A Somerville Uprising:
New Our Revolution Group Challenges City’s Old Guard
This fall, Our Revolution Somerville (ORS) has united behind a slate of Bernie Sanders-inspired candidates to challenge Somerville’s political establishment. Win or lose, the 2017 municipal election promises to be the most exciting in recent memory. Most of the endorsed candidates arise from the community’s widespread sense of betrayal due to Mayor Joe Curtatone’s pro-developer, pro-business policies that have made it increasingly hard for longtime residents to find jobs or remain in the city.
Somerville, a working class city of nearly 80,000 just north of Boston, is undergoing tremendous change. Accessible by two subway lines and close to Cambridge and Boston, the city has become highly desirable for both young and old alike. Gentrification has reached a fever pitch, driving housing prices and rents through the roof. It’s been accompanied by massive displacement, quickly changing the character of the city.
Somerville has been a very progressive community for a long time. In the 1970s, many artists and writers settled here because of the cheap rents and close proximity to Cambridge and Boston. That influx increased after 1994 when rent control was repealed and thousands of renters were forced out of Boston and Cambridge.
While the community often elected progressives to the state legislature, municipal government didn’t attract much interest from its more transient residents and remained a solid bastion of the city’s old guard.
That changed in 2013 when Matt McLaughlin, a Somerville native, challenged Mayor Curtatone’s appointee, School Committee member Maureen Bastardi and local businessman Elio LoRusso in Ward 1 for a seat on the Board of Aldermen. Ward 1 is probably the poorest ward in the city and most heavily settled by immigrants. McLaughlin knocked every door, registered many unenrolled voters and spoke plainly about the need for change and an independent voice on the Board. Maureen Bastardi was eliminated in the preliminary and Matt easily bested LoRusso in the final round.
McLaughlin went on to manage Somerville for Bernie in 2016 followed by the reelection campaign for Pat Jehlen, a very progressive state senator. The success of those efforts combined to lay the foundation for Our Revolution Somerville — and with McLaughlin’s leadership, paved the way for a new group of insurgents. This year, two people are taking on ward level incumbents for the Board of Aldermen and a third is running for a vacant seat against the mayor’s former chief of staff — a clear proxy for the mayor.
In Somerville’s Ward 2, JT Scott is taking on longtime incumbent Alderman Maryann Heuston. Scott was a ward captain for Bernie’s campaign and is a local small businessman and neighborhood activist. Although Heuston is very popular, she has been a reliable vote on nearly everything the mayor wanted. She had many opportunities to join with community groups in the Union Square neighborhood where a new Green Line station is planned and the Chicago-based development team US2 is developing six large city-owned parcels. While the Union United coalition has spent the last few years trying to win a Community Benefits Agreement with US2, Heuston was nowhere to be found at dozens of community meetings and rallies. Only after Scott entered the race did she finally show support and then it was too late.
In Ward 3, Ben Ewen-Campen is taking on two-term incumbent Alderman Robert McWatters. Ewen-Campen is a young activist who, like so many millennials, was inspired by Sanders and then horrified by the election of Trump. McWatters — like Heuston — always votes with the mayor and has done nothing to ensure that workers and the community will benefit from the billions of dollars of development pending in Union Sq.
In Ward 4, Jesse Clingan, a native Somervillian was a driving force in McLaughlin’s 2013 election and is a well-known community activist and union member. After Clingan announced his challenge against incumbent Alderman Tony LaFuente, he decided not to seek re-election. However, it didn’t take long for the mayor to put up his former Chief of Staff, Omar Boukili to fill the void. While, Clingan has garnered endorsements from dozens of Boston-area unions, this will be a hotly contested election.
A fifth insurgent, Will Mbah is running for one of four at-large aldermen seats. Originally from a small West African city in Cameroon, Mbah immigrated to the U.S. in 2010. After working a string of odd jobs, Mbah worked his way from a night custodian to eventually becoming a safety coordinator at MIT. His inspiring personal story, commitment to Sanders’ platform and ongoing battle to find an affordable apartment makes him a popular choice for Somerville’s progressive community. ,
A recent high-profile battle over affordable housing in Somerville inspired a sixth candidate to challenge 12 year incumbent Mayor Curtatone, who has brazenly taken thousands of dollars from rich real estate developers.
