Politics

Framingham Election: It’s a Mad, Mad Race

Scandals, first-time politicians, a viral video, and the state’s newest city. Can Framingham survive its first mayor’s race?

Photo illustration by Spencer Buell. Clockwise from top left: photo of Priscila Sousa via Facebook, Photo of Ben Neves-Grigg via Facebook, photo of Mark Tilden via Facebook, screenshot of John Stefanini via security camera footage, photo of Dhruba Sen and Josh Horrigan by Spencer Buell, screenshot of Yvonne Spicer via Youtube

Update: The results of the preliminary election, which narrowed the field of mayoral candidates to two, are in.

“Scene of the crime” isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you walk through the drab-yet-cheerful lobby of the Framingham Public Library. Yet it was here, on a typical Saturday morning, where the biggest political scandal of the city’s mayor’s race (so far) unfurled.

The day started harmlessly enough. Norma Shulman, a 71-year-old grandmother, marched into the building brandishing a homemade campaign poster supporting Yvonne Spicer for mayor and a solicitation for signatures. Seemingly proud of her handiwork, she carefully straightened the sign, and then went on her merry way. Never did it occur to her, she later said, that soon she’d be calling the cops. But that was before John Stefanini, a fellow candidate and Spicer’s chief rival, stumbled into the picture and made a series of what can only be termed rookie mistakes.

Stefanini, a burly, gray-haired man of 53, was heading through the lobby for the front door when the sight of Spicer’s poster stopped him dead in his tracks. Frowning, he advanced toward his opponent’s campaign literature. An idea formed. After a quick glance around, he snatched the poster, carried it across the room, and wedged it behind a trashcan before calmly fleeing the library—still managing to squeeze in a friendly handshake with a prospective voter on his way out the door. As Stefanini, Shulman, Spicer, and anyone with an Internet connection could soon learn, every strange and awkward moment was captured on a security tape.

Within days, the surveillance video—recorded in crisp, unforgiving high definition—made the evening news. Stefanini’s name spread like wildfire. He explained at the time that he was merely disposing of what he thought was a campaign infraction, a violation of norms from a campaign that should have known better. Instead, election officials ruled that neither Shulman nor Spicer had broken any rule by placing campaign materials in a municipal building. Though he apologized, and was never charged with a crime for the incident, Stefanini—once and largely still considered the race’s front-runner—was now left with a new, and unimproved, reputation.

This embarrassing gaffe served as the strange, inauspicious start to what has become quite improbably the state’s most interesting election of 2017: Framingham’s inaugural mayor’s race. In April, residents voted to ditch their 317-year-old town meeting style of government and officially become a city, handing over the reins of power to an elected mayor for the first time ever. The idea was contentious, but following a ballot recount, it passed by a razor-thin margin of 112 votes. Now, 54 people are competing for 21 government seats, and many of them are vying for the crown.

With its cast of earnest, animated political novices, the race can feel like a small-town popularity contest—and it’s easy to forget how much is at stake.

The mayor’s race started with 15 contestants before a round of signature collecting winnowed it down to seven, eliminating local gadflies such as Jim Rizoli, the former public access TV host and self-proclaimed Holocaust “revisionist” who promised to “Make Framingham Great Again” (he’s since thrown his hat in as a write-in, because why not?). In addition to candidates Stefanini and Spicer, a prominent executive at the Museum of Science, there’s also Priscila Sousa, a formerly undocumented Brazilian immigrant who says that prior to receiving her green card, she was “resigned to the fact that I was going to be a housecleaner.” Now, at age 29, with her citizenship and a political science degree from Simmons in hand, she wants to be the multilingual voice for all of Framingham. Then there’s Josh Horrigan, a self-professed “hooligan” turned traveling minister and freelance motivational speaker, as well as Mark Tilden, a lawyer who owns 11 condominiums in Framingham and nearby Westborough, not to mention Dhruba Sen, a civil rights activist and software consultant who wants to make Framingham the “Silicon Valley of the East.” Ben Neves-Grigg, a retired Marine and ex-cop who spent his retirement overseas training Afghan and Iraqi police, wants to bring military discipline to local spending. “I have all the weapons,” he tells me unironically, “that would make me qualified for the job.”

With its cast of earnest, animated political novices, the race can feel like a small-town popularity contest—and it’s easy to forget how much is at stake. As Framingham becomes a city, it also teeters between a glistening future and the slow decline that has befallen so many other once-bustling New England towns. As housing in Boston grows more expensive and residents flee westward, new construction in Framingham is bolstering a recent population boom. Home to the malls and parking lots of the Golden Triangle, two thriving colleges, and a bevy of Fortune 500 companies such as TJX (which owns TJ Maxx and Marshalls), as well as Staples and Bose, the town occupies a prime spot along a major highway and is adjacent to the commuter rail. As such, it has long been ripe for development. “It has huge potential,” says Robert Halpin, the soon-to-be-former town manager. “The advice people gave me when I [started] is that all the pieces are here, and sometimes they have not been put together as successfully as you would hope.”

