Why would Somerville Mayor Curtatone be seen with this guy?
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has been touted as a model liberal official, a local champion of immigrants, regardless of their documentation status, and immigrant protections. He’s the proud elected head of a sanctuary city and has displayed a Black Lives Matter banner on City Hall.
But as progressives in his midst have been buzzing about for weeks now, Curtatone was photographed at a recent campaign kickoff event for Ward 1 Alderman candidate Elio LoRusso. LoRusso’s right-wing values—in particular, he has expressed anti-undocumented immigrant sentiments and spewed anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric—seem to run counter to the mayor’s own claimed values and positions.
Upon inspection, it appears that the incongruence afoot boils down to one central issue: affordable housing.
Reached for this article, longtime LoRusso acquaintance and Affordable Housing Trust Fund member Martin Polignone made the same argument that some others who are active in Somerville politics are making: He suspects that Curtatone wants to see LoRusso’s challenger, current Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin, lose his seat on the Board of Aldermen. The mayor and McLaughlin have continuously butted heads over two big-ticket developments that lack Somerville’s required 20 percent affordable housing. LoRusso, on the other hand, is in favor of both projects.
“The mayor would use [LoRusso] as his puppet,” Polignone said. “I believe that’s why the mayor is kind of supporting [LoRusso]—either overtly or covertly, I don’t know, but Elio is pretty confident the Mayor is going to use his people to get out there, campaign, support him.”
Reached for comment, LoRusso denied having any mayoral backing in a phone interview and said that Curtatone shows up at everyone’s campaign kickoff events. McLaughlin doesn’t buy it.
“He wasn’t at mine,” the alderman said. “He wasn’t at [the kickoff parties for aldermen] Bill White’s, Lance Davis, Mark Niedergang… [the mayor] basically only goes [to the events of] people he supports.”
Curtatone, who himself is up for reelection, has also appeared on LoRusso’s campaign materials. According to McLaughlin, that seems to indicate support.
“[It] is generally expected for candidates to ask permission to show their likeness on campaign materials, which some of these are,” McLaughlin explained to DigBoston. “If I took a picture with [US Sen.] Elizabeth Warren and used it in materials, it would be an indication of endorsement.”
Curtatone did not directly return multiple requests for comment. But in an email through his campaign manager Gregory Maynard, Curtatone denied supporting LoRusso and said that he had not granted LoRusso permission to use his image on campaign materials. Through Maynard, the mayor also noted that he appeared at LoRusso’s kickoff in order to talk “to as many voters as I can about my progressive, successful record here in Somerville.”
LoRusso, an East Somerville native who was born to Italian immigrant parents, has run for the Ward 1 aldermanic seat four times prior to this race. Every time, he has lost. In his last rodeo four years ago, he was defeated by McLaughlin, whom Curtatone supported.
This time around, according to his campaign manager Maynard, Curtatone doesn’t plan to officially endorse any candidate for Ward 1 alderman. Asked if he’s reluctant to get behind McLaughlin because of the pair’s opposing stances on development in Somerville, the mayor wrote through Maynard, “No comment.”
One would think that Curtatone would want to distance himself from LoRusso politically. A self-declared Donald Trump supporter, LoRusso commends right-wing politicians and activities. He has suggested that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, saying in a Facebook post in 2015 that the country is “falling apart” because of “nonsense” like gay marriage.
LoRusso has also called undocumented immigrants “illegals” online and has stated on social media that he believes they should be kicked out of the country. When reached for comment, he said undocumented immigrants need to contribute to society “in the right ways” and noted his concern about “criminals” who “come here and break laws.” “Somebody who comes here who is going to work to make sure they are going to get a visa, get working papers, we should commend them,” he said in the phone interview.
When questioned further, LoRusso said he doesn’t see how federal and state issues—specifically regarding undocumented immigrants—relate to a community campaign.
“These are issues that … have nothing to do with me being an alderman,” LoRusso said. “My job as an alderman is to represent the people of Ward 1.”
Given Somerville’s sanctuary status, many people who live in Ward 1 are likely to be undocumented. Nonetheless, anti-undocumented immigrant sentiment is nothing new for the candidate. In response to an October 2013 Somerville News article that reported that Somerville state lawmakers were against a program that penalized businesses that hired undocumented immigrants, LoRusso commented:
All illegals should be booted out of this country. Furthermore, they should not have the right to get drivers license [sic] and in state tuition. If our pols are for this they should also be booted out of office. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH… Illegals get free health care, free food stamps and all their rights and we the legal ones pay extremely high health insurance and get nothing handed to us. Time to clean up the state house and white house [sic].
Ben Echevarria is the director of the Welcome Project, a Somerville organization that assists immigrants, both documented and not. Over the years, he and Curtatone have worked closely together to help the city’s immigrant population. (Curtatone publicly voiced opposition to the aforementioned employer penalties and even signed an executive order removing Somerville from the program.)
Echevarria believes Curtatone is personally, not politically, supporting LoRusso. Nevertheless, Echevarria is surprised at the apparent endorsement.
“To me, it’s a slap in the face,” Echevarria said, adding that he hasn’t yet spoken personally with Curtatone about the matter. “The mayor has some answering to do, in terms of how you can support someone who doesn’t reflect the values you reflect, or the values we believe in as a city.”
McLaughlin feels differently. He said he isn’t surprised that Curtatone isn’t supporting him and points to a disagreement this past April. McLaughlin opposed a waiver that Assembly Square developer Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) sought from the city’s Planning Board, which would allow the company to bypass an ordinance that requires such developments to include 20 percent affordable housing. FRIT instead requested to develop only the initial 12.5 percent that was in place when it began the Assembly project in 2005.
Despite the waiver’s unpopularity among Somerville’s residents, the measure not only passed, but the percentage of affordable housing units was reduced to just 6.25 percent on-site—half what FRIT asked for in the waiver—without a clear explanation as to how the number had decreased. McLaughlin denounced the decision in an op-ed, writing that Curtatone put developers ahead of “hundreds of residents [who] testified in support of more affordable housing.”
That wasn’t the end of it. In June, another big-ticket development that Curtatone favored met opposition, once again at the hand of McLaughlin. He was the only alderman to vote against zoning proposed by Union Square Station Associates (US2), citing the developer’s avoidance of public meetings, as well as a rather strange incident in which the names of Somerville residents were signed onto development-supporting emails they never sent.
In challenging McLaughlin, LoRusso said that he does not oppose developments like this, also adding that affordable housing is important to him. LoRusso declined to address the specific amount of the FRIT waiver and did not mention his own ideas for creating more affordable housing.
“It’s a political benefit,” said McLaughlin, suggesting that LoRusso would side with the mayor more than McLaughlin himself does as an alderman. The Ward 1 incumbent opposes Curtatone’s vision for the city, which he argues “doesn’t include the working people.”
“That’s why I am fighting with him all the time,” McLaughlin said.