City Council Candidate Chat: Jeff Ross
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for an at-large city council seat this year?
Jeff Ross: Because I believe that we as Bostonians can work together to make the city a more passionate and inclusive city. I think that as barriers come down between neighborhoods, the city becomes more vibrant, and safer. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 19 years, and I’ve seen how, as neighborhoods become safer, businesses are more willing to invest, and it brings about a vibrancy to the city. If I am elected I will be the first openly gay city-wide councilor in the 104 years of the council’s history. When I finished law school at Northeastern University, I struggled to find a job in the city and eventually started my own law practice, and was able to make a life, and raise a family, and find some stability. I want to work to give back to families in the city of Boston.
You started off saying about barriers coming down between communities in the city. What do you mean by that, and where and how are you seeing that?
When I moved to Boston, I moved out of the dorm in January of 1995 and moved to Chandler Street. And I distinctly remember folks in my neighborhood saying “don’t go to the other side of Tremont; don’t cross Dartmouth Street.” I think there was a mentality in the city of isolation. Some neighborhoods in the city were perceived to be unsafe. And I think that a lot of it was racial barriers, and fear of the unknown. I think we’ve made a lot of progress on that over the last 20 years, and that there have been a lot of voices out there that have advocated to make our city more inclusive, and to celebrate the differences among our neighborhoods.
I tend to give Mayor Tom Menino some credit for that increasing diversity and inclusion—I think some of it is an attitude that comes from the top. As you look at the field of candidates to replace him, do you feel confident that whoever is elected will continue the progress in that direction?
I think that Mayor Menino has done a tremendous job on diversity issues. I came to Boston right after his administration started, and have participated in raising money for English for New Bostonians, an event that celebrates the cultural diversity of the city. I think that leadership has been remarkable. What we see is candidates reaching out to communities of color, and the LGBT community, and immigrant communities, in the mayoral race, and I think they all take that part of our lexicon seriously. I hope that our next mayor loves every part of our city as much as mayor Menino has over the last 20 years.
On your website you talk about economic development in terms of growing the tax base, and keeping money in local banks that are lending to small business. In terms of moving the city forward economically, is it primarily about access to capital for small business?
Part of the economic development piece is retaining residents of the city, because our residential tax base makes up over 66 percent city’s budget. So we need to look at ways to keep folks in the city, and part of that is creating job opportunities, and keeping the community safe. The other piece is that we want to draw innovative technologies and businesses to the city, and women’s businesses. I visited a place called StartupLab in Allston-Brighton last week, and out of 11 startup businesses only two were women-owned. So I think that there’s a lot of growth potential in the city among women entrepreneurs. Creating access to capital will help small businesses that are in incubator stage, and able to show some viability, with the opportunity to start up. Give them an opportunity to grow, and succeed, and create more jobs in the city, and that will grow our tax base. If we continue to grow our tax base for our non-residential tax levy at 4 to 5 percentage points every year, then we don’t have to raise residential property tax rates at the 2.2 percent rate that we could.
You’ve been involved on a number of political campaigns in the past—including one of your own, for state senate. Have there been any lessons you’ve learned from those, not just about the nuts-and-bolts of campaigns, but about what it takes to be a good candidate, and a good leader?
I’ve worked on Suzanne Bump’s campaign, and Ayanna Pressley’s and Felix Arroyo’s campaigns, just to name a few. When you’re out on the campaign trail and meet folks, you have stories that are compelling, and touching. You realize how dependent some neighborhoods are on government services and the leadership that we have in the city. I think it’s the personal stories of folks that I’ve met that compel me to continue to be out there and do the work.
What about your work as an attorney? You’ve done a lot of work with immigrants in particular; what have you learned through that?
Some of our poorest families are immigrants, and some of the folks who have the least access to jobs are immigrants. I’ve worked with women victims of domestic violence, and unaccompanied youth that don’t have the parents to take care of them, and so what I’ve learned is that the more services that a kid gets, the earlier on that their impediments to learning are caught, the more likely their chances of success are in graduating from high school and maybe going on to a vocational school or college. I think that folks escaping domestic violence, getting into a stable shelter if they have children, helps break cycles of poverty and violence. Immigrants have a lot to contribute to the cultural diversity and vibrancy of our city, and they tend to open small businesses and create jobs for other folks, and be just as invested in their neighborhoods as people who were born in the city of Boston. So I think it’s important that we provide the support that we need for children who we want to do well in school and have great futures in the city.
I find that when someone runs city-wide for the first time, they learn something about parts of the city they weren’t as familiar with, even if they thought they knew the city well—whether it’s something deep and meaningful, or just the food that they have somewhere. Is there any part of the city that you’ve learned something about?
One of the things I learned is that there are folks in Hyde Park that are not in the first zone of the Fairmount Line, and the cost for people who aren’t in the first zone is cost-prohibitive. We want to encourage folks to use public transportation, but with the Fairmount Line it becomes prohibitively expensive, if you’re paying five dollars for a one-way pass into the city. The other thing is that I’ve met with seniors who have trouble getting around the city with their own personal mobility issues, and people are talking about bus lines, and the stops being spread out further. We have to really look at the transportation system—I know that it’s a state issue, but there are things a city councilor can do, lobbying and advocating to folks at different levels of government, to raise awareness of the issue and the struggles that families in the city of Boston have.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.