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Reflecting on the “Curtatone era” and Mayor Katjana Ballantyne’s time, so far

While I realize that it’s possible that no one thought twice about something I wrote about Joe Curtatone in my last column, I regretted it immediately after seeing it in print on December 22. And I am not referring to an overly harsh comment I directed at our former mayor. Not at all. As you can see, what I said was actually in praise of Curtatone’s stewardship of Somerville during the 18 years he was mayor.

Here is what I wrote: “I hope and trust that our city will continue to thrive as it has for the last 18 years under the leadership of Mayor Joe Curtatone.”

“Thrive”? According to the latest census figures, 11.5 percent of our community lives below the official poverty line.  Furthermore, thousands of people were forced to move out of Somerville altogether because they couldn’t afford to live here any longer due to the steady increase in rents.

Just to be clear, I am not raising this in order to point the finger of blame at Joe Curtatone. The number of people living in poverty and the increase in rents in any given city have much more to do with the built-in inequities in our political and economic system than they have to do with the policies of any city administration.

This one was on me. I should have found a better way to refer to Curtatone’s role in the overall improvement of life in Somerville while also taking into account the fact that for a sizeable segment of our community, the day- to -day struggle to get by would overshadow any sense that Somerville has been “thriving” these past 18 years.

Speaking of “Mayor Joe,” the send-off he was given here in Somerville and in the Boston media was so one-sided you might think that he walked across the Mystic River on a regular basis.

No doubt Curtatone accomplished a heck of a lot in his years as mayor. In fact, in 2006, just five months into his second term, the Boston Globe named Somerville as “the best run city in Massachusetts.” Curtatone’s innovative use of data to guide city policies (ResiStat), his emphasis on participatory democracy in drawing up long-range plans for Somerville’s future (Somervision), and his display of political courage and plain human decency in standing up for the rights of immigrants facing deportation are just a few of Joe Curtatone’s innumerable achievements in the 18 years he led our city. But there were also many instances of questionable ties to developers, less than truthful statements about why he vetoed a “pay to play” ordinance that had been passed by the Board of Aldermen, among other flaws that are also part of his legacy.

I hope that at some point in the future, we’ll see some well researched, even-handed accounts of Joe Curtatone’s mayoralty. These past 18 years will, in all likelihood, become known as the “Curtatone era” in the history of Somerville. It will be ripe for historians to dig deep and come up with some fresh perspectives that should help us better understand the many changes our city has gone through over the past two decades.

From a strictly personal point of view, despite the many highly critical columns I wrote for the Somerville Journal throughout his time as mayor, I always liked Joe C. And I found myself liking him more than ever as I witnessed how deeply affected he was by the impact that the pandemic has been having on so many Somervillians. In my eyes, he became a real mensch when it was most needed.

While I have never seen any opinion polls about how people view politicians who use teleprompters to deliver speeches, I would imagine that most people feel that doing so is an unfortunate necessity in the age of media driven politics.

I also assume that most people think that watching a politician in an unscripted debate is a far better way to get to know what they are really all about than watching them read a speech from a teleprompter.

However, I believe that in the case of Katjana Ballantyne, the exact opposite is true. In the many mayoral debates that led up to the November 2 election, Ms. Ballantyne certainly did well enough to hold her own. After all, she won a resounding victory on election day. But unless you know her personally, or had seen her in more informal settings, the impression you might have gotten of her from those debates may have been far removed from the kind of person and leader she really is. Between the enormous pressure of participating in televised debates and the time constraints involved in trying to summarize your plans for change in two minutes segments chopped up over the course of an hour, it’s extremely difficult for all but the most polished debaters to effectively convey the essence of who they are and what the full range of their plans add up to.

Even though I’ve known and admired Katjana since she first ran for the Board of Aldermen 9 years ago, in all honesty I was surprised by how moved I was by her Inaugural Address. Instead of having to deal with the stress of performing well in a debate, by using a teleprompter she was able to relax, look us straight in the eye (via the camera) and speak from her heart about her plans to make Somerville a more inclusive and equitable city.

Given the depth of Katjana Ballantyne’s commitment to achieving her progressive, people -oriented agenda, her keen intelligence, and her warm-hearted nature, I came away from watching her speech feeling very confident about the future of our city.

This piece was originally published in The Somerville Times on February 16.

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