Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu ’07 walked into a coffee shop for an interview one bright afternoon in February carrying a diaper bag and her bundled-up four-month-old son, Blaise.
She was visibly tired. Wu, the youngest member of the City Council and the first Asian-American woman to serve as a councilor, had a resolution and two measures in the works. To add on to that, as she explained, she had not exactly been sleeping well, newborn and all. She had lost her voice and could barely be heard above the quiet chatter of the coffee shop.
Blaise, quiet through most of the conversation, started crying in irritation.
“You’re coming out, you’re coming out,” she said in Mandarin as she tried to wriggle him out of his blue and yellow striped onesie. She switched back to English and apologized. “I really think I have to change his diaper.”
One of the measures that Wu had on her mind was a plan to introduce paid parental leave for City of Boston employees. The ordinance, which has garnered the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh and was co-authored with Councilor Tim McCarthy last month, would give six weeks of paid parental leave to both men and women, same-sex couples included, who have worked for the City for at least one year. The proposal faces a hearing on April 22.
The idea of parental paid leave ordinance, for Wu, began when she became pregnant and was not able to obtain paid leave. She realized then the difficulties that City of Boston employees face, she said, as they try to juggle work life and family life.
Drawing on personal experience is not an unusual policy tactic for Wu. In her first term on the Council, Wu a Harvard College and Law School graduate who once started a small business and is the daughter of immigrants, has fought for greater language access, and to make it easier for small restaurants to obtain liquor licenses.
From rearing a child to struggling to support a family under stress—it is Wu’s personal history that has shaped much of her political trajectory.
FROM CHICAGO TO BOSTON
Born the child of Taiwanese immigrants, Wu moved from Chicago to Cambridge, Mass., for college in 2003. At Harvard, she took heritage speaker Chinese and concentrated in Economics. She tap-danced, and, on the weekends, crossed the river to teach citizenship classes in Chinatown.
But after she received her undergraduate degree, her mother became ill. Wu, the oldest of four siblings, was forced to leave her consulting job and go back to Chicago. There, in a difficult time, she—with the help of her boyfriend and now-husband Conor Pewarski—helped her mother through treatment, took care of her two younger siblings, and started a mom-and-pop tea house to support the family financially.
She moved back to Cambridge in 2009 and attended Harvard Law School. Her start in politics began with an internship with former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Then, when her professor and mentor Elizabeth Warren ran for senate in 2012, Wu found a job on the Warren campaign.
Jacob R. Carrel ’16, the president of Harvard College Democrats, still remembers the speech Wu gave to the Harvard Dems at a Warren campaign kick-off rally in 2012.
“She’s someone I think a lot of people on the [Harvard College] Dems admire immensely,” he said. “I think she’s done a really good job of engaging Harvard students, to the degree that students in Cambridge feel connected to a councilor in Boston.”
Wu announced her campaign for City Councilor at Large a few months after the Warren campaign. Then, it was to the streets—running on a campaign platform of increasing access and connecting families to opportunities, Wu garnered almost 60,000 votes in a victory that had some calling her the future of Boston politics.
But her councilorship got off to a rocky start. In December 2013, she backed South Boston Councilor Bill Linehan’s bid to become the next council president over a younger, more liberal contender, and some accused her of betraying her progressive image. “Michelle Wu’s base could crumble over council president vote,” a Boston Globe headline read.
“I’ve always said that I would be thoughtful in my decision-making and be transparent about my reasoning,” Wu wrote. “[I] ask all my constituents to judge my performance based on my record and accessibility.”
HERE TO STAY
As a City Councilor, Wu has advocated for language access, small-time business owners, and divestment of state retirement funds from fossil fuels. She helped reform an antiquated permitting system, and introduced “Bring Your Own Bottle” to make it easier on small restaurants that could not afford a liquor license. She fought for the continuation of the late-night T on weekends.
“Many students after they graduate college immediately think about going to [other cities], so what we need to do as a city is do a better job of retaining the talent that comes here,” she said earlier this year. “Part of that is that Boston needs to be more welcoming place for young people, and having an exciting, accessible nightlife, is a big part of that.”
Her latest initiative—to bring six weeks of paid parental leave to Boston city employees—has put her in the spotlight. The proposed measure would give eligible city employees 100 percent of the salary for the first two weeks, 75 percent for the next two, and 50 percent for the final two.
For Wu, the first councilor to give birth while serving in office, fighting for paid parental leave is the latest in a series of measures that she has taken since her election to advocate on behalf of those she says are underrepresented.
“The very people who might have the most stake in changing the system aren’t able to have a voice,” Wu said, referring to parents with newborns. She added that the burdens of child-rearing can often leave parents too busy to advocate for their households at the political table.
The ordinance has seen the support of the mayor, who co-wrote an op-ed in the Globe with Wu endorsing the paid parental leave measure.
“This is something that the mayor has...been working hard on [even during his campaign] and realized very quickly with Councilor Wu that both parties wanted to see go forward,” said Daniel A. Koh ’07, Walsh’s chief of staff. “I think this is a first step in a larger effort to really set an example to say that this is something other companies should really be doing.”
For Wu, Boston has become a permanent home. And even as she has to take care of a newborn and her younger sister—in addition to helping run city government—Wu said that life is a lot more manageable now that her mother’s condition has stabilized.
As for the future, Wu said that she hopes to encourage more young people to enter politics and remain in the city of Boston. The twice-over Harvard grad said she aims to engage Harvard students in the hopes that they, like her, will fall in love with the city and stay.
—Staff writer Samuel E. Liu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samuelliu96
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