Q&A: Michelle Wu – Paid Parental Leave, Healthcare Equity and Accessible City Services

At-Large Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu is seeking reelection on Tuesday, November 3rd. Wu was first elected to the council in 2013. She spoke with Jamaica Plain News about her candidacy.

All four incumbents are seeking reelection with only one challenger, Annissa Essaibi-George — read a Q&A with her here; Read a Q&A with Ayanna Pressley here. Read a Q&A with Stephen Murphy here

Q: Why are you running for re-election to the Boston City Council?

A: It’s been two years of seeing how city government is really a place to get things done. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’ve concentrated on steps to change laws to support families and help constituents to have city services be more accessible and transparent. I [filed legislation to create] paid parental leave, which the state government then acted on. I worked on a healthcare equity ordinance that prohibits discrimination based upon gender identity for city workers’ healthcare coverage. There is a lot more work to do, so I’m asking constituents for their vote.

Michelle Wu

Michelle Wu

Q: What have you accomplished in your first two years?

A: I’m especially proud of those ordinances that I led on that were passed unanimously by the council and signed into law by the mayor, but also set the tone for what’s progressive and fair. A month after the city council acted, the state took action on both items — paid parental leave and healthcare equity. We saw our state treasurer and the attorney general do it for state employees and then Governor Deval Patrick did it through the Division of Insurance statewide, as well.

I advocated for more resources and coordination around homelessness, especially for youth homelessness. I pushed for more focus on transportation with a resolution calling for continued late night MBTA service that was a partnership with City Councilor Josh Zakim. Now I’m partnering with City Councilor Tim McCarthy on commuter rail fares to make sure all of Boston is covered in Zone 1A, which is charged $2.10, but cuts off at Forest Hills. [After Forest Hills] $5.75 is what they’re getting charged.

I think one thing I’m really proud of is better informing people with what is happening with city council through my city council notes. I summarize what we talked about and voted on and it is put on Twitter, Facebook. I get a lot responses with suggestions about things can we can change, focus on, or what other cities do. It’s great to see residents engage in government once they know what’s going on.

Q: What surprised you the most in your freshwoman term?

A: I think how quickly you can implement great ideas in city government. Another program is Acoustic on Main — that was partnership by several city departments, the mayor and my office as Arts and Culture chair to basically pilot a program for 10 days that any small business could host live acoustic entertainment without paying any fees, fill out permitting; It’s just cutting out the red tape for 10 days. We had a great response from neighborhoods, and small businesses said they got customers through the door. We had great response from musicians, who are always looking for more venues to perform. We did that pilot twice, once in May and once in August, It’s great example of collaboration leading to new initiatives to help our neighborhoods… Every Main Streets district was invited to participate… In JP, Egleston Square Main Streets participated.

Q: What would you like to accomplish in the next two years if reelected?

A: My priorities for the next term are housing, education and mental health. Three very complicated big issues, but issues that are absolutely fundamental to stability for our families and neighborhoods. Most of the time when I’m talking to families thinking about leaving Boston, it is because they’re struggling with one of these three issues.

Q: You led the charge on getting paid leave for families when a child is born. But that doesn’t include unions, which the majority of city employees are a part of. How is the process coming with getting the unions to receive paid family leave?

A: We wanted to take the biggest possible steps to implement it immediately through the city council and the ordinance can only legally cover employees not coverer through collective bargaining. It was enacted for 1,200 employees and we’ve had subsequent conversations with the mayor and everyone is focused on Boston setting the example through the city. Not just all city workers, but we’re pushing private companies to have paid family leave. The mayor is very behind this and to do it through collective bargaining.

It’s actually best for the employer to not think about the immediate short-term cost of giving benefits for another five or six weeks for paid leave. In the long-term they are saving money by investing in employees, improving retention rates, decreasing turnover and cost to train a new employee.

Q: What are the issues you commonly hear about from constituents?

A: The issues that resonate across every neighborhood are the same ones. Issues of needing better workplace policies to support work life balance, housing prices are out of control, people being displaced from neighborhoods — particularly long time residents struggling to keep up with property tax payments. In our schools, we need to see quality across the board.

Q: What about in Jamaica Plain?

