City Council Candidate Chat: Ramon Soto
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for at at-large seat on the City Council?
Ramon Soto: This is a historic moment in our city, with a new mayor, and City Council, and superintendent of schools. I looked at the scope of my experience, and the opportunity for having a real voice on the City Council, with where we are in our city, I thought that my experience would bring a lot to our government, and I could be an advocate for the city—in every neighborhood, in every culture, in every community. That goes back to my work on the federal census in 2010, when I was the liaison for the city, and then my work in the Circle of Promise, which aligns resources around our under-performing schools. I also think that we need to have diversity in representation on the council, and with Felix Arroyo leaving his seat to run for mayor, I thought there was an opportunity to have a Latino voice on the council.
In the Mayor’s Circle of Promise initiative, you were specifically dealing with some of Boston’s worst-off schools, the state turnaround schools. Tell me a little about what you did, and what you learned through it that might apply to the effort of improving the city’s schools?
The Circle of Promise tries to align local resources directly into the school, working with the family engagement staff, and working directly within the community, to connect those pieces. For too long, there’s been a disconnect. Busing is part of that – I’d like to see a return to neighborhood schools, where folks can be more engaged directly with their local school, but I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s a lot of work to be done to get to a place where we have a quality school in every neighborhood that families are going to want to be engaged in. With the Circle of Promise, we’re trying to get those resources in there, so parents don’t have to look for the resources and travel in order to get them. One example I like to use is with the Orchard Gardens school, where they have a great history now of turning it around. But two years ago I got a call from the principal saying they needed winter coