An exclusive conversation with the Climate Candidate for Mayor
A few weeks ago, contemplating the “historic” dimensions of the Boston mayoral race, I reached out to the front runners, Councilor Michelle Wu and Mayor Kim Janey then tied neck-and-neck going into Tuesday’s preliminary election. I wanted to avoid the “horse-race” framing and interrogate the widely shared “historical character” meme. Indeed, fellow progressives and radicals will celebrate the fact that in 2021, nearly four centuries since its founding, Boston is likely to elect its first woman and first person of color as mayor. However, these “firsts” will matter only if Boston were to come to terms with its many other firsts, including its codification of slavery, banishment of dissidents, and racially exclusionary covenants. After a long series of emails in separate threads with both campaigns, I eventually interviewed Michelle Wu, but the Janey campaign and I never finalized a time.
How to think about Boston’s mayoral race? Looking at the field, listening to the campaigns, taking in the ads, and reading newspapers, the compelling personal stories and crisply defined issues should have rendered easy choices. Given the momentum in the polls, perhaps this is the case, just not so for progressives who seem split. But the Globe’s Joan Vennochi, a self-anointed guardian of acceptable progressivism, has introduced an imponderable topic into the conversation: the matter of trust. Headlining a recent piece is the question, “How much should progressives trust Michelle Wu?” Her answer, or perhaps just that of the title editor, is that Wu can be trusted to do what “she wants for herself.” This postulate might be quite a revelation for recently arrived extra-terrestrials: politicians are self-interested! Not among the new arrivals, however, I do not tend to place trust in politicians. Instead, I want to know what a politician offers that speaks to movements’ expectations and, therefore, the demands they place before the powerful or choose to address on their own. In other words, I am more ready to trust social movements.
And therein lies my quandary. Most of the progressive movement organizations that I trust seem to have thrown their considerable weight behind Mayor Janey’s candidacy. Making matters more difficult for me is that Mayor Janey as councilor is a successor, a few elections removed, to the venerable Chuck Turner, a politician, a movement politician, whom I trusted and who endorsed Janey for his district back in 2017. In my interview with Wu, however, I found reasons for hope in her prioritization of climate matters, environmental justice commitments, vision for the public sector, and grasp of the opportunities that our crises present.
1. Wu recognizes the centrality of climate breakdown
If we start with her record, we quickly recognize that many of her key initiatives are really bullet points under the heading, “climate change.” From thinking through changes at the MBTA to the role of public schools, notwithstanding their many resonances with racial justice and accessibility, mitigating carbon emissions and adapting to the accelerating climate breakdown is certainly the top line.
When we spoke, Wu noted that she “was proud to put out … the first city-level Green New Deal (GND) anywhere in the country.” This followed “18 months of working with local activists, as well as national leaders who have contributed to the federal Green New Deal.” As our conversation turned to the MBTA, she noted the function that its buses, once electrified, could fulfill as mobile electrical storage units in the event of the inevitable grid failures following the storms to come.
I should add that these matters were raised in answer to a long question of mine: “In her day, Anne Hutchinson was banished from Boston by its Puritan ruling class, led by John Winthrop, ‘our’ first governor. The matters of dispute were centrally about how to coexist with indigenous people. Winthrop stood for war and conquest. What are the core issues of today? Who are the contemporary Anne Hutchinsons and who or what are their John Winthrops?” Of course, if you ask an able politician a compound question, you’ve probably defeated yourself! And so, I did not learn who or what Wu considers to be the Winthrops of the 21st Century.
If you read the Globe, however, many in the corporate world, at least until very recently, seemed to fear that Wu considers them to be the Winthrops. The dependable voice of corporate Boston, Shirley Leung asks, “Is the Boston business community afraid of Michelle Wu?” and answers in the same headline, “Not anymore.” So Wu’s quietness on the latter-day Winthrops may be concerning.
Gesturing to our conflicted history Wu observed that, “in so many of our public spaces you have the sense as you are standing on the bricks [that] you are rooted back decades and centuries in the ideas and the people who’ve passed through, some reflected in monuments… but far too many are not.” But then she pivoted, turning from the past to the uncertain present and the recent IPCC report: “Just trying not to cry as a mother…. Even in the best-case scenario, if we did everything possible, right now, used every technology, pushed the limits of our ability, changed our economy and society, and our demand for energy and consumption, it would still be 20 years before temperatures start to stabilize and we start to see a glimpse of the world that’s possible.” Whether any politician has the fortitude to act on this insight is another question. The point is that Wu has clarity on this matter and it is up to us to ensure it will be acted upon.
2. Wu knows that environmental matters affect everyone, but some of more so and sooner than others
If most of the mayoral candidates share an understanding of Boston’s extreme racial justice deficits—from the important but symbolic (think, Faneuil Hall) to critical and substantive matters of housing and education, Wu has a thorough familiarity and fluency with the issues. Grounding her response about air travel and carbon dioxide emissions, she turns to the most impacted neighborhoods: “the data around exposure to air pollution and how communities of color [are] disproportionately affected in well-being and long-term health consequences—whether that is in East Boston or standing on the basketball court on the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown—a neighborhood ringed with highways with stalled cars spewing pollution into the air.” Continuing, she notes the quotidian impacts of “the policy decisions that have been made,” stating that “I’ve heard from so many East Boston families who tell me that going to the playground isn’t as simple as making sure the kids can get there, and then are safe to play. It [also involves] constantly monitoring the air, the direction of the wind—keeping track because once you start to smell those fumes, it’s already too late and you have to run inside, bringing your kids with you because of the immediate impacts on your body or, felt much less immediately, the long-term consequences.” Those who think of a dystopian movie on reading this should know that this is a lived reality for many Bostonians.
3. Wu wants a can-do public sector
Much of the mainstream conversation is about how the real-estate growth machine can be tapped to fund this or that program that is supposed to redress decades- and centuries-old grievances. Too often the only debate is only about how much we can get from the developers. Inevitably, the bottom line is that we have to improve corporate bottom lines before we can see any progress. While it is not clear that Wu is completely immune to this moral blackmail, she invokes Boston’s revolutionary mythos to valorize the public sector: “investment in our shared future gave birth to democracy, public education, public libraries, public parks … the first subway tunnel in the country.” She then turns to the present: “Now is a moment, especially when it comes to climate change, to ensure that there are examples of city action, building momentum, serving as the proof point, and [working with] the immediate movement builders to drive change globally, showing what’s possible at the city level.”
While the conversation eased into specifics—bus electrification, building ventilation, weatherization, etc.—the vision of a robust public sector seems to be at the core of Wu’s thinking. A refreshing change from neoliberal, small-government orthodoxy! While this may not be my vision of the public sector as one necessary engine for rebuilding the working-class movement and ready to challenge capital, it is certainly a step forward—especially coupled with her recognition that, “the barriers to change in fact are not about financial resources, or experts’ lack of know-how, or needing helping hands and partners in the community. We are rich with all of those resources; it comes down to political will!”
4. Wu understands our political opportunity
In talking about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Wu notes that many things once thought impossible, suddenly became possible, “laptops for every single child in our school system, providing food to any family that was going hungry …” Now Wu does not go so far as to tell us what it has revealed about our dominant economic system, capitalism. However, she has the astute reformer’s eye for opportunity.
More impressive is her attention to program design. In her vision, schools are multipurpose centers for the community, one enriching the connections between schools and their neighborhoods—a once elusive ambition frustrated by our decades-old, half-hearted attempts at desegregating public schools. It is a stretch to argue that in identifying schools as spaces that go beyond serving students and to become truly public and familiar spaces, Wu is unlocking the potential for a grassroots movement that combines education, racial justice, and climate justice demands. This “stretch” is not an unreasonable one, indeed it is a possible outcome of expanding the public function of schools. Seizing the opportunity to match responses to the accelerating climate crisis with repurposed and revitalized public institutions is something that may activate the city and region, allowing us to finally settle historic debts while securing future generations.
Four reasons for hope! And yet, nothing can be taken for granted. As to the candidate herself, although it is sometimes effectively contained by her passion, there is a certain “wonkishness” or technocratic bent to her affect. It is similar to the one that brought Pete Buttigieg to the fore for a thankfully brief period last year. But technocratic impulse runs deeper than affect. Wu delights in “innovation” and “technological solutions,” watchwords that Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal has correctly taught us to suspect given the cover they provide for speculative capital and the so-called meritocracy.
In responding to my questions about the airport’s CO2 emissions, an important but neglected matter since emissions from flights arriving in Boston don’t make it into our emissions data and therefore are not tracked for reduction, Wu turned to technological fixes. Responding to my pushback on their viability, Wu appealed to the discredited notion of “carbon offsets.” All of this is understandable given the place of tourism in our regional economy. But it is also the kind of difficult issue that requires visionary leadership. For Wu, at least in our conversation, that proved to be a bridge too far.
I had many other questions for Wu that went unasked given the brevity of the interview. One, not on the political agenda, concerned the adequacy of city boundaries given the regional, if not global, nature of our problems. But we’re electing a mayor, not a UN Secretary-General. Therefore, zooming into the Greater Boston region, particularly with an emphasis on transportation and environmental justice, solutions must necessarily involve the great majority of our 4.5 million residents. This means reaching beyond city limits and dealing with the fact that the working class is divided between city and suburb, pitting it against itself. Can the mayor of Boston energize Greater Boston? Mobilizing the sectional and urgent claims of the most oppressed working-class Bostonians, could Wu engage the better-off, suburban working class that shares an interest in addressing climate change? Can she negotiate and animate a regional GND? To some degree, once mayor, that could be the defining challenge that she sets for herself.
From the perspective of its residents and progressive movements, Boston could be one of the cities in which the future of the United States and, indeed of humanity as a whole, is decided. It is a well-resourced city, but one beset with the same extractive inequalities impacting much larger ones, be they Lagos, São Paulo, Mumbai, or Shanghai.
On the surface, at least, Boston is home to two souls of the progressive movement, one closely identified with the “innovation economy” and big capital, the other grounded in the claims of the oppressed and the working class. For now, Wu seems to straddle the two. The voters will have to choose one, a future Mayor Wu, should things work out for her campaign, will also face that choice.
Chelsea resident Suren Moodliar is an occasional contributor to DigBoston. With Joseph Nevins and Eleni Macrakis, he is co-author of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston (2020). He is also Managing Editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy and a coordinator of the encuentro5 movement-building space.