Politics

After 18 years, Somerville is electing a new mayor — and the choices are distinctly different

"I would say there's three very progressive, ethical, honest, value-based candidates — and there's one person who stands blatantly against every value that is important to our community."

The candidates in Somerville's mayoral preliminary election (L-R): Katjana Ballantyne, Will Mbah, Mary Cassesso, and William 'Billy' Tauro. L-R: Handout, Marfione Studio, Jason Corey, Marfione Studio

The last time Mayor Joe Curtatone’s name wasn’t on the ballot in Somerville, American troops were just entering — rather than leaving — Afghanistan, the first iPhone had just been introduced, and New England Patriots players were beginning to remark that a youngster named Tom Brady had “potential.

A lot has changed since then — in Somerville, particularly so.

Under Curtatone, the 81,000-person city once dubbed “Slummerville” has seen its blue-collar roots overtaken by a national reputation for liberal policies and not-infrequent comparisons to Brooklyn; concerns about crime have been replaced by concerns about the soaring cost of housing.

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Now, in the wake of Curtatone’s decision not to seek re-election after 18 years in office, Somerville residents are voting in the city’s first open mayoral race this century, an election offering several distinctly different paths forward.

The four-way race features a historically diverse slate of candidates: Ward 7 City Councilor Katjana Ballantyne; former city auditor, state finance official, and Cambridge Health Alliance chief community officer Mary Cassesso; state environmental analyst and at-large City Councillor Will Mbah; and writer William “Billy” Tauro.

Four candidates — but only three with Curtatone’s support

Ballantyne has served as a city councilor for seven years and was the first woman to be elected as council president twice. Outside of the city, she was the executive director and CEO of Girls’ LEAP Boston and has worked in international business, startups, and nonprofits. She is a vocal and demonstrated advocate for sustainability and climate resiliency, and her family does not have a car. She wrote Somerville’s Green New Deal resolution and was the lead sponsor on a successful zoning measure that requires LEED platinum standards for all lab buildings. Ballantyne is also an immigrant and was the first in her family to go to college.

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Cassesso got her start serving as Somerville’s city auditor in the 1980s, before joining former Gov. Michael Dukakis’ administration as a budget official. The Somerville native then worked for two decades as the dean of administration and finance for Harvard’s dental school before joining former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration to oversee the office of health and human service’s budget and most recently worked as chief community officer of CHA. Cassesso has also chaired Somerville’s affordable housing trust fund since 1995. In debates and interviews, she emphasizes her management experience and approach to tackling problems “through a public health lens.”

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Though he has a much shorter history in Somerville, Mbah sets himself apart as “the most progressive candidate” in the race, with endorsements from a local Sunrise Movement chapter and Our Revolution, the national political group formed out of Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign. A Cameroon native, Mbah would be the first person of color to be the city’s mayor. He moved to Somerville in 2011 after earning an environmental science degree in Sweden and was elected to the City Council in 2017. Mbah points to his lived experience as a Black immigrant with racism and being forced to move due to rising housing prices. And he says he would be the first mayor in Massachusetts to reimplement rent control if the statewide ban was repealed.

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Tauro, whose yard signs are ubiquitous around Somerville, was the first to declare his candidacy for mayor back in October 2020, when Curtatone was still in office. Locally, he is best known as the voice behind The Somerville News Weekly, a news blog mostly written from Tauro’s perspective. He has been harshly critical of Curtatone for his recent tenure, both on his blog and in a 500-page book, “Stealing Somerville: Death of an Urban City,” much of which is a compilation of blog posts. Tauro backed Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential bid, but has pointed out since that he once supported Curtatone and that both were a mistake. He is running as an independent in the mayoral election.

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According to Curtatone, the position of Somerville mayor is no longer just about passing budgets or improving the city’s bond rating. Rather, as the leader of a city where 90 percent of residents voted against Trump last year, he says his successor must continue to be an outspoken voice for progressive values in the Boston area and beyond.

Joseph Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, who is leaving office after four terms, outside City Hall in Somerville, Mass., April 5, 2021. – Damian Strohmeyer/The New York Times

“Somerville has a very important role for its residents, for the region, and the Commonwealth — and much farther beyond that,” Curtatone told Boston.com in a recent interview.