Billion dollar developer Federal Reality Invest Trust planned 500 luxury housing units in its massive and much vaunted Somerville Assembly Square project. Federal Reality wanted a waiver from the recently adopted “inclusionary zoning” requirement that 20 percent of these units be made affordable. Federal sought approval from the city’s planning board to return to the old standard of 12 ½ percent. The community vigorously opposed its application for a waiver at packed hearings and rallies, insisting that Federal Reality comply with the current law.
As the planning board deliberated, pressure on the city reached a fever pitch. Mayor Curtatone stepped-in with an eleventh hour “compromise” that would allow Federal Reality to build only a measly six percent affordable units in its 500 units in Assembly Sq. and make a cash payment to the local community development corporation to build an undetermined number of affordable housing units offsite, at an undetermined date. The planning board, appointed by the mayor, voted 4 to 1 for the deal.
The mayor’s sellout to Federal Reality had the perverse effect of not only further economically segregating Somerville, it also actually increased the value of Federal Reality’s property — which can now be marketed as more “exclusively” luxury housing.
After the decision, Payton Corbett decided “Enough is Enough” and announced that he would run for mayor. Corbett is a member of Teamsters Local 122 and a shop-floor union leader at the Budweiser distribution facility in nearby Medford. While realistic about his chances against a powerful and well-entrenched mayor, Corbett is running a vigorous campaign to promote more affordable housing, require developers to sign community benefits agreements, and increase respect for the city’s municipal workers.
Finally, Elio LoRusso is once again running against Matt McLaughlin for Ward 1 Alderman. Since his election in 2013, McLaughlin has been the most vocal champion of responsible development and union labor in Somerville. McLaughlin beat LoRusso with strong union support in his first bid for Alderman. He will likely easily win again, but nothing can or should be taken for granted.
Hopefully, this election cycle will be an eye-opener for progressives in the community who don’t pay much attention to municipal races. Mayor Curtatone has taken a strong stand against the Trump administration’s assault on Sanctuary Cities and showed his support for Black Lives Matter with a banner on city hall. However, Sanctuary doesn’t help immigrants who are forced out by rising rents and progressive voters understand that economic and racial justice go hand in hand. A growing number of residents want Somerville’s elected officials to address the real systemic injustices in our community.
By November 7, 2017 Somerville’s municipal election will come down to a “which side are you on” vote. Do you support candidates closely allied with a mayor who supports development with little or no community benefits and is opposed to union labor? Or do you support candidates (like McLaughlin, Scott, Ewen-Campen, Clingan, Mbah and Corbett) who are champions of the 99 percent and sincerely want to continue Bernie’s political revolution?
Past municipal elections have been low turnout events with mostly homeowners and the elderly voting. If Our Revolution Somerville and other progressive groups can motivate the same millennial voters who turned out in large number for Bernie in 2016, these candidates will fare well.
Taking the steps to assemble and campaign for an “Economic Justice Slate” provides Our Revolution Somerville the chance to flex new political muscle and an opportunity to build a much larger and more diverse local base of support. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ call to fix a broken political system and a rigged economy, the fight in Somerville for affordable housing, good jobs and responsible development is the transformative politics of a “future we can believe in!”
 Past exceptions include the election of reform mayor Gene Brune and Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz.
Somerville elections are non-partisan. When Elio LoRusso, a well-known conservative businessman, joined the Ward 1 race, a September three-way preliminary race was required. Most people expected Bastardi to win and LoRusso to come in second. But Matt knocked every door, registered many unenrolled voters and spoke plainly about the need for change and an independent voice on the Board. Maureen Bastardi was eliminated and Matt easily bested LoRusso in the final round.
 Our Revolution Somerville has also endorsed two incumbent At-Large candidates Mary Jo Rossetti and Bill White and two unopposed incumbent Ward Aldermen Mark Neidergang (Ward 5) and Lance Davis (Ward 6).