Emil Guillermo: Michelle Wu, Aftab Pureval, and Bruce Harrell drive Asian American hopes for our democracy
Michelle Wu. Not “Michelle who?”
She was the tip of a trend that could be the secret of America’s diverse political future. I call it the “Asian American difference” and Wu was just the first sign of something that could be seen coast-to-coast.
On a night when pundits looked to the Virginia gubernatorial race to get a sense of direction in American politics, most everyone overlooked another “Michelle from Chicago.” Like Michelle Obama, Michelle Wu was born there, but she was winning convincingly in of all places Boston, a city where only white men had been mayor for the last 200 years.
But on election night 2021, Wu, 38, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard law, a mentee of Elizabeth Warren, simply did what few other politicians have been able to do in recent years.
She pulled together a broad coalition of Blacks, Latinx, whites, women, and union members in what had been seen as a divided city with a racist past, and racked up an historic victory that gives Asian Americans and all the rest of our diverse nation hope for our democracy.
Make no mistake.We are a part of this great nation. We are seen and heard. And now we lead.
It’s a political evolution that an Asian American woman, the first elected mayor in Boston, can make us feel that way.
It starts from the grassroots up.
And the 38-year-old Wu, the President of the Boston City Council, isn’t the only one in the country emerging on election night.
Asian Americans were winning the top job in big cities.
In conservative Cincinnati, Democrat Aftab Pureval, a 39-year old lawyer and son of an Indian immigrant father and a Tibetan refugee mother, also made history, to become the first Asian American mayor of the Ohio city.
“Cincinnati is the place where no matter what you look like, where you’re from, or how much money you have, if you come here and work hard you can reach your dreams tonight,” Pureval said as he stood next to his white wife, Whitney, with whom they have a young mixed race son.
I know Cincinnati a bit. And it’s something that Pureval beat a longtime city councilman and two-time mayor who was 82 years old. Pureval beat tradition, that has recently been beset distrust due to indictments among local public officials. Pureval offered voters real change that looked young, inclusive, and 21st century modern. .
In Seattle, the answer was Bruce Harrell, 63, a moderate Democrat and a consensus-building president of the city council. He became the first Asian American and the second African American to lead his city.
“Raise your hand if you’re half-Japanese and half-Black?” Harrell asked the crowd as he gave his victory speech last night. His supporters laughed, but then Harrell got serious. He said that as a child, it was hard to find where he fit in, and he made his life’s mission to not look at just race.
“I always had to struggle to find what we had in common,” Harrell said. “And Seattle, when you celebrate that, you can do amazing things.”
Amazing, as in building a diverse coalition to win the night by nearly 30 percentage points.
It nearly mirrored Wu in Boston. Wu’s coalition defeated her closest rival by 27 percentage points.
Wu’s victory speech was just as charismatic. Garbed in red, she began by quoting one of her half-Asian, half-white sons.
“[He)] asked me if boys could be elected mayor of Boston,” Wu said to laughs and cheers. “They have been and they will again some day, but not tonight. On this day, Boston elected your mom.”
And not a Tiger Mom. Just a modern Asian American mom. With modern Asian and American values.
Wu’s story is typical of a lot of Asian families.
Her parents were science and tech immigrants from Taiwan to Chicago, where Michelle was born and raised. After graduating from Harvard College, Michelle left a well-paying consulting job and went back to Chicago to care for her mother, who was reeling from a divorce and health issues. Michelle became the caregiver of both her mother and her younger sisters. She started a tea shop. But then she decided to go to law school and moved her whole family back to Boston. Now she, her husband, and two kids live in a multi-generational household.
Who does that?
It’s a story of empathy and care, the kind of story you want to see about a “public servant.” Mix that in with someone who is smart, competent, inclusive, and progressive, and that’s a formula embodied in someone who should rise in the politics of the future.
Because people will respond like they did in Boston.
“From every corner of our city, Boston has spoken,” Wu said. “We are ready to meet this moment. We are ready to become a Boston for everyone. We’re ready to be a Boston that doesn’t push people out, but welcomes all who call our city home. We are ready to be a Boston where all can afford to stay and thrive, and yes, Boston is ready to become a green New Deal City…We are marching into Boston’s promise.”
It was a speech in which Wu made sure it wasn’t about her (“It wasn’t my vision…It was ours together.”)
But just by standing at the podium, she had every Asian American believing. It’s the reason a large percentage of Wu’s overall fundraising (well in excess of a million dollars) came from Asian Americans in California and Hawaii.
Wu is practically a political unicorn. In the country’s 100 largest cities, only five Asian American women have served as mayor, and all in California, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
And the number of women even higher in the political stratosphere you can count on your fingers. Kamala Harris at Veep is South Asian and Black, and there are Senators Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono. And seven female members of the House.
So it’s a big deal for Wu to emerge on the night when everyone thinks what happened in the Virginia gubernatorial race revealed the big trend.
Actually, the trend was a lot closer to the grassroots. It was not statewide but local, in Boston. And in Cincinnati with Aftab Pureval. And in Seattle with Bruce Harrell. And it featured Asian Americans showing how to drive a real coalition of diversity in these divided times.
It’s the Asian American difference. On election night 2021, flashes happened throughout the nation that now provides real hope for our democracy going forward.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.