A look at the machine’s once—and future?—king, Joe Curtatone
A a master of straddling the legacy and future of Somerville, Joe Curtatone has won support from Winter Hill to the White House. Statewide, the five-term mayor has cultivated a favorable reputation, having been named president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association. Though he’s apparently run a free market City Hall in which big development is almost indiscriminately propped, Curtatone scored points with liberals at the outset of his mayorship by wrestling with Mitt Romney, and, more recently, as a vocal member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Packing those and other notable credentials, earlier this month, Curtatone announced on Facebook that he is giving a gubernatorial run “serious consideration.” Prior to that, the revelation was the worst kept secret in state politics, with the Boston Globe and pundits galore already speculating as such. He added that he’s not yet arrived at a final decision—and is definitely still running for mayor in November—but his confidence suggests a looming climb up Beacon Hill.
Curtatone has always relied on the bosses of Old Somerville to get out his vote; at the same time, he’s basked in the limelight of hip New Somerville, its influx of young professionals and booming development. But while Curtatone is popular, his heavy-handed style has been criticized as sometimes ignoring residents in favor of political allies. As such, some previously silent skeptics appear to now be turning on him.
In an email to the Dig, a City Hall spokesperson wrote that Curtatone “appreciates informed, vigorous discussion of every matter that both branches of City government jointly address.” Still, the mayor has been mostly spoiled by a Board of Aldermen that shines his shoes. But now, things have begun to change, and an increasing number of members are willing to oppose the brass.
For this last installment of the Somerville Files, the Dig looks deeper into Curtatone’s rise and tenure, and at the current state of city politics as he eyes the top office in the Commonwealth.
KING KOTY & PRINCE JOE
Having come of age on Prospect Hill Avenue, just outside of Union Square, Curtatone was endowed at birth with what may be the most important quality in any Somerville official—he’s a native. Born in 1966, he attended Somerville High School, where the future mayor played trumpet in the jazz band and gave his all on the football team. After graduating in 1984, Curtatone went on to earn a B.A. from Boston College, and later on a barrister’s degree from the New England School of Law in 1994.
Though Curtatone briefly worked exclusively as an attorney, he entered politics in 1995, shortly after finishing law school. He had declared homestead on a residence he bought in Wakefield months earlier, but as a voter, Curtatone was registered with the Somerville Election Department as a Republican living on Adams Street. When a seat opened on the Board of Aldermen, he changed his party affiliation to Democrat, and threw his hat in the ring. Neither Curtatone’s Wakefield property or homestead discrepancy came to light during the election; in turn he won, and proceeded up the Somerville ladder.
As a new alderman, Curtatone was often a strong voice against then-Mayor Michael Capuano, as well as others in powerful positions. Well-liked but perhaps somewhat naive, in 1999, Curtatone ran for mayor only to place third in the primary behind school committee members John Buonomo and Dorothy Kelly Gay, the latter of whom prevailed.
Four years later, Curtatone smartened up, and rallied support from local honchos. Most importantly, he won the allegiance of Stan Koty, a former alderman and assistant clerk for Kelly Gay. Koty had assumed control of the Somerville political machine from his former boss, State Rep. Vincent Piro, who’d been indicted decades earlier. Despite his proximity to the Piro scandal—an HBO-worthy ordeal featuring State House wiretaps and bribery—Koty managed to save face, and remains a kingmaker in city politics today.
For a GOP expat like Curtatone, Koty was a qualified booster. In 1992, the former Piro chief of staff had, against all odds, helped elect Republican Charlie Shannon—a former Belmont police officer—to represent Somerville on Beacon Hill. So in 2003, Koty turned on then-Mayor Gay, and diverted every cog in his machine toward the Curtatone camp. Aligned with the organism that had operated Somerville for two generations, Curtatone prevailed to become the second-youngest mayor in Somerville history.
As future races rolled around, the alliance with Koty continued to help Curtatone. The mayor picked up key endorsements from city stalwarts, some of whom were seemingly rewarded for their friendship. Under the mayor, Koty was put in charge of the Department of Public Works, while his son, Russell, was given a job with the Inspectional Services Division. Ed Nuzzo, who also gave to Curtatone’s 2003 campaign, was eventually named superintendent of ISD; after Nuzzo failed repeated state certification tests, Curtatone appointed him to a higher-paying city job.