The current mayor isn’t endorsing any candidate in the preliminary election Tuesday. However, he may reevaluate depending on which two candidates advance to the Nov. 2 general election; Curtatone has openly criticized Tauro and called attention to the candidate’s felony conviction for insurance fraud in 1986 (public records also show Tauro said he lived in Tewksbury as recently as 2018).

“I would say there’s three very progressive, ethical, honest, value-based candidates — and there’s one person who stands blatantly against every value that is important to our community,” Curtatone said, more than lightly nudging voters toward the three fellow Democrats in the race.

The issue on everyone’s mind: housing

Curtatone says the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a “glaring light” on long-standing injustices and developing crises, including the shortage of affordable housing in Somerville and the surrounding communities.

Ballantyne, Cassesso, and Mbah have all expressed support for bringing back some form of rent control, which has been banned in Massachusetts since 1994. Mbah argues he would “push harder” than the previous administration or his opponents.

“I know that rent control will come from the state, but as soon as they pass it, I’ll be the first to enact it because it’s a thing that we need to do to be able to create meaningful reforms in our community,” Mbah said. “You need a mayor to push the state to do stuff.”

Still, the three Democrats largely agree that it will take a multi-pronged approach to address the affordability crisis, including the use of linkage fees to fund housing for lower incomes, the city’s requirement that at least 20 percent of units in large projects be affordable, and a number of other tools. 

Mbah has called for raising the 20 percent affordability requirement, while Ballantyne and Cassesso say they’re open to it (the policy in Boston only requires 13 percent). Mbah dismisses concerns that imposing stricter affordability requirements could deter needed housing projects. He also criticized the City Council’s move in 2016 to give the developer of housing in Assembly Row a waiver to build just 16 percent affordable units, most of which would be built in another part of the city, as “ridiculous.”

“These developers … whatever they build, we are going to be the people who live with the consequences of it,” Mbah said. “You even ask them, ‘Show us the books.’ They cannot show us the books. So, what does that tell you?”

If elected, Ballantyne says her first step as mayor to increase affordable housing would be to utilize partnerships with the Somerville Housing Authority, nonprofit developers like the Somerville Community Corporation, and Somerville’s community land trust group, using funds from linkage fees, and utilizing the recently-added affordable housing zoning overlay.

She’s also been at this work for a long time.

“I served on the SCC board of directors…[and] we came up with ideas in 2004 when the Green Line was voted in, we said we had to figure out displacement tools,” Ballantyne said. “We tried to get the administration to pay attention to it… It took until 2015 when I and a few of my colleagues got elected…pushed the administration to take this activist work I’d been working on with others to implement some of these strategies.”

Cassesso points to the Green Line Extension as a major opportunity to build more affordable housing, but emphasizes the need for community input in the process amid concerns about displacement. Between linkage fees, the city’s Community Preservation Act, and federal COVID-19 relief funds, Cassesso says “there’s more resources than ever for housing.”

“I understand how to tap into tax credits, etc. to take full advantage of creating more housing, and working to protect and preserve what we have,” she said.

Cassesso would also like to reward small property owners who keep their units at below-market rents for tenants, either through state-level property tax abatements or green retrofitting incentives.

“In my mind, they’re part of that equation, preserving and protecting affordable housing,” Cassesso said. “And they should get some benefit for their contributions and commitment to the community.”

Somerville City Hall. – City of Somerville

Tauro, on the other hand, says his main housing policy is to “clean up” the city’s departments of inspectional services and public works to streamline the building and development process.

“I want to eliminate the clog the middle man is causing,” he said. “I want a qualified, honest, skilled, approved developer to come in – I want him to get a variance, I want him to get a permit, I want him to start building… No bureaucracy, no red tape, no nothing. …Then you have a happy tenant that’s going in there at an affordable housing price, you have a happy landlord, a happy developer, and a happy supply contractor because they already got paid.”

Tauro says he will put a system in place to ensure the cost savings of streamlining the building and development process will get passed onto the tenant.

“There’s going to be an application – you want to build affordable housing, you’ve got to keep it affordable housing,” he said. “They’re not going to throw my administration a curveball. Their feet are going to be held to the fire.”

Building a city for the next generation

In other areas, Ballantyne, Cassesso, and Mbah are pledging to continue much of the work already underway under Curtatone, while Tauro would take the city in a dramatically different direction (Ballantyne and Cassesso declined to criticize the Curtatone administration, but said their leadership styles would be more inclusive).

The three Democrats in the race say they would prioritize funding from the expected federal infrastructure package to expand pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, improve the city’s sewer and stormwater systems, and accelerate efforts to reach the city’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. 

