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A Pipeline Works

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

via The 19th

Barbara Rodriguez

Before Boston’s historic mayoral race between two women of color, a diverse city council helped pave the way

Michelle Wu wins a historic Boston mayoral race, and a diverse city council helped pave the way.

Michelle Wu on Tuesday was elected mayor of Boston, the first time the city has elected someone for the job who is not a White man.

Wu was facing Annissa Essaibi George, a fellow at-large member of the Boston City Council, in a runoff. Essaibi George conceded Tuesday night, and with that, Wu will be the first woman and woman of color elected as the city’s mayor. But before Wu and Essaibi George became contenders in a closely watched runoff, they were members of the 13-member Boston City Council — a governing body that in the past decade has become more representative of the city’s population and created a launching pad for higher office.

That transformation is particularly striking in Boston, a historically segregated city where residents once fought racial integration and that today still grapples with massive inequities. For decades, women won limited representation on the City Council. Despite being a “majority-minority” city, where people of color make up more than half of the population, it wasn’t until 2009 that Boston voters elected a woman of color — Ayanna Pressley, now a member of Congress — to the council.

Wu, an Asian American whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, and Essaibi George, a first-generation Arab-Polish American, are part of a shift in not just gender diversity on the council, but racial and ethnic representation that accelerated with Pressley’s election.

The council is now majority women (eight served following the 2019 election) and people of color. The September mayoral primary included four women of color who serve on the council — including Kim Janey, who became acting mayor earlier this year when former Mayor Marty Walsh resigned to join President Joe Biden’s administration.

Janey, elected to the council in 2017, is the first woman and Black person to serve as Boston mayor. In her own bid for mayor, she placed fourth in the primary and later endorsed Wu.

“This bench has been building for a long time in Boston,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Nationally, it looks like this change was really drastic … but this has also been something that has been percolating — building a strong bench on the Boston City Council and seeing women elected to other positions across the state.”

That’s in part due to intentional efforts to recruit and train women. Before the 2009 election, Pressley helped start a state chapter of Emerge, the national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to get more involved in politics, including offering a six-month training program to prepare them to run for elected office.

Since its founding in 2008, Emerge Massachusetts says it has trained nearly 500 women. More than 100 of them are serving in different levels of Massachusetts government, including the statehouse. Both Wu, elected as an at-large city councilor in 2013, and Essaibi George, elected to the same post two years later, are alums of Emerge Massachusetts trainings. So are six of the women who currently serve on the City Council: Andrea Campbell (who placed third in the primary for mayor), Lydia Edwards, Julia Mejia and Liz Breadon.

A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, said Boston is the fruition of a lot of groundwork from Democrats, who dominate the City Council (though the races for council and mayor are officially nonpartisan). She noted the significance of Pressley’s election.

“For me, it’s not surprising that we’re going to see Boston with its first elected woman mayor, woman of color mayor, and that woman will be an Emerge alum of Massachusetts no matter who wins,” she said. “This is how building the pipeline works. It really starts with that one woman who makes change but then continues to lift as she climbs into new roles.”

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