A: I think Jamaica Plain is like other neighborhoods struggling with gentrification. We’re really seeing whether Boston’s big economic boom is going to benefit Boston’s neighborhoods. I spent some time doing a small business listening tour throughout neighborhoods and had a session in JP; it wasn’t just about streamlining permitting and licensing, although that is very important. It is to make sure small businesses are anchors to local jobs. We have to make sure there is a mix of businesses and that people can afford [to run businesses] in neighborhoods. Our vision of Boston is where every neighborhood is welcoming, safe, and is a good place to raise a family. The reality is that many people are struggling for that stability. They can’t afford a place to live. W need new direct pathways to jobs and economic development and we need more equitable access to mental health services.

Michelle Wu

Michelle Wu

Q: You recently moved to Roslindale from the South End, how will that affect how you do your job?

A: I think as an at-large council it is important to spend time in every neighborhood. I continue to represent every neighborhood. Moving from the South End to Roslindale has tripled my commute time from home to city hall. That adds an entire extra level of urgency about transportation and access to affordable transportation, and reliable transportation. From Roslindale it’s harder to get to many neighborhoods that I represent. It’s not just a place where people are living, but a destination and we should have reliable transportation to every neighborhood. The transportation piece is very personal and urgent. Roslindale is a wonderful neighborhood and I’m excited to be there and represent all neighborhoods, even if I get to know Roslindale a little bit better.

Q: Do you think at-large city councilors focus more on the area they live?

A: I think it’s inevitable that as you walk outside n the morning and run into your neighbors you hear about issues and want to fix things [they are talking about]. I like to think about government and policy and it should be very tied to people and very tied to situations of real families and what they’re going through. Everywhere I go as a city councilor I ask what we can do better and how we can support families. It happens when I’m at the grocery store and going for a walk outside with my baby, not just at community meetings. I take policy very personal, I understand from my family experiences, and I see how it impacts people and bring a citywide lens to policy and also helping families on the ground.

Q: What would you least like to talk about: your vote to support Bill Linehan as city council president or city council pay raises?

A: Least like to? Council president hands down I think the relevance of those two are two very different issues and they are both issues that the media have overshadowed the real work of council.

On the council presidency, I have learned a lot in two years. And I am proud of what I accomplished. Concrete changes, laws and municipal ordinances that have gotten Boston in national headlines for making change. I understand that people take politics very seriously and personable. But I think it’s important to look at the entirety of a term.

On pay raises, I’m on the record as everyone else is on the record. I was a ‘no’ because I think the system is wrong. We should not be picking a number and voting on it. I want to change the system before we address any salary number. The focus on it in the media distracted from the work we are doing on the council. Many of my colleagues have passed some great legislation that put Boston on the forefront. I want to see people talking about what we have done or should be doing policy wise to help families in Boston.

Q: Do you think Boston City Councilors should have a set amount of paid time off?

A: It’s a job that is very difficult to fit into any standard time constraints. I think we work hard and I know, like you, my phone is always on, my cellphone is on my business card and I encourage people to reach out anytime or send a message. It’s a very variable workweek. I’ve been very transparent with how I spent my time and all that info is public. At the end of the day it’s not about quantifying how many hours we are sitting at our desk and clocked into a community meeting. [The best] metrics are whether we a responsive to constituents and effective as representatives, and whether we are focused on issues that matter most to families. And that’s a decision that every voter needs to make for themselves when they vote on November 3rd.

Q: Being the only sitting Asian city councilor do you feel like it’s mandatory to help the Asian communities? Do you think it’s similar for other councilors — like O’Malley, Murphy, and Flaherty being drawn to the Irish communities, Pressley the African-American community?

A: I think we’re all shaped by our experiences and our backgrounds. I do feel like a particular responsibility to the Asian community to speak up and be a voice. And I think all of my colleagues want to see the city as a whole to be a healthy, vibrant, place for people of all families and background to live. We certainly represent communities that are the direct communities we come from. I may live in one neighborhood, but I feel very tied to every neighborhood and want to make sure every neighborhood has a stake in policy and government. I’m proud to be an Asian in government. We have a long way to get to the levels of representation [needed]. No one mentioned to me growing up that I could run for office because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in office. I spend a lot of time talking to people to encourage young people to see themselves in government and see themselves as decision makers and to have the power of imagining yourself in that position.

Q: Anything else?

A: I very humbly and respectfully ask for Jamaica Plain residents and your readers for one of their four votes on November 3rd.