Boston’s historic mayoral contest is receiving a justifiable abundance of coverage, locally and nationally — but it’s just one of several races in which Massachusetts voters are choosing new leaders for their cities this fall. Between now and November, GBH News will size up the other mayoral elections worth watching and the individuals and issues that are driving them.
When it comes to who, exactly, calls Somerville home, the city has been changing for years, with Asian, Latino and Black residents comprising an increasingly large portion of the city’s population of 80,000.
Still, Somerville’s mayors have always been white — a streak Will Mbah hopes to break this fall. Current mayor Joseph Curtatone, who took office in 2004, decided not to seek a tenth term this November.
“I believe, fundamentally, that until we have a government that reflects the population, we should not be talking about issues of racial justice, environmental justice, or equity,” Mbah said. “So that is why I’m running for mayor, to accelerate our community’s progress on these key issues.”
Mbah grew up in Cameroon and went to graduate school for environmental science in Sweden before moving to Massachusetts. In 2017, two years after becoming a U.S. citizen, he won an at-large spot on Somerville’s City Council.
While his campaign pitch touts the political power of representation, Mbah cites housing affordability as the most pressing issue currently facing the city.
“Having moved several times due to rising rent, it’s something that’s been personal to me,” Mbah said.
To help keep Somerville at least somewhat accessible to less-affluent residents, he adds, the city should ramp up the amount of affordable housing required in new projects.
“Currently we have a 20% affordability [requirement] in terms of the new development, but we should expand it,” Mbah said. “We should demand more.”
Mbah also argues that Somerville — which repealed rent control in 1979 — should consider “an improved version of rent stabilization.”
“We need every tool in the toolbox to address our affordability issue,” he said.
The days when Somerville was an affordable alternative to Cambridge are long gone. According to the website Realtor.com, the median list price for homes there is just under $1 million, and the expansion of the Green Line into the city is expected to push prices even higher.
But Mary Cassesso, one of Mbah’s mayoral rivals, says ordering developers to do more is the wrong approach.
“We haven’t lived with the 20% [requirement] long enough,” Cassesso said. “I think if we complement that with new creation, and new home-ownership opportunities — let’s start there. Because property owners feel very strongly.”
Cassesso is an East Somerville native who’s worked for the city, the state and Cambridge Health Alliance, where she was recently chief community officer. As a guiding principle, she seems to prefer persuasion to ultimatums, and says she’d use that approach to push Somerville’s array of corporate newcomers to find more jobs for locals.
“I have to believe, after the pandemic, in more of a shared sense of what is not working,” Cassesso said. “We see businesses stepping up more. We see a pivot. … I do anything for anyone who calls on me, always, and I feel people would do the same.”
A third candidate, Katjana Ballantyne, has a similar ideal of government.
“I am very much for inclusive leadership,” Ballantyne said. “It takes a little bit longer ... it can be messy, [but] you get buy-in, you get shared purpose, you get enthusiasm and you get better results.”
While Ballantyne says she’s open to raising Somerville’s affordable-housing requirement, her tone when it comes to development resembles Cassesso’s more than Mbah’s.
“On one side of the coin is the cost to live here, which [means] trying to get more subsidized housing, affordable housing here,” Ballantyne said. “On the other side of the coin are the jobs and the commercial development.”
“Why do we need those? Because they help fund the social services and help fund all the values that we want to actually realize,” she added. “[Development] helps put money into the affordable-housing trust fund so we can build more affordable housing. ... We want to make sure there are living-wage jobs here that our residents can take advantage of.”
Ballantyne, who spent her first years in a Greek orphanage, has a resume packed with positions at local nonprofits. Like Mbah, she’s a City Councilor — she represents Somerville’s Ward 7 — and has a keen interest in the environment.
“I have been the lead on things climate in Somerville,” Ballantyne said. “I put the amendment in that requires LEED Platinum energy-efficiency requirements for construction over 50,000 square feet.”
“The lead-up to that vote — it’s amazing how [much] pressure there was not to get that in,” she said. “Boston doesn’t do it. Cambridge doesn’t do it. Somerville was the first.”
While their methods and priorities vary, Ballantyne, Cassesso and Mbah all qualify as political progressives. But the fourth entrant in the race has a different political wordlview.
For starters, William “Billy” Tauro backed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016.
“Let me set the record straight right now,” Tauro said. “In 2016, I did like Donald Trump, okay? In 2016, I liked [current Somerville Mayor] Joe Curtatone, too. I was a lifelong Democrat, and I watched them fail their Party miserably, so I swapped over to be a Republican.”
“Right after that, I saw the Republicans do the damn same thing. They failed miserably. Now I’m an independent,” he said. “As far as Joe Curtatone and Donald Trump, that’s why they put erasers on pencils — to erase their mistakes. And I’m erasing both of them.”
For years, Tauro was best known as publisher of the Somerville News Weekly, which has been harshly critical of Curtatone’s tenure. His writings for that publication yielded a 500-page, self-published book, “Stealing Somerville: The Death Of An Urban City,” that casts Somerville as a den of corruption.
As mayor, Tauro says he’d bring back parking that Curtatone sacrificed for bikes and buses. He’s also promising to nix Curtatone’s plan to open Massachusetts’ first supervised-injection site, which would be illegal under federal law.
“I will close it down on day one,” Tauro said. “I believe in not enabling these people. ... Send them in for treatment. That gets something terribly wrong to turn terribly right, so they won’t get in trouble for it.”
“That guy or woman’s going to get his fix,” Tauro added, referring to a hypothetical supervised-injection-site scenario. “Then, after the fix, he calms down — they’re going to let him out on the street. ... How long’s that fix going to last him? He’s going to need another one right after that. Are there going to be drug dealers outside waiting to sell him the second fix on the street?”
In a city where Trump barely cracked 10% last year, Tauro’s appeal may be inherently limited heading into the September 14 preliminary election, which will winnow the field to two finalists. Still, signs supporting his campaign are ubiquitous — suggesting that, for all its changes, Somerville isn’t quite Cambridge just yet.