With power moving from the slow churn of town meetings to the hands of a mayor and city council, the brakes are off. Framingham is on the way up—or at least it could be. If only the state’s newest city can survive this latest, and biggest, referendum on its future.

 

On a sunny day in mid-July, Stefanini picks me up at the commuter rail stop downtown in his cluttered 10-year-old green Volvo. Almost overwhelmingly avuncular, his grey hair is neatly combed and he’s wearing rimless rectangular glasses and a pressed white dress shirt. As we turn into traffic, he starts narrating the town’s long history and varied terrain, tracing its southern reaches to its northern border, so I can see the complexity of the place—the way that, as you move north, the urban blight morphs into middle class suburban sprawl, and the sprawl becomes million-dollar homes and working farms where alpacas roam and cows graze.

A certifiable townie, Stefanini has this trick where he can rattle off the names of intersections and tell you why traffic is such a mess there, and how long it’s been that way. Or he can point out the window to a family-run business in town, name the owners, and recite some kind of story about who they are and why they’re so beloved. He represented the town as both a state rep and a selectman, working to get the local Boys and Girls Club built and to open four public parks.

Though Stefanini now works as a lawyer and has been out of public office for 17 years, the way he tells it, he never stopped. “If you were to ask me,” says Shulman, the campaigner behind the library poster, “he’s been running for mayor for at least 20 years,” which Stefanini says he takes as a compliment. Weeks before the first-round vote, he’s raised more than $80,000—twice as much as Spicer and at least 20 times as much as everyone else. While candidates like Spicer hopped in the race despite being opposed to giving so much power to one person, being mayor seems to be Stefanini’s holy grail.

As one of the main boosters of Framingham’s cityhood, he pushed an initiative that’s fueled strife and neighborly discord. Why? To put a fine point on it, he did it because he believes the town has spent its latter years asleep at the wheel.

The problem with the failures of town meeting is that everyone is to blame, so in effect no one is.

On this tightly choreographed jaunt, he wants me to see the places where scars of town government’s failures are most visible. (I start calling this his “Landmarks of Failure” tour, though he would prefer I call our stops “Landmarks to We Can Do Better.”) There’s the crumbling fire station that was condemned in 1948 but hasn’t been replaced, and a playground on its lower-income south side with a lead-contamination problem that went unnoticed for years. There are the town’s three neglected shopping plazas—embarrassing dumps overgrown with weeds—that sit idle because no one has figured out how to put them to use. There’s the Millwood Farms Golf Course, for which Town Meeting failed to muster up the $5.5 million needed to keep it from being turned into a 55-plus retirement community. A downtown intersection, he fumes, was transformed from a straightaway to a roundabout, then back to a straightaway a decade later. “That lack of a master plan is not just funny,” he says, when I laugh out loud at that last one. “It’s also pathetic.”

How, he asks, does a community with the state’s ninth-largest budget and every reason to succeed, let so many good ideas mutate into bad ones and allow big plans to wither and die? Why are four of Framingham’s schools designated as “underperforming”? Why hasn’t the downtown blossomed into the kind of place people actually go to on purpose? Why does Massachusetts’ biggest Brazilian community, terrified anew of federal immigration enforcement raids, still feel largely absent from the halls of power?

The problem with the failures of town meeting is that everyone is to blame, so in effect no one is. But the short answer, according to Stefanini (and just a nudge over half the voting people of Framingham), is that an annual gathering of 216 political dabblers, even with the best intentions, is an insane way to govern a community of 70,000 people. He’s watched with frustration as the ancient ritual—and its largely old, largely white practitioners—whiffed on issue after issue. Change couldn’t come soon enough, he says.

He’s hardly the first one to feel this way—cityhood has been a subject of heated debate for a century, including two other referendums that failed at the polls. Opponents have been wary of what a mayor might do. “Tremendous power is being placed in the hands of a politician whose only job requirements are to live in Framingham and be at least 18 years old,” wrote Teri Banerjee, a town meeting member since the ’70s, in the anti-city half of a report produced by a voter-selected Charter Commission. “A lot of damage can be done in four years.” Another fear is how it might change the place, which has clung to its claim to fame of being “America’s Largest Town”—Framingham’s most enduring, but thoroughly misleading, nugget of trivia. “One of the reasons Framingham has not turned into a major metropolis is because involved people don’t have to be professional politicians,” wrote John Stasik, the former state representative and Framingham selectman leading the campaign against, in the run-up to the April vote. In the end, city supporters finally got what they wanted, with a referendum that was so close that opponents called for, and got, a recount.

And yet, just as his chance to lead arrives, maybe Stefanini has already blown it. “I don’t think that I have anything else to add,” he says, annoyed when I ask him about the video taken at the town’s library. He had already apologized, he reminds me. “The simple fact is, it’s an aberration in the way it’s presented, in the way I’ve lived 30 years of my life.” Perhaps so, but in a community already uneasy about putting power in the hands of one person, it’s a big hurdle to overcome. Still, if ruling by mob has failed and the one candidate who knows the town’s problems inside and out is suddenly suspect, it might fall to the anti-politicians running against him to save the city—if they’re up to it.

