By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Fresh from serving as campaign manager in Michelle Wu’s successful bid to become the first woman and first person of color to serve as mayor of Boston, campaign manager Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson is gearing up for new challenges as Wu’s interim chief of staff.
According to Akai-Ferguson, Wu’s win “was truly a coalition across many demographics. We don’t know the exact numbers, but looking at the neighborhood spread, there was no one group that factored prominently.”
Like Wu, Akai-Ferguson did not originally intend to enter the political arena. Wu, 36. is an attorney who graduated from Harvard University. Akai-Ferguson, 28, graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in economics.
Upon graduation, Akai-Ferguson joined Teach for America and worked for two years teaching math and coaching soccer at a Louisiana high school.
“I moved to D.C. (in 2018) with an interest in education policy,” Akai-Ferguson told The Rafu Shimpo. She accepted a Leadership for Educational Equity Fellowship with the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. “But (I) applied to a wide net of jobs, so I could afford to live there.”
She added, “I ended up taking a three-month campaign job on the Maryland governor’s race that I saw as a temporary gig while I looked for a ‘real’ policy job.” Although the candidate, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, lost his bid for governor, she recalls that she “ended up loving it.”
After the Maryland campaign, a colleague urged her to join Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign. In 2019, Akai-Ferguson was named director, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Warren for President, and was tasked with bringing the campaign to 26 states.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Roger Lau, who was then Warren’s campaign manager and is now thedeputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee, called Akai-Ferguson “brilliant.”
She was born in Japan, where her mother was a Japanese translator and her Irish American father worked as an international journalist. Her parents moved to East Atlanta, where Akai-Ferguson grew up.
Akai-Ferguson reportedly assembled a large and diverse campaign team of 21 people and looked after them in a way that Warren team colleague Anthony Davis Jr. found uncharacteristic of a campaign.
Nancy Yap, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Asian Americans United in Empowerment (CAUSE), is optimistic that Akai-Ferguson is indicative of a new wave of political activism among APIs.
“We’ve seen it over time. People want to see things changed,” Yap says. “A lot of things have been laid open, and people are seeing the challenges and starting to see that their voice can create that momentum.
“It’s true, the young people are engaged, but I would also say there are movements that have happened throughout our generation that have inspired our young people to get involved. The difference is the landscape of it and what we fight for.”
Yap acknowledges that there are young folks who are willing to run for office “and they are very clear about it,” but she emphasizes, “from an Asian and Pacific Islander standpoint, we don’t see enough of us reflected in those offices to even know what we’re signing up for.”
She would also like to see a bridge between those in the political arena and those interested in getting involved.
Yap also notes, for example, that professionals ranging in age from late 30s to 40s are beginning to realize that they can help make a difference in combatting anti-Asian hate, having reached a point in their lives where they can “begin to take their foot off the gas” and focus on helping the community.
The elections of Wu in Boston, Mayor Bruce Harrell in Seattle, Mayor Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City Councilmember Darin Mano appear to support Yap’s view that API attitudes toward political involvement are changing.
But preparation is key, urges Yap.