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Opinion The progressives break through in Boston

Michelle Wu, Democratic mayoral candidate for Boston, in Boston on Oct. 30. (Allison Dinner/Bloomberg)

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wasn’t able to win the presidency. Or the Virginia governorship. Or even the New York mayor’s office. But the wonky, very progressive Michelle Wu won the mayoral election in Boston on Tuesday, both illustrating that left-wing ideas can appeal to a broad swath of Democratic voters and setting up a major test of whether these ideas can work in practice.

The election of Wu, currently a member of Boston’s city council, is a milestone for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology. She is the first person of color and first woman to be elected mayor of Boston, one of the United States’ oldest cities. That’s symbolic of a changing Boston and a changing Democratic Party, where an increasingly diverse electorate is choosing more candidates who aren’t White males.

But Democrats in Boston, like those across the country, are divided on policy even as they are largely unified in support of greater diversity. The 36-year-old Wu, a one-time staffer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), ran essentially an urban version of Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign, with lots of big progressive ideas: rent control, free transit, a Boston Green New Deal, shifting responsibility for nonviolent 911 calls and traffic stops away from police to other workers. Wu’s opponent Annissa Essaibi George — a fellow Democrat, city council member and child-of-immigrants — cast Wu’s agenda as unrealistic and unaffordable. In a debate between the two, Wu said, “I’m not running for mayor to say what we can’t do,” echoing a retort Warren gave two years earlier when criticized by one of her more centrist rivals.

The city’s firefighters union and one of its former police commissioners backed George, who drew support from Boston’s moderate White voters. Warren and progressive groups such as the Sierra Club were behind Wu, whose base is White and non-White progressives.

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Progressive candidates often lose in head-to-head contests with more moderate Democrats in part because the party’s political establishment, including Black leaders, backs the moderates and encourages rank-and-file voters to do the same. But in Boston it was Wu, not George, who got establishment support.

That’s in part because Boston is a fairly progressive city, so its establishment includes more left-wing figures than in most places. But Wu also spent years developing relationships with establishment figures in anticipation of her run. After the September primary, Sen. Edward J. Markey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and outgoing Boston Mayor Kim Janey all endorsed her.

Wu’s path to victory — a very progressive candidate not blocked by more centrist forces in the Democratic Party — isn’t an easy one to locate and navigate, as the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries and the New York City mayoral race earlier this year showed. And the progressive left was on track to suffer another notable loss Tuesday. India Walton, the political outsider and socialist who in June stunningly won the Democratic primary for mayor in Buffalo over incumbent Byron Brown, appeared poised to lose the general election to Brown, who ran a write-in campaign. Much of the Democratic Party establishment there either refused to back Walton or outright supported Brown.

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For Wu, now comes perhaps the harder part. The resurgent progressive movement hasn’t won a lot of executive roles across the country, so it’s usually in the position of just talking about its big ideas. Now Wu must run a city of nearly 693,000. And while Boston hasn’t had the recent crime surge that other big cities have, it has other problems of urban America, such as a lack of affordable housing and a huge racial wealth gap. The city council, Boston’s business community and the Massachusetts state government may balk at some of her ideas.

But I’m optimistic that Wu will succeed. Boston is an ideal place to advance a progressive agenda. The residents are well educated and aware of problems like the racial wealth gap. They are very liberal and eager to solve those problems. Many of them are doing well financially, so they might be more open to solutions that involve redistributing power and money away from richer people. And the city’s political establishment includes figures such as Pressley, who will help boost Wu’s policies.

“We are an extremely well-resourced city. We are an extremely activist city. The anchor institutions that we have here, the legacy of organizations and civic groups who are committed to fighting for one particular block dating back six, nine generations, the energy’s here to align all of our efforts and move in the same direction,” Wu told me in an interview a few days before the election.

And Wu thinks that direction can be bold and aggressive. As she said at a candidate forum in Boston last week: “Now’s a moment where everything is on the table to be shaken up.”