City Council Candidate Chat: Josh Zakim
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running to take over Mike Ross’s council seat?
Josh Zakim: From a very early age, my parents instilled in me and my sisters a sense of social justice. That’s something I have tried to do in my adult life, my work, and my volunteer work. And we’re entering a period of time in Boston where there’s going to be a new mayor for the first time in almost a generation. We’re going to have several new city councilors. I think it’s really important that someone is there pushing an agenda for social justice, to make sure we are preparing all of our students in every neighborhood of the city to compete.
When you talk about social justice; how does that play into the role of a city councilor?
Honestly I think social justice plays a role in everything we do, whether it’s in our personal life or professional life. To me, it would mean being a voice for improving public education, and improving access to city services. Making sure we’re building coalitions between different areas of the city, and different parts of the community.
How old are you?
It seems like a number of young folks are running for city council. Some might argue that we need more experienced people now, to keep things steady at the helm during times of change, instead of going with some young blood.
I think those who have the right motivation, who are dedicated to public service and justice, like myself and a lot of the folks running for some of the other open seats, I think it’s absolutely a healthy thing. Whoever our next mayor is, he or she will have quite a lot of experience. What’s most important is someone’s values and what they bring to the table. My experience with Greater Boston Legal Services, helping families facing foreclosure, to keep their homes; that’s incredibly relevant. Working as a municipal finance attorney, dealing with capital projects, it’s all relevant.
Are there any city councilors, past or present, who you look at as role models for how you would want to go about doing the job?
The councilors that I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the years have all done quite a good job in their office, and a couple of them are now seeking to run for mayor. I think I’m in a position that a lot of folks in the city are in, that a lot of people you’re friendly with are running for office at this point. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I plan to focus on neighborhoods in the community and in the district. First and foremost, no matter what issues are before me or the council, to know what my neighborhoods need—Beacon Hill, the West End, Back Bay, or any of the great neighborhoods of District 8.
So you don’t want to cite any city councilor; any other politician you would cite as a role model?
We’ve been blessed in this Commonwealth, certainly we have great role models. Governor [Deval] Patrick would be a really great choice. His personal story, but also the grassroots campaign that he waged in his first election was certainly an inspiration to me. Similarly Joe Kennedy in his recent election went door-to-door, which is what we’re doing in this campaign every day, knocking on doors.
You’ve had a lot of opportunities—you have a well-known family name, with political connections. Do you still feel that you can relate to and understand issues of people who have not had those kinds of opportunities?
Absolutely. That’s something my dad taught me. I was very young when he passed away, but one of the things that sat with me and continues to resonate with me, is that you care about people and you care about their issues. It’s about relationships and meeting folks. Whether it’s in the capacity of meeting the voters and community members that we’re seeing door-to-door, or whether it’s in non-profit work, or in professional life. Getting to know people on a personal level, hearing about what’s going on in their lives, sharing what’s going on in my own life. Really it’s not that difficult to find common ground. People care about the same issues.
You’ve been on the board of the Zakim Fund, approving grants. I’m curious whether there are any innovative approaches you’ve seen in the programs you’ve funded, that might be applicable to the city’s approach to problems?
One of the most unusual but one of the most successful programs we’ve had the opportunity to work with at the Lenny Zakim Fund is Inner City Weightlifting, which was founded by a guy named Jon Feinman. He goes in and works with young men who are involved with gangs in the city. He’s been able to work with them, he and his coaching team, to start them on a physical training regimen. Coming into the gym—which is in a non-disclosed location, because a lot of these guys are still actively in that lifestyle, and are in danger at times—they are working out with Jon and his team of phenomenal trainers. As his students and clients become more acclimated and are learning how to be personal trainers themselves, they’re bringing in clients from the business community—lawyers, accountants, doctors, business folks—who are coming and getting their personal training sessions from these guys as they progress in the program. And then eventually mentoring them on GED training, and job placement. The recidivism rate is incredibly low, especially for this population. At first glance, a lot of people are saying, “Why are you taking these gang members and training them to be bigger and stronger?”
You were campaign manager for Josh Dawson in his recent campaign for state representative. It’s an overlapping district to the one you’re running in, and Josh seemed like a strong candidate, but he ended up losing. Is there anything you took away from that—lessons learned that you’re applying to your own campaign?
There is some overlap, but they are two different districts, and two very different races. A special state rep election versus a municipal election that clearly a lot more attention is being paid to. The one thing that I took away from that, that I’ve taken from any experience in my life, is that you can’t take anything for granted. You knock on every door, you talk to every voter, and that’s the way you win a grassroots campaign like the one we’re running here.
So, what is it like to be the guy that has the major iconic bridge in the city bearing his family name?
It’s something that always warms the heart. It’s an incredibly great honor and an incredible memorial. I look forward to someday telling my own kids, that’s what grandpa stood for.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.