“I’ve delivered as a city councilor and I’ve legislated to improve people’s lives,” Ballantyne said, noting her leadership on passing a native species ordinance and managing the community process for a $340 million all-electric, fossil-fuel-free public housing development.

Mbah points specifically to Highland Avenue as a stretch of road that needs better bike lanes, even if it comes at the expense of parking.

“Change is good, but it’s tough,” Mbah said. “So people will need to understand that we are trying to build a city for the future.”

Tauro, who consistently rails against the city’s bus-only lane on Broadway and calls for expanded parking options, rejects that approach. 

Though bus lanes are generally popular, Tauro says he would turn the Broadway lane into carpool lanes enforced by local police, similar to the HOV lanes on I-93. There just aren’t enough buses and bikes to justify it, he argues.

“Why should people have that one lane open for a few people?” Tauro said. “I want to turn it into a carpool lane because that’s what a bus is: a bus is a carpool. I will feel more safe in my automobile with my air conditioning on, with my family…then having 10 or 15 people coughing in my face on the bus, and why should I be behind that bus?”

Tauro also plans to require bicyclists to register and obtain insurance — something he said he’d accomplish through city ordinance — to ensure they share responsibility for road incidents.

“A bike is going to follow the same rules of the road a car is,” he said. “If a bike hits your car, it comes out of your insurance. If you hit a bicyclist, they’re going to sue you for everything you got. So I want to see bicyclists carry insurance and registration, and pay the excise tax to use that road as well. They want to share the road? They have got to get the right to share the road.”

His platform also includes reducing parking meter fees and cutting their hours back to 6 p.m. — or making them free near businesses — and hosting ethnic feasts every month during the spring and summer.

Ensuring the kids are alright

On education, Tauro said his administration would invest more into opening charter schools; right now, there is only one in city limits (a state law also caps the amount a district can spend on charter schools).

“A lot of the parents I’ve been talking to over the past couple months don’t like what’s being taught in schools, a lot of the subjects they want — they want English, they want Social Studies — when you start bringing all this extra curriculum in there it doesn’t work out,” he said. “I like public schools, but there are some things in public schools you can get more of from a private or charter school.”

During a candidate debate last month, Tauro also said his “first” act on education would be to clear the grass lawn in front of Somerville’s new $256 million high school to make room for “275 parking spaces” for teachers and students.

The new Somerville High School. – City of Somerville

In contrast, Ballantyne, Cassesso, and Mbah list their top education policy priority as achieving universal pre-K, as well as expanding after-school and transportation services. Ballantyne and Cassesso also put an emphasis on providing more pathways to internships, co-ops, and associates degrees through the high school’s tech center aimed at new economy sectors.

Cassesso would also like to introduce a second-language curriculum through the afterschool program, while Ballantyne says she would prioritize the enrichment of current classes with activities like local museum visits.

Mbah says he would remove police officers from school campuses and give students a seat on the Somerville School Committee.

Still, there are questions around the actual implementation of some of these pledges, especially as Boston struggles across the river to fully enact universal pre-K, eight years after former mayor Marty Walsh ran for election on the issue.

Cassesso has emphasized her experience managing multi-million dollar budgets — and pressed her Democratic rivals on the subject. During the debate last month, Ballantyne cited her private sector experience negotiating international contracts and working with start-up companies, while Mbah challenged the premise of the question.

In turn, Cassesso has faced scrutiny from Ballantyne over $3,500 in donations she made to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker between 2016 and 2019 as president of the CHA’s nonprofit foundation. Cassesso argues that her political contributions as a part of an organization pushing for the expansion of mental health and substance use services “is different than me as a person, who would not participate in a Republican administration.”

“I would never vote Republican because my philosophies and my progressive stance on everything are a little different,” she said. “But there are expectations when you’re doing certain work, and also trying to expand certain services to participate. That is just the way of the world somewhat.”

Choosing Somerville’s leader

Curtatone says Somerville is “fortunate to have three good candidates” and says voters will have to make their own decision.

“Somerville is a very smart city,” he said.

Citing the city’s engaged populace and its transformation over the past two decades, Curtatone says the next mayor needs to be a “not a manager,” but “a leader.” 

“This job’s about leadership — leadership, and values,” Curtatone said. “Being the mayor of Somerville is not like being the mayor of any other city.”

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