Progressive candidates backed by the local chapter of Our Revolution ushered the city into a new political era in November, when all nine candidates who were endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-inspired group took seats on the board of aldermen and the school committee.
Ben Ewen-Campen brought to the table a platform rooted in creating affordable living options in Somerville, pledging to offset taxes and create jobs, to preserve green space, and to improve infrastructure. A small battalion of progressive voters rewarded his promises with the Ward 3 alderman seat.
But despite the groundswell of support, Ewen-Campen is an unlikely politician. He works as a biologist at Harvard Medical School, and was only inspired to get into politics after the 2016 presidential election.
“The connection is a bit non-linear,” Ewen-Campen admits. “The aspects of my biology work that transfer over really has to do with taking complicated situations, trying to be really clear in communicating what the problem is, and then looking for clear ways to move forward even in that complexity.”
Ewen-Campen’s path to becoming an alderman isn’t much of a scientific anomaly considering his upbringing, though. Born and raised outside of Central Square, his father studied fair housing options and discrimination in Cambridge, which became chief concerns for him upon his move to Somerville.
“There were a bunch of things going on last year around affordable housing, including the redevelopment of Union Square and some development out in Assembly Square,” he recalls. “It’s not that I thought that I needed to get in there and fix things. I felt there needs to be a radical increase in the amount of community involvement, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Ewen-Campen’s website biography practically doubles as a love letter to the city. He married his wife, Alex, on Prospect Hill last year, and the couple plans to keep their family here.
As a resident of the city, Ewen-Campen says he sees it as “blatantly obvious” that Somerville can do more to foster an “affordable, diverse, inclusive community.” He sees it through Alex’s experience as an artist with studio space outside of Union Square, through his own budding friendships with neighbors in public housing, and through interactions stemming from board meetings and his e-newsletters.
“From a municipal budget, bottom-line perspective, every new tax dollar that comes in is an unambiguous good,” Ewen-Campen explains. “All new developments are good, but as we all know intuitively, the benefits are not spread equally among people who live in Somerville. In fact, the people who really pay the highest cost tend to be lower-income folks [and] communities of color who get displaced.”
Ewen-Campen believes a major solution is the recently approved real estate transfer fee tax, which has been kicked around by the board since U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano was mayor of the city in the ’90s.
As Ewen-Campen describes it, new developments and real estate are charged a low fee that generates revenue for affordable housing. Restrictions are in place to ensure owner-occupants remain exempt, but the problem for the aldermen is in removing any misconceptions around the legislation and having it make sense for citizens and developers.
“At one of the public hearings, I remember having a conversation with a women who was vehemently opposed to it. Like, writes articles about it … [but] her daughter is currently on a waitlist [for affordable housing],” he says. “I think it’s important for people to realize that’s who we’re doing this for.”
The city made the fee one percent in the hope that the mandate doesn’t discourage development, he explains.
“Affordable housing costs money—there’s just no way to sugarcoat it,” he adds. “You need to build new affordable housing, you need to buy housing on the market and make it affordable, you need to provide services for people who are facing displacement. There’s just no silver bullet that doesn’t cost money. A one percent fee is not going to kill our real estate market, and it’s not going to harm our residents.”
Aside from demystifying constituents on the board’s decision-making, Ewen-Campen says he is especially excited about his brainstorming with the Council on Aging on new, creative ways to build community between young professionals and their elderly neighbors, which he hopes will create avenues for a more engaged Somerville.
The work ties into one of his original reasons for running for office after Donald Trump’s election: to refocus on building community and investment in municipal elections.
And the city did see booming interest in local elections in the fall, as voters jumped from about 6,500 in 2015 to over 16,000 in 2017, according to city voting data.
“On a regular year in my ward, it would be 11, 15, 17 percent if you were lucky,” Ewen-Campen recalls. “I think that if we had 100 percent voter turnout in Somerville in municipal elections, we would have a much more progressive city government, and I think you saw that in last year’s election,” he adds.
This is an online-exclusive story paired with the print Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.