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Down and out
Does Dorothy Kelly Gay’s defeat signal an end to the idea that you can be a progressive municipal manager?

IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE in today’s political climate to be a successful progressive municipal mayor? The meteoric rise and stunning fall of Somerville mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay says probably not. Or perhaps it says merely that progressive politics, at minimum, have to take a back seat to picking up the trash.

Kelly Gay first won election to the office in May of 1999, when she squeaked past then-alderman John Buonomo in a special election to replace outgoing mayor Michael Capuano, who was headed to Washington, DC, as the new representative from the Eighth Congressional District. Kelly Gay won that race by 407 votes, but she did it by mustering a coalition of progressives not often seen exercising electoral clout in the gritty city: the younger women and newer city residents of Ward Six, of which Davis Square and its many coffee shops are the center; environmental activists concerned about the future development of Assembly Square; and gay men and lesbians impressed with Kelly Gay’s pledge to bring back a gay-and-lesbian liaison to the mayor’s office — a post that Capuano had let languish.

Kelly Gay promised a diverse administration. Why not have a woman in charge of the Department of Public Works, she wondered aloud on the campaign trail. (She eventually hired a man, but one who lived outside the city — a move deemed nearly as controversial as the installation of a woman undoubtedly would have been.) She promised an accessible administration, and arranged for City Hall offices to remain open until 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays to make it easier for working people to conduct city business. She also instituted a series of meetings in which her department heads traveled to every ward in the city — there are seven — to meet with the public. She promised action on Assembly Square. She promised action on affordable housing. She promised progressive reform of the city’s troubled police department. She promised a revitalization of the city’s schools. She promised increased support to the city’s arts programs.

After just six months in office, she easily won re-election in November of 1999, and then again in 2001 against challenger William Baros. But by the end of her first full term, voters, as well as the political establishment, had grown dissatisfied. She faced two tough opponents in last week’s preliminary election, and placed third behind at-large alderman Joe Curtatone and businessman and political neophyte Tony Lafuente. The finish gave her the distinction of becoming the first Somerville mayor to lose a preliminary election since James F. Brennan did it in 1969.

IN MANY WAYS, Kelly Gay was probably much better suited to the job of a legislator than to that of a municipal manager. Despite what the city’s progressive politicos might say about her today, Kelly Gay is a progressive. She is a politician deeply committed to affordable housing, quality education, environmental issues, and civil rights. But that doesn’t amount to much when you’re a municipal manager. As Capuano has noted in the past, there is nothing liberal or conservative about 99 percent of the work that must be done by an elected city official. What matters is whether the streets are clean and safe. Whether the police, fire, and school departments are fully staffed. Whether potholes are being filled.

Kelly Gay, like other municipal leaders this year, was hit hard by state budget cuts. Unpopular layoffs were made in the police, fire, and school departments. She implemented a hard-nosed tagging-and-towing policy for street cleaning that cost residents unlucky enough to get their cars towed $120 — not to mention an unpleasant visit to Pat’s Towing to retrieve their vehicles.

"There’s no question she’s a victim of the times," says Buonomo, now the Middlesex register of probate and family court. "There’s an awful lot of things going on with the finances of the state’s cities and towns." Indeed, Kelly Gay wasn’t the only mayoral incumbent swept out of office last month in a preliminary election. Waltham mayor David Gately also lost, and incumbent mayors in Newburyport and Fitchburg had weak showings. Meanwhile, seven incumbent mayors decided not to seek re-election this year.

Perhaps even more significant than the city’s fiscal squeeze, however, is the perceived lawlessness of East Somerville. Last year, the entire city was horrified by the brutal rapes of two deaf girls in Foss Park by alleged members of the MS-13 gang. They were equally horrified to read in the Somerville Journal that the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office had advised the family of one of the girls to move out of Somerville to assure the victim’s safety. Although Kelly Gay, working with the police department, made significant headway in dealing with the gang problem, the perception that the lower-Broadway area remains unsafe lingers. "Part of the problem was the gang issue in East Somerville," says at-large alderman Bill White of Kelly Gay’s loss. "What was interesting is that this was something that was never really brought out — a little over a year ago there were 60 known gang members in Somerville. As of last month, police stated [that gang membership] was down to 10 or so, but I don’t think the average member of the public learned of that, especially in East Somerville, which was very weak for her [in the 1999 election]."

But in the small world of Somerville politics, something else matters just as much as trash collection and public safety: cordiality. It matters whether fellow elected officials — and potential mayoral opponents — get prompt returns of their phone calls to the mayor’s office. It matters whether politically active citizens are invited to ribbon cuttings. And the consensus is that Kelly Gay never understood the importance of these niceties.

