Hello residents of Somerville and Happy New Year. I am speaking to you, as I have for the past two years, from a remote location due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While we continue to combat this crisis, there are many things to be grateful for in the new year.
Somerville elected only it’s second female mayor in our history. We also elected the most diverse city council in the history of the city. The recent election shows that the people of Somerville value not only a diversity of identities, but a diversity of opinions as well. There is a lot to look forward to in the future.
That said, I’d like to use my time to reflect on the past. Understanding history, be it local or international, can help us understand the present and prepare for the future. As the longest tenured councilor currently serving, I am sometimes surprised people don’t know the history of Somerville politics.
Somerville is nationally known as one of the most progressive cities in America. That was not the case in very recent history, however. That progressive reputation was not obtained from a single election or individual, but from many individuals over a span of decades who fought for what they thought was right.
I remember being in the now vacant Somerville High School auditorium in 2017 listening to former Mayor Gene Brune talk about how he and a group of young, idealistic residents ran on a reformist slate to address corruption and increase transparency in government. Although our service was separated by decades I felt he was speaking directly to me.
I remember my father volunteering for Pat Jehlen’s school committee race and later her state races in a time when not being born and raised in Somerville felt like an insurmountable obstacle for candidates. He told anyone that would listen that Pat was the only honest politician in the city. She defeated the political establishment and still serves as our state senator.
I remember speaking to Denise Provost about her experiences running for office. She told me how opponents stuck nails in her tires to intimidate her. The political establishment wouldn’t let her serve on the Ward Democratic Committee even when she was our state rep. She went on to become one of the most progressive politicians in the commonwealth.
I remember when Rebekah Gerwitz ran for Ward 6 alderman no one thought she would win, but she won and proved that progressive minded people can think globally and act locally and succeed. For several years she was the lone progressive voice on the council.
Rebekah helped create the Progressive Democrats of Somerville as a counter to the establishment Democrats that excluded people like her and Denise Provost even after they were duly elected by the people of Somerville. They ran several candidates for office, most of whom lost until 2013 when Mark Niedergang and Katjana Ballantyne broke the trend and won their respected wards.
Even with this progressive momentum building many organizers never thought a progressive candidate could win in East Somerville. I was proud to prove them wrong and won my seat in 2013 as well. Even after winning, however, I had to fight for legitimacy against forces that did not want to live up to our progressive moniker.
Then in 2017 I was joined by new progressive colleagues who were endorsed by Our Revolution on a platform of affordable housing for all. Many were shocked to see a new organization with previously unknown candidates win and dramatically increase voter turnout for municipal races in the process. I was pleasantly surprised as well, but I understood that our victory was rooted in decades of activism and organizing.
We all are walking in the footsteps of our predecessors. These are not the footsteps of giants, but rather the footsteps of average people who took it upon themselves to represent the community, challenge the status quo and transform Somerville into the progressive city it is today.
Now instead of progressive candidates being shunned and excluded from politics, Somerville is a city where you have to prove your progressive bona fides just to have a chance to serve.
Which is why I found the tenor of the previous election cycle so concerning.
To say the election was divisive is an understatement. To say it is the most divisive in the city’s history, however, is hyperbole. There was no voter suppression, no intimidation of candidates, no establishment resisting change, all factors that existed within my lifetime. What makes this last election different from previous races is that it was divisive despite the fact that most candidates agreed on 99 percent of all issues.
Elections are divisive by nature. If everyone was the same we wouldn’t need elections at all. In a city with such a homogenized political landscape, however, I am concerned we will become a city that focuses on our few differences instead of working together on our shared values. Despite the absence of conflict over issues that are dividing the nation, we still are still impacted by an atmosphere that would rather focus on what we don’t have in common than what we do have in common.
There is something part of the human condition that makes us focus on our differences rather than our similarities. If you put 100 like minded people in a room for a long enough period they will find issues to divide and form factions around. But that is only one aspect of the human condition. There is another aspect of humanity that unites people from different backgrounds and viewpoints under a common cause. Elections are about our differences, but serving the community is about focusing on the things we have in common and working together.
Somerville has reached the progressive mountaintop. Now the question is what do we do when we reach the top? Do we focus on our differences and spend the entire term preparing for the next election like the way Washington DC operates? Or do we put actions behind our words and work together to serve the people?
The Covid-19 Pandemic highlighted that even when bad things happen to all of us, the most vulnerable among us feel a disproportionate impact. Disease, climate change, substance abuse, crime and affordable housing always hurt the people who have the least. These issues are routinely ignored by governments and politicians more concerned about partisanship and upholding the status quo that benefits them than making true, progressive change. This election I saw every candidate state that the most vulnerable among us should be the focus of our efforts. The election is over and it is time to put our differences aside and focus on our shared goals.
Somerville has a golden opportunity to prove to the region, the commonwealth and the nation what progressive leadership can do when focused on our common goals. If we fail it will not be because of Trump or developers or other boogie men that hold no sway in this city. We can only fail if we decide that our minor differences are more important than serving the most vulnerable people in our community.
As I enter my third consecutive term as City Council President, I will endeavor to work with all of my colleagues on our common goals. I will always place the needs of those struggling at the forefront of the city’s agenda. If we all stay true to our stated values and put the people first, there is very little we can’t accomplish. The progressive leaders before us could only dream of the opportunity for true change that we now have before us. We owe it to them and to the public to make the most of it.
Thank you and Happy New Year.