Nov. 2 was an election Boston will never forget. Open mayoral elections in Boston are rare, with only six in the last 100 years. The primary was dominated by women and women of color specifically and two at-large city councilors headed into the general: Michelle Wu and Anissa Eassabi George. It was a match up Essabi George embraced; she sized up her opponent and decided to target her for being an outsider, impractical and too progressive.
The business community – long fearful of change – jumped in to help, spending millions of dollars in ads, not focusing on business but on dog whistles like defunding the police.
Despite its historic nature, the general election was quickly framed in terms of “new” versus “old” Boston; the difference this time was that two young women representing both teams. Wu got quick endorsements from Mayor Kim Janey, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Ed Markey and continued to lead the polls.
Once the dust settled and you looked at the data, you can see where Essabi George bottomed out after the primary. She did not win one new precinct regardless of the millions of dollars and union staff hours being spent for her get-out-the-vote campaign. Wu on the other hand won several new precincts and created an authentic rainbow coalition garnering more votes than former Mayor Marty Walsh ever got. Ultimately, Wu won the seat with a 28-point victory, and some may even say a mandate.
End of the World? Hardly
Wu will continue to lean into her electoral coalition as she begins to both legislate and lead. Transition team co-chair Charlotte Golar Richie had a long tradition as a state representative to host “kitchen cabinets” to talk through her legislative agenda with the community on a consistent basis. One could see Wu following in her footsteps to ensure she has the people power to negotiate change.
So, what to do now if you care about advancing the needs of the business community? Dig in and fight the administration? Continue to fund losing candidates who will push for a more business-friendly agenda? These answers seem costly, ineffective and not aligned with the values of Boston’s voters – many of whom are also your employees. What Boston needs now is for business to respect its vote and come together to expand the economy and equity in the city.
Wu’s election is not the end of business as we know it. She is far from a radical. Instead, she represents change. This pivotal moment in our country’s history calls for a big vision. As a councilor, she proved it could work: She has pushed several pieces of her agenda successfully by gathering diverse coalitions. As the saying goes, politicians run for office in poetry and legislate in prose and Boston’s new mayor will be no different. The most productive path forward is one of curiosity and cooperation.
What’s ‘Rent Control’ Really About?
It’s important at this moment to be curious. Try to answer the question: What are people actually asking for? One of the biggest concerns for the development community is rent control. However, once you move past those trigger words, what you see is a candidate responding to a dire situation: the housing crisis. We have lost opportunities like Amazon’s HQ2 in part because of housing costs, and they will not be the last ones. When voters call for policy like rent control they are asking for relief.
Rather than dismiss it, understand that people are sending signals that they are done with pledges and are looking for action. If there is a better solution, offer it. Conversations about housing are necessary. According to a recent MassINC poll, 50 percent of Bostonians see housing as “very unaffordable,” making it an issue that cannot be ignored. So, get curious on what other ways exist to protect working-class families. Are there other issues Wu is pushing, like free public transportation, that could help?
As we have seen recently, pushing against change has caused many businesses to be targeted by movements for progress. Demonizing change helps no one and is definitely not smart long-term thinking for any economy, even in one as small as a city. Rather than obstruct, find ways to cooperate with the almost 90,000 Bostonians that voted for Wu and her agenda.
At the end of the day, Mayor Wu’s priorities are not that different from those of the business community: transportation infrastructure that brings people to job centers, stronger schools that create pathways to jobs, climate resiliency that keeps city infrastructure stable in the future, affordable housing and a diverse workforce, among others. Perhaps the solutions seem unorthodox. Embracing change, however, might be just what we need to achieve the goals that will maintain our place as one of the country’s leading cities.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.