Everything’s The Same, Everything’s Different

Somerville mayorsPhoto courtesy of City of Somerville.

There are some 81,000 people living in Somerville’s 4.2 square miles of real estate, but there’s really just one you’re going to blame if our trash isn’t picked up or the roads aren’t plowed: the mayor.  

Since 1872, 35 people have held that office. The current occupant, Mayor Joe Curtatone, is the city’s longest-serving mayor. The incumbent since 2004, he’s serving his eighth term. Gene Brune held the office for a decade, from 1980 to 1990. They each shared some insights on how being mayor has changed over the decades. 

Incumbent Mayor Joe Curtatone

Prioritizing Accountability
When he arrived in the mayor’s office in 1996, Curtatone says residents told him core city services weren’t being delivered efficiently or effectively. On top of that, “the Police Department was in disarray,” he says. So, one of his first priorities was leveling up the city’s responsiveness to its residents.

“We wanted to develop and cultivate the most professional and accountable staff we could,” he says. “To bring that data and performance information out to the public, online.”

The National Political Climate
Some priorities have changed gradually, but others were unpredictable, like the impact of the election of Donald Trump as president and the spiraling crisis of climate control, he says.

“There was a time when what was most important was a transactional relationship between us and the public: You elected me as mayor, I needed to balance the budget, improve the services, and so forth,” he says. “Now that means standing up and fighting for new immigrants in our communities when they’re being targeted with cruel and mean-spirited policies. To not only act locally but think globally as leaders, not just in our communities but for the greater region in the commonwealth and the country. That’s evolved and changed to a level beyond what I would ever have expected when I first got elected.”

Continuous Growth
For both mayors, the core issues haven’t changed a whole lot: transportation, housing, public safety. But the area of focus within those issues does tend to shift. Housing is another evergreen issue that must be addressed across decades.  

“We never want to become static,” says Curtatone. “The needs of the community, the demands, and the priorities are always changing.”

“On the campaign side, many things have changed in terms of the evolution of social media and different challenges and methods of engaging voters,” said Curtatone. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the value of engaging voters face-to-face.”

Last summer alone, he rang 4,500 doorbells while out campaigning, a continuation of a practice that began with his first run in 1995, he says. But now there are so many sources where voters seek and share information—social media, online, via text—that running now requires a robust online outreach effort.

Photo courtesy of Gene Brune.

Mayor Emeritus Gene Brune

The Red Line
One of Brune’s biggest challenges in the 1980s was finding a way to lay the groundwork so Somerville could grow and increase its potential. For example, bringing the Red Line to Davis Square: That was a project that started in 1974 when he was still an alderman, and the ribbon was finally cut in the middle of his tenure, in 1984. It was a boon not just for commuters, but for economic development. Before then, he says, the square was all “shoe stores and barrooms, and the shoe stores were moving out.”

Brune also felt it was critical to improve the quality of life in Somerville and one way to do that was to take on its reputation as “the billboard capital of the world.” His administration faced off with billboard giant Ackerley Communications by changing the zoning ordinance to severely restrict where they could be placed, and Ackerley responded by filing a lawsuit to stop it. Eventually, the courts upheld the city’s modified zoning ordinance.

“I took them on and we went to court a few times,” says Brune. “We won some, we lost some, but the end result is we took down 90 percent of the billboards.”

Brune’s most memorable mayoral race was the 1979 primary election. He knew two sons of influential families—Paul Haley and Michael Capuano, both aldermen—were planning to seek the nomination. Having run for mayor unsuccessfully before, Brune’s strategy this time around was not to tip his hand until both men had committed to the race, splitting the vote. 

But Capuano, it seemed, was of a similar mind. He kept trying to get Brune to commit as to whether he was getting in the race or not. Brune felt that if he announced, Capuano would hold off for a year, endorsing incumbent Mayor Thomas F. August in anticipation of a reciprocal endorsement after August served one final term.  

“Michael Capuano did everything he could to get me out, and I did everything I could to keep him in,” recalls Brune. “I kept on stalling him, even though we knew we were going to run.”

Finally, as the filing deadline closed in, Capuano announced that he was filing to seek the mayor’s office, “and we drank Champagne,” says Brune. He went on to file his own candidacy, win the nomination, then defeat August in the general election to begin the first term of his 10-year tenure.

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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