City Council Candidate Chat: Sal LaMattina

This is the 22nd in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. District One incumbent Sal LaMattina met me at Caffe Vittoria.

David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for another term, to keep being a city councilor?

Sal LaMattina: It’s a job that I love. I love being a city councilor, representing District One. If you’re a city councilor, especially if you’re a district city councilor, it’s about taking care of your neighborhoods. That’s why I am the chairman of City and Neighborhood Services and Veterans Affairs. I have all those city agencies—Public Works, Parks Department, ISD [Inspectional Services Department]—all those basic services departments are beneath me. I love it, because my job is to make sure that my district gets its services, and I think that’s the most important job of a city councilor, to take care of the neighborhoods. And I think I do that pretty well.

Through your committee you’ve worked closely with the heads of most of the city departments. Are there any particular people you hope will stay on, and any areas where you think a better job can be done?

We do have some very talented department heads today in the city, and I’m fortunate that I work very closely with them, and they have been very responsive to me. There are some departments I think need special attention—particularly the Inspectional Services Department, to make it more customer-friendly. At the same time, if you look at the budgets—and I think the mayor did a great job with the budgets—a lot of the major city departments are running at bare bones right now, for staff levels. An ordinance that I’m looking at, that I’m hoping to have a hearing on, is how can we raise some money with all this new development coming to the city over the next couple of years—billions of dollars; I think some of that money needs to go toward parks.

There’s a particular new development coming in your district that you know I’m going to ask about, but we’ll get back to that. You’ll be high in seniority next year, are you interested in chairing something like Education or Public Safety, or Ways and Means, or even becoming council president?

I’m vice president of the city council now. I’ve had some friends talk to me about moving up to be president of the city council. But I do love being chair of City and Neighborhood Services, because my job is to bring services to the neighborhood, and with that committee, it gives me the opportunity to deal with all those departments. Take a walk on Hanover Street, you’ll see brand new crosswalks. Go down Salem Street, you’ll see new Acorn lights.

You ran for Register of Probate last year. Was losing that a heavy disappointment to you? What would you say to people who wonder if your heart is really in being councilor any more?

Is was the best thing that happened to me, to be honest with you, for me and my family. My heart was never really into that campaign. So I was kind of relieved. Because I can do a lot more here. At the time, my wife—you know, I can be out seven nights a week sometimes [as councilor]. But I think my wife realized that I really love my job. So I was fine with it. After that campaign was over, I was walking up and down the streets and people were saying, “we’re sorry you lost, but we’re glad you’re still our city councilor.” So I am fine. It gave me an opportunity to really discover the city, and other areas of the city I had never really been to.

What was something you learned about another part of the city, running citywide for the first time?

Well, West Roxbury is fa-a-ar away. It’s a long distance from East Boston. And they have a lot more trees than we have in the North End. But you talk to people in other parts of the city, and we all have the same concerns. We want to live in a nice city, a clean city, a safe city, with good schools. Talking to people, that’s what I learned.

Speaking of the big city versus the district, that’s one of the issues concerning the casino. Why shouldn’t the rest of the city have a vote on the East Boston casino, and also, what mitigation should be presented to the district to ease their concerns?

I have said from day one, in 2007, that I could support a casino at Suffolk Downs if it benefits the people in my district—particularly the people in East Boston. I really believe that the infrastructure is there at Suffolk Downs. If you talk to the residents that abut Suffolk Downs, they love it, and they would hate to lose it. But that being said, I have concerns, as my neighbors have concerns. Traffic is a big concern. Crime is another concern. I went to Philadelphia and talked to every single deputy mayor there, because they have SugarHouse casino, and another casino is going there. I wanted to hear from them about their experience. After, I met some residents from Fishtown [neighborhood]. Then we went to a place called Bensalem, Pennsylvania, which has a race track. They were going through the same situation, where the track probably would have closed down. Met with mayor [Joseph] DiGirolamo, who has been there 20 years. And what I learned from those two cities is that people who are going to a casino know when there’s rush hour. Guess what, they don’t go when it’s rush hour. And we talked to Philadelphia about crime; they added 12 police officers that patrol that area of Fishtown, but nothing happened, the crime rate went down. Same thing with Mayor DiGirolamo who said he hired all kinds of police officers, but crime was not an issue. And same thing with the traffic. So when I hear people talk about how the casino is going to impact the whole city, yeah, it is, but we’re also going to get revenues that will pay for more police not only for East Boston but for the whole city. We have an opportunity to get over $25 million of additional tax revenue, not only for East Boston but for the whole city. For years. I think that the folks in East Boston need to make that decision. I look at it as an opportunity for East Boston, particularly in jobs. I haven’t come out in full support of the casino, because I haven’t seen the mitigation package for the neighborhood. The mayor is working on that; that’s his job, he has to work and come up with a mitigation plan. So I trust the mayor, and I’m giving him that time.

In terms of the mitigation package, do you expect it to keep the jobs for city residents, to some extent?

I hope there’s something in the package that East Boston, the city of Boston, has first preference for jobs. This is a jobs legislation for the commonwealth. But I want to make sure that we have that opportunity—and that businesses in my neighborhood have opportunities to provide services to a new casino at that location.

The demographics of your district have changed; it’s not the stereotype people think of it any more. How have you kept up with it or changed with it?

I probably represent some of the richest residents of the city, in Beacon Hill, and some of the poorest immigrants, in East Boston. I have a very diverse neighborhood. But again, you go talk to all those people, and it goes back to this job as a city councilor: are you taking care of the neighborhoods, and making sure it’s clean, that it’s safe, and that you have good schools for your kids.

What is the best Italian restaurant in the city, and what is the best Latin American restaurant in the city?

I’m not going to answer the first one. [Laughs] Because I’ve got 99 Italian restaurants in the North End. If you ever watch Diners, Drive-Ins, And Dives, there’s a segment of me at a particular restaurant in Boston called Rino’s. We have many, many good restaurants in my district, I’m very fortunate. There’s a restaurant in Maverick Square called The Cactus. They’re El Salvadorean, but they also serve a lot of Mexican food. I love their burritos. If you want a waterfront restaurant, Navy Yard Bistro in Charlestown. There are some really good Colombian restaurants in East Boston, and some really good Mexican restaurants. You know, this year I’m celebrating 25 years of East Boston Pride Day; I started it 25 years ago, when people were just moving out of East Boston; empty store fronts, abandoned homes. As I look back 25 years, wow, what a difference.


Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.