Meet the Candidates Running to Be Somerville’s Next Mayor
4:05 PM EDT on September 8, 2021
Editor's note: This story was originally published before the Sept. 14 preliminary election. City Councilors Katjana Ballantyne, and Wilfred Mbah were the top two vote winners in that primary, which eliminated third-place finisher Mary Cassesso and last-place finisher William Tauro from the race.
While all eyes have been focused on the mayoral race in Boston, another mayoral contest is playing out in the City of Somerville, where housing and sustainable transportation issues are taking prominence in debates.
After nine consecutive terms in office, Somerville’s mayoral incumbent Joseph Curtatone has decided not to seek reelection, opening up the field for local political newcomers. The four candidates include Ward 7 City Councilor Katjana Ballantyne, Mary Cassesso, At-Large City Councilor Wilfred Mbah, and William Tauro.
While Cassesso, Mbah, and Ballantyne all have similar progressive, liberal goals and policy agendas for the future of Somerville, Tauro is an outlier: he is a public supporter of former President Donald Trump and a loud critic of current Somerville Mayor Curtatone.
Tauro has frequently used his website, The Somerville News Weekly, to accuse Mayor Curtatone of corruption, although he was never able to back up those accusations with any real evidence.
Somerville’s next mayor will take responsibility for a number of local issues that reflect national challenges: reforming community policing, improving street safety and effectiveness for walkers, bikers, and drivers, and prioritizing green and affordable public transportation and housing.
This year, Mayor Curtatone rolled out the SomerVision2040 update, a comprehensive, 80-page plan for the city of Somerville that built and improved upon his previous SomerVision2030 goals. The SomerVision plans address a variety of issues including housing, equity, infrastructure, and climate.
Cassesso, Mbah, and Ballantyne have all expressed their support for implementing the SomerVision2040 plan. The three candidates all strongly support the plan’s aim to decrease vehicular traffic by 75 percent by 2040 and raise costs for residential parking permits in an effort to decrease street parking, converting parking lanes to bike, bus, and pedestrian lanes.
“Over the past several years, as the city has gone through a rigorous public process over street changes, in every case I can think of, the overwhelming support is for prioritizing bike and bike/ bus lanes, and getting rid of parking to do that. The support numbers are well above 50 percent,” said Arah Schuur, co-founder of Somerville Bike Safety and a resident of Somerville for the last 17 years.
Cassesso, Mbah, and Ballantyne are all largely in favor of doing away with excessive parking in the city. They support eliminating current city parking minimums that still exist following a 2019 zoning overhaul by Mayor Curtatone to allow for more space to build apartments, parks, and bike lanes.
“There is understandable pushback whenever a plan is proposed to replace parking with a more equitable use of roads, but by listening to the concerns of our neighbors and working together, I believe we can achieve a final result that is embraced by the neighborhood,” said Mbah.
“Parking spaces, especially above-ground parking spaces, should not be the determining factor in reducing the number of units or the amount of green space in future developments,” said Cassesso. “Improvements in transit quality and availability, as well as encouraging a walkable Somerville should depress residents’ requirement for and reliance upon cars. In a debate between more units and more parking, units must win out. Green spaces are essential for a neighborhood to thrive, and for prospective developments.”
Tauro, by contrast, has made a campaign promise to “bring back parking that Curtatone sacrificed for bikes and buses.”
Tauro declined to respond to requests for comment for this story, or to the Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition’s candidate questionnaires.
Data suggest that 8 out of 10 cars on Somerville streets are just commuters driving through the city, so in order to prioritize Somerville residents and businesses, the candidates, except Tauro, have also expressed support for redesigning streets to provide more space for more sustainable modes of travel.
“Our transit network should support Somerville first. Pedestrian, bus and bike features make our streets better for local users, including residents and businesses, and not for commuters driving through,” said Ballantyne. “Data shows that these features encourage walking, biking and bus use, so they reduce traffic leaving more parking available. More pedestrians means more shoppers in local shops and more diners in local restaurants.”
With the exception of Tauro, the candidates also strongly support free bus fares on the MBTA and low-income fares on other public transit.
Somerville is currently in the process of launching a citywide bike network plan with the help of city planner Mike Lydon. The network’s goal is to provide more bike lanes and biking space for riders of all ages and abilities, but so far there has not been much work done on the project.
Somerville’s next mayor will decide whether the project advances, or stalls.
Schuur noted that while Mbah, Ballantyne, and Cassesso have all made lofty promises about improving bike lanes, transit service, and safety, she believes all three candidates will actually follow through with their campaign promises if elected.
She credits Mbah and Ballantyne for strong work on the Somerville city council, and she believes that Cassesso, while not currently in public office, “has worked on transportation and health and highway impacts for a long time, and she has deep knowledge on the issues.”
“A supportive mayor is just one ingredient to getting to a completed, safe bike network,” said George Schneeloch, also a co-founder of Somerville Bike Safety. “Our task is to rally the public as well, and when the new mayor comes into office, to create an environment where they can feel comfortable making ambitious changes that are better for climate change and street safety.”
Mbah, Ballantyne, and Cassesso also support reducing or eliminating Somerville police presence from neighborhoods and events in an effort to improve safety for communities of color.
Mbah writes on his website that as a Black man he has experienced the dangers of racial profiling by the Somerville Police Department firsthand.
“We can’t be a city that takes pride in the diversity of our community, but takes no action as Black and Brown people continue to be forced out of the city each year,” he said.
On the other hand, Tauro has been an outspoken supporter of more policing.
“Progressive associates want to defund the police and leave them vulnerable and unprotected,” Tauro writes on his campaign page. “Once elected, I will be implementing the HUB initiative program which will provide a solid introduction to a newly descriptive method for the Somerville Police Department to combat the everyday issues that occur on our city streets.”
HUB is a police-led initiative used in some other communities that attempts to address problems of violence, addiction, and homelessness by placing additional police officers in communities. If elected, Tauro hopes to launch a HUB initiative in Somerville.
Tauro’s policies regarding bike lanes, policing and parking differentiate himself from the other candidates, and advocates are skeptical whether he will gain any traction in Somerville.
“Hundreds of residents have participated in long-term visioning and planning for Somerville, and Mr. Tauro’s proposals are not in alignment with where long-term policy visions have landed,” said Schuur.
As in Boston, a preliminary election on Sept. 14 will winnow the field down to two candidates, who will face off in a final election in November.
With three candidates splitting the “progressive” electorate, Tauro could still find his way into the November election with a relatively small share of voter support, if he manages a second-place finish in next week’s preliminary election.
While Somerville Bike Safety has yet to endorse a mayoral candidate, Schuur notes that they may be willing to do so after next week’s primary.
“We think SomerVision2040 is headed in the right direction. The challenge with long-term visions is taking the first step, and then the second step, and then the third step,” said Schuur. “We want to see the city making the changes that need to be made to actually achieve those long-term visions.”