 

Around 7 p.m., on the first Wednesday of September, 26-year-old candidate Josh Horrigan is sitting at the front of a packed room at the Heritage at Framingham assisted living facility, wearing a dark plaid tie with a white shirt and a black jacket, singing a slightly off-key rendition of the Mary E. Stapleton Elementary School’s fight song. He’s attempting to make a point about education via firsthand experience at age five. The six other candidates for mayor, sitting on either side of him at a long table draped in a bright blue tablecloth and flanked by red-white-and-blue balloons, smile along, staring out at the audience of about 200 gathered for Framingham’s first mayoral debate. The crowd, which spans twentysomethings to senior citizens, loves it.

This will not be the only time the event feels a bit like a high school talent show or an amateur beauty pageant. Sure, there’s talk of sanctuary cities, the opioid crisis, school budget priorities, and other serious matters. But the fact is, with seven candidates and 30-second chunks of time to make their mark before the vote on September 26 to narrow the field, personality sells. When asked to share something people don’t know about him, Ben Neves-Grigg (the military contractor and ex-cop) confesses, “I’m a cowboy. I like cowboy hats.” Mark Tilden, the lawyer and condo owner, boasts that he can juggle, and later expounds on “tolerance for offensive speech” while condemning Antifa, the anti-fascist agitators (who have not, to my knowledge, appeared in the town). Priscila Sousa, asked about her plans for her first day as mayor, promises to visit every district in the new city. Asked to share a fun fact, Stefanini reminisces about being a housepainter during college. Dhruba Sen tells us he runs a math club. Spicer, who’s pitching herself as the “character and integrity” candidate, likes to box. A good thing, too, because by summer’s end, she’s found herself on the ropes in her own set of smalltime scandals.

For a community as big and diverse as Framingham, the idea that everyone can wholly agree on anything is almost laughable.

First, in late August, a former town moderator and Stefanini supporter named Jerry Desilets wrote a letter published in the Source, Framingham’s Politico for politics at its smallest, dropping the bombshell that Spicer hadn’t cast a ballot in even one of the 13 local elections between 2004 and 2015. Spicer says that’s missing the point, and notes she’s been involved in town in other ways. She wasn’t the only one missing at the local polls. Sousa, who records show voted in a local election for the first time in 2017, preempted similar criticism of her record with a letter to the editor saying, “if I could go back with today’s understanding of active engagement, I would have voted more,” and vowing to “do everything in my power to make voting easier and more accessible.” In that same 12-year time period, Neves-Grigg hadn’t voted in a local election, either, Tilden did so once, and Sen, four times. Horrigan had voted in two elections, in 2012 and 2016, in Grafton. Stefanini, of course, had managed to vote in all of them.

More bad news came not long after, when volunteers for Spicer were spied waving campaign signs outside Framingham High School to greet teachers returning from summer vacation. Spicer’s team said they were only there “to thank our teachers for their service to the community,” but critics accused her of breaching rules against campaigning on campus. Newly minted Superintendent Bob Tremblay, pulled into the orbit of this latest political scandal, initially characterized it as a violation, and then softened his stance when the town’s legal counsel determined that Spicer’s team hadn’t technically done anything wrong. In the end, walking a treacherous municipal tightrope, he said that even if her volunteers hadn’t “expressly violated” the policy it “could be validly restricted” if it happened again.

The timing, just as people were tuning in to the final weeks of the race, was unfortunate. Before all this, when the vote to become a city bisected Framingham in April, Spicer had managed mostly to stay out of the fray, though she says she quietly opposed the move to cityhood (she thought it was “too much, too soon”) and voted against it. Since then, she’s pitched herself as a unifier, a bright, accomplished executive coming off the bench to help her city in its hour of need—a sensible, middle-of-the-road alternative to the kind of candidate who, ahem, takes matters into his own hands. “I’m coming at this with no encumbrances or alliances,” she told me earlier in the summer. The vote to become a city had left some people “very polarized,” she added. “I’m not.”

But politics comes for us all, eventually. In Framingham, the divisions that Spicer claims to rise above weren’t caused by the decision to become a city or an embarrassingly amateur mistake by her opponent. They’re the bitter end of an overlong municipal adolescence. For a community as big and diverse as Framingham, the idea that everyone can wholly agree on anything is almost laughable. So good riddance to the small-town effect. In the process of leveling up, though, the soon-to-be city has opened a Pandora’s box. Under a mayor, it’s more susceptible than ever to political machines, outside meddling, hacks, sycophants, and political favors. Hopefully, it’s also opening the door to smart development, new wealth, and young up-and-comers who help it deliver on its long-touted, and long-overdue, potential.

Maybe that’ll be enough to save Framingham, if its new mayor can figure out how this is all supposed to work. Either way, it’s too late to stop: Framingham is barreling toward a precarious first-of-its-kind election for an office more powerful than it has ever seen—for better or, perhaps, much, much worse.


Spencer Buell Staff Writer at Boston Magazine sbuell@bostonmagazine.com