Prior to his second run at mayor, Curtatone had a negative balance in his campaign account. Once in office, though, business interests would make sure that he would never again want for funds. Together, contractors contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Curtatone. The mayor has repeatedly denied that money sways City Hall; at the same time, he’s done little to avert the appearance of playing favorites. Consider Richard DiGirolamo.
As noted in previous installments of this series, the real estate attorney counts the chairman of the zoning board among his former clients, and has gained approval for projects through that board that stand in violation of municipal ordinances. On June 24—less than two weeks after the first installment was published—the Dig has now learned that DiGirolamo hosted a fundraiser for Curtatone at Del Frisco’s on the South Boston waterfront. Such upscale open bar shindigs, which suggest donations of between $150 and $500, are tradition; DiGirolamo has previously thrown at least two galas for Curtatone at the Royal Sonesta, as well as a reception last year at Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge. Asked about a potential conflict of interest, a Curtatone campaign spokesman wrote in an email that “people of every demographic, occupation and persuasion get involved in politics and there’s nothing unusual about that.”
Statewide, mayoral candidates reported finishing 2011 with a total of $799,461 on hand. Other than Tom Menino in Boston, Curtatone had the largest balance of the bunch, the bulk of which over the years has come from entities with big financial stakes in Somerville. Attorneys from Palmer & Dodge, for example, gave a total of $4,000 to Curtatone in 2005; that same year, the firm was paid more than $500,000 to re-write zoning for Assembly Square—changes that were later ruled illegal by a Massachusetts land court.
That trend of developer giving has continued. The management of PT Kelley, which has won Somerville contracts worth more than $5 million in the past two years alone, donated $2,000 in 2012. Owners and associates of Design Consultants, a local traffic-engineering firm that’s banked about $1.5 million in Somerville since 2011, gave $1,400. Last year, 119 Somerville employees donated to Curtatone, though nearly half of them neglected to disclose that they work in city government. Considering his aspirations, it’s no surprise that Curtatone—currently in his fifth term—is one of the most competitive fund raisers in the Commonwealth.
In reporting that money, though, he’s been cited by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance for irregularities on his intake and expenditure reports. In 2011, the Globe reported that Curtatone failed to list the names of 41 vendors that his campaign had paid. The mayor’s spokesperson blamed an electronic glitch. A look at the omissions, however, reveals some potentially embarrassing details—a $350 refund to a local contractor who gave over the legal limit; a $390 “meeting expense” for Patriots tickets.
Even since those problems with his 2011 filings, Curtatone has fumbled OCPF requirements. The mayor’s 2012 report, which was due in January, was only completed two weeks ago—and only after being amended three times, by order of the state, for omitting travel expenses, credit card reports, and cash reimbursements. Asked about these issues, a Curtatone campaign spokesperson wrote in an email that “amendments are fairly pro forma stuff,” and that “Mayor Curtatone is in good standing in terms of his political finance reporting.” Nevertheless, the corrected reimbursements indicate that Curtatone may even have his sights set outside of New England. In 2012, he used campaign funds to visit Washington, D.C. for a Bruins game, and to travel abroad to Tiznit—a ceremonial Somerville sister city on the coast of Morocco—where he stayed at the Hilton in Casablanca. It was his third time visiting there in four years.
In late May, three aldermen spoke out about campaign financing in Somerville. Bill White put forth a proposal to limit campaign contributions—from developers who are vying to do business with the city—to $300. White, who has occasionally been skeptical of the mayor’s agenda, argued that state laws are inadequate alone in curbing the role that money plays in local politics. He explained to the media how—even with a $500 limit per donor—big developers often coax their employees and relatives into each giving the maximum, and as a result yield a “substantial influence” on elections.
White’s pitch won support from fellow aldermen Rebekah Gewirtz and Tony Lafuente, the latter of whom ran against Curtatone in 2003, and has recently taken an especially combative stance against the mayor. Days later, though, Curtatone proposed his own new guidelines that would limit contributions from developers and city workers to $250. A City Hall press release announcing the idea placed Curtatone’s name alongside all of the aldermen—except for White and the two others who supported the initial proposal for a $300 cap.
