Will Somerville have a new mayor come November?
Nobody knows for sure at this point, but what’s clear is that Democrat Joe Curtatone, who has been in the office for 16 years, has been investing heavily in his reelection. As of mid-September, his campaign had raised more than $118,000 in just four months and had spent more than $75,000. (The Somerville native has pulled in over $1.7 million over the past four years, according to the Secretary of State’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.)
Competitor Marianne Walles, a labor leader with the SEIU Local 509 and also a Democrat, has raised only $12,000, and has so far only spent about $7,500. But the longtime social worker thinks she’s got a chance to deny “Mayor Joe” his ninth term. One reason? When the Democratic primary votes were tallied last month, she was within spitting distance of City Hall, receiving 1,946 of the 5,307 votes cast to Curtatone’s 3,015.
“There were only 1,069 votes separating Joe and me,” said Walles, whose take amounted to about 37% of the ballots. “I said, if I got more than 30%, I’m good.”
Another reason Walles may have a shot? Also born and raised in the city of roughly 80,000 people, she has the backing of a number of unions, of Our Revolution Somerville (ORS), and of the national Our Revolution (OR), which spun out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. That support, and the ground game that comes with it, could be key. Two years ago, nine ORS-backed city council candidates swept into City Hall in an election day with the highest turnout in years: Almost 32% showed up at the polls. Compare that to 2013, when only 22% voted and 2015, when just 14% came out.
“Change occurs where we live and where we can actually see the change.”
OR national Board Chair Larry Cohen addressed organizers at a September event at Mount Vernon restaurant near Sullivan Square.
“We believe in our bones that it’s all about the local groups.”
The former president of Communications Workers of America and founder of Labor for Bernie swung through town on his way to assist Sanders efforts in New Hampshire and Maine. He said he was impressed at the crowd of 30 men and women from unions, Our Revolution chapters, and various other progressive groups, including Jamaica Plain Progressives and Indivisible Somerville.
“We build alliances,” he said.
Cohen added that Somerville was “a model” for the rest of the country.
“In Our Revolution we say, ‘We want to govern, not just protest,’” Cohen said in an interview.
The 2017 electoral victories are one reason leaders like Cohen praise ORS, but not the only one, according to labor organizer and city resident Rand Wilson, who is a member of the ORS Steering Committee.
“Somerville has a successful model of working on issues, of engaging in electoral politics, and of building a grassroots organization that can make a difference,” said Wilson, also the chair of the Walles campaign.
ORS has committees working on affordable housing, workers rights, the effort to get Tufts University to give Somerville and Medford a fair PILOT (“Payment in Lieu of Taxes”), and other concerns.
“We are a political organization that takes an integrated approach,” Wilson said. “These problems are all connected. You’re not going to solve one without solving the other.”
Wilson added that he believes his candidate can win because her campaign is “about a lot more” than personalities. “It’s about challenging a mayor who’s been in office too long,” he said.
According to Wilson and other critics of Curtatone, it’s important to challenge a mayor some say is too cozy with real estate developers.
Past analyses, like one in 2015 by the Somerville Journal, found that nearly a quarter of the incumbent’s campaign donations come from “people associated with development—real estate agents and brokers, construction companies, architects and engineers, etc.” With another 12% coming from “people doing business with the city.” With many of the donations hitting the $1,000 state ceiling for contributions. Asked about his contributions, Curtatone told the Journal reporter in that case, “I play by the existing rules.”
More recently, his donations over the past four months, which totaled over $118,000, show that the rules are working well for the mayor. In just four months he received almost 50 donations at the $1,000 level, many from outside of Somerville and at least some from the development-related businesses. There are also several donations from City Hall employees.
Walles, on the other hand, has pledged not to take any money from developers. But will money even make the difference? One city Democrat who has been politicking for more than half a century is not so sure.
“Money is important, but that is shifting,” said Joe Lynch, chair of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee. Also the current chair of the Somerville Licensing Commission, Lynch said that in 2017 he was “fascinated” when two ORS-supported newcomers beat multiterm councilors (then called “aldermen”) Maryann Heuston and Bob McWatters.
“The incumbents had healthy war chests but were unable to beat back the groundswell of grassroots activism,” Lynch said.
The Ward 5 Democratic Committee has its share of ORS supporters, he added.
“Fifty percent identify as Our Revolution and 50% are longtime Democrats that don’t participate with Our Revolution,” Lynch noted.
Does he think Walles can topple Curtatone?
“I think it’s a hard road to beat someone with a track record like the mayor has,” the longtime Democrat said, adding that that a movement can sometimes “overturn an incumbent,” as happened in 2017.
“In the old days it used to be whoever had the biggest war chest,” Lynch recalled, “but it’s shifting to who’s out there knocking doors for the candidate.”
‘Old and new’
Walles, who still works full time—half time as a social worker, and half time as regional vice president of her union, SEIU 509—is knocking on a lot of doors.
“So many I can’t count,” she laughed.
But Walles said it’s been worth it to speak with residents who she said agree with her positions on issues like the ongoing “displacement of moderate income” families and the need for better communication from City Hall.
“I don’t think the processes here are very transparent,” Walles said.
The 52-year-old said she thinks she can be a bridge between “old and new Somerville,” all while adding something else the mayor doesn’t offer.
“A woman’s perspective is very different when it comes to policies—how we view things,” Walles said at the Mount Vernon event. “I think we have a more inclusionary view. I think we have more of a need to make sure everyone’s taken care of and we think about cause and effect, on a long-term basis.”
Note: The author, who lives in Cambridge, is an affiliate member of Our Revolution Somerville.