"One of the things that has struck me talking to people is how many people would have liked to have voted for Dorothy if she hadn’t hurt their feelings so badly," says at-large alderman Denise Provost. "I thought one thing that might happen was she would have a close call [in the preliminary] but nominate and see that as an opportunity to mend fences. But I guess the fence mending might have come too late."

AT THIS POINT, it’s impossible to say what Kelly Gay thinks of her defeat. She left on a long-scheduled trip to Ireland to attend a family wedding immediately after the election and wasn’t available for an interview. And Kelly Gay spokesman Bill Doncaster told the Phoenix that he had no idea what her plans for the future are.

Regardless, her loss is a blow, in some measure, to the state Democratic Party. She serves with State Senators Jarrett Barrios and Guy Glodis as a co-chair of the Election and Outreach Committee for the party. State-party spokeswoman Jane Lane described Kelly Gay as extremely active and a "standard-bearer for the committee." When Governor Mitt Romney announced his cuts in state aid, Kelly Gay, along with Medford mayor Michael McGlynn — an eight-term incumbent facing re-election in November — were two of the more public faces protesting the cuts. She stumped for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien last year. Capuano says she has obvious "political value" to the party; it’s just unclear, at this point, what that is.

There was a time, before Kelly Gay became mayor, when she was the darling of the Democratic political establishment. She won that position through her brilliant campaign for lieutenant governor in 1998, coming from nowhere (specifically, the Governor’s Council) to win 46 percent of the popular vote against the much more established Warren Tolman. (At the state Democratic convention earlier that year, Kelly Gay had won just 17.5 percent of the vote versus Tolman’s 82.5 percent.)

Sean Fitzgerald, Kelly Gay’s former press secretary who also acted as field and finance director for her statewide run, is "saddened" by her defeat. But he’s not entirely surprised. "Her perfect voter is the more infrequent liberal-progressive voter, and that voter is much harder to turn out," he says. "The paradox is that lower turnout favors the incumbent, but she was a progressive incumbent." And lower turnout never favors a progressive.

Especially one who managed to alienate political progressives in Somerville to the point where two groups representing that constituency — Out Somerville, which advocates mainly for issues affecting gay men and lesbians, and the Somerville Green-Rainbow Party — each declined to make an endorsement in the preliminary election.

Paul Lachelier, city organizer for the Somerville Green-Rainbow Party, says that Kelly Gay called him early on to ask for an endorsement. He asked her why he should endorse her, and her answer, he says, "was by any measure inadequate." She talked about bringing her department heads to each ward for public meetings, as well as the fact that her administration was the first to raise the rainbow flag in June in honor of Gay Pride — two things Lachelier says are "largely symbolic."

What progressives most wanted from Kelly Gay was headway on a mixed-use development at Assembly Square that would have created a new business district consisting of affordable housing, a new Orange Line T stop, green space, and street-level businesses. What they did not want was the construction of any big-box stores. But while Kelly Gay strongly supported creating the new mixed-use district, she also backed an Ikea superstore. This, along with her politically inept treatment of the Mystic View Task Force, which opposes building big-box stores on the site (in a widely reported and ridiculed move, Kelly Gay let television cameras into her office to witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding with a potential Assembly Square developer even as a plainclothes police officer stood outside and prohibited protesting members of the task force from entering), sealed progressives’ anger with the mayor.

Her performance on the Assembly Square issue didn’t just alienate progressives, however. The failure to break ground on any development of the 140-acre parcel also upset homeowners and political pragmatists who wanted to see additional tax revenue streaming in from the development. Revenue that the city, of course, is nowhere close to seeing. "All of the bad publicity that Dorothy Kelly Gay was getting on Assembly Square [hurt her in the election]," says Middlesex register of deeds and former mayor Gene Brune. "People seemed to think she really didn’t have much direction as to where she was going."

There can be little doubt that many voters who took part in last Tuesday’s preliminary election were thinking just that. "I am a firm believer that people do not vote you into office," Brune says. "They vote you out of office."

But Kelly Gay, who is 60, may not be ready to retire. In an interview with the Phoenix before the election, she was coy about whether this would be her last run for office, should she win. "I will never say never," she said. "I’ll be 62 years old, and who knows whether I’ll want to do it? If I feel as energized as I do today, that’s another story."

Fitzgerald, for one, thinks she still has much to offer beyond what she already has. And that, at minimum, she’ll be remembered for much more than her stunning loss last week. "I think history will be a lot kinder to her than the present is right now. I think her legacy is one of good government and a high moral and ethical value system," he says. "Doing the right thing sometimes takes time, and people were a little impatient."

Additional research by Deirdre B. Fulton. Susan Ryan-Vollmar can be reached at svollmar[a]phx.com

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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