The posturing around campaign finance, while indicative of growing local skepticism about the role of development in politics, also served to highlight a burgeoning split on the board. For most of Curtatone’s reign, he’s faced little scrutiny from his legislative branch. But in recent months, as concerns about development have grown, a loose coalition of curmudgeonly aldermen have aired concerns. Among them are White and Gewirtz—long the mayor’s biggest haters—and Lafuente. Even some older, more establishment-friendly figures—namely, aldermen Dennis Sullivan and Tom Taylor—have sided with the Lafuente group on recent issues.
Meanwhile, a substantial personnel turnover has taken root. Along with Taylor, fellow aldermen Bob Trane and Bruce Desmond—who have typically backed the administration—have announced that they will leave the board this fall, while two of Curtatone’s other associates already split before fulfilling their terms.
Bill Roche, formerly the Ward 1 alderman, and Sean O’Donovan, of Ward 5, have been longtime allies of the mayor. After retiring from his career at NStar last year—and abandoning his aldermanic post—Roche was promptly picked to serve as Somerville’s director of personnel, and given a pay raise. The departure of O’Donovan in April (he told the media he plans to spend more time on his law practice, and with family) came as a bigger surprise. He’d recently anticipated running again, and was frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Curtatone.
Somerville’s charter calls for deserting aldermen to nominate their replacements—so long as less than one year remains in their term—and O’Donovan and Roche installed reliable allies. The two new aldermen—Maureen Bastardi in Ward 1 and Courtney O’Keefe in Ward 5—are now running for office with the advantage of incumbency (without having ever been elected). The fledgling anti-administration coalition stands to grow if these hand-selected surrogates lose; both Bastardi and O’Keefe’s opponents have advocated for less aggressive, more prudent development than Curtatone has pushed for.
Bastardi and O’Keefe shrug at the notion that they’re in the mayor’s pocket. In interviews with Dig, Bastardi called into question two current administration-backed building projects in her ward, while O’Keefe criticized Somerville’s much-maligned parking regulations. Still, both were put into power by staunch Curtatone allies; in Bastardi’s case, the mayor has even been helping her campaign.
So has Roche; in an apparent violation of state law, this spring, the former alderman included his name on a fundraiser invitation for Bastardi alongside Curtatone’s—even though the Commonwealth explicitly forbids such activity by non-elected municipal officials.
Curtatone celebrated Election Night 2012 with a few dozen of his faithful followers—college Democrats, former ISD superintendent Nuzzo, and others—at The Independent in Union Square. Charismatic as usual, at one point the mayor climbed atop a table to announce the passage of ballot referendum that enables Somerville to purchase land, with federal funding, for open space preservation and affordable housing.
“I had no doubt in these results,” shouted Curtatone, devotees cheering him on. “You know the people of Somerville and where our values stand.” Before stepping down, Curtatone gave a shout-out out to his new U.S. Senator, Elizabeth Warren. Again, the room erupted.
Meanwhile, Curtatone enjoys all-star national status. He’s visited the White House on multiple occasions, played talking head on MSNBC, and been a star participant in the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Armed with a Mid-Career Master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he’s a formidable candidate for governor—even with a mounting opposition. People like Seth Goodman, who sued the city over sketchy development decisions outlined in the first part of this series, says he “wouldn’t want a governor running the state the way [Curtatone] runs this city.” The greater public, though, appears to have a different perception.
Last month, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Curtatone arrived early to celebrate the U.S. Senate victory of Ed Markey. Leading his entourage up to the most visible balcony seats, hovering just to the left of the stage, the mayor smiled, waved to friends, and embraced innumerable Democrats of note. In case Curtatone’s intentions weren’t clear enough, three weeks later, he took to social media:
“It’s flattering and humbling that people have encouraged me to consider a run for Governor,” he wrote. “I always stress that as Mayor I accomplish nothing by myself. What we’re doing in Somerville has caused widespread admiration and the credit for that belongs to all of us.”
For 10 months, Chris Faraone, Tom Nash, and Adam Vaccaro dug into the unseemly political underbelly of the City of Somerville, where the power and privilege of an elite few has dominated and perverted municipal progress for decades. The Somerville Files is the culmination of their work, which pulls back the hip urban Somerville facade to reveal a shadow government amidst both turmoil and transition.