a lot of major issues to tackle in the run-up to this race, but these days, Wu, who has two young sons with husband Conor Pewarski, a commercial real estate banker, says her home life keeps her grounded as she campaigns. Wu’s mom lives with her in Boston and still struggles with mental health. While she has her up days and down days, she is more stable than she once was, helped by her daughter’s years of care. Although, Wu points out that, in some ways, her mother is also caring for her as Wu embarks on the journey to Election Day. “I am blessed to live in a multi-generational home where every morning I can send my two sons downstairs to have breakfast with grandma,” Wu says. “We benefit just as much, or even more so, from her wisdom and care and connection to my kids and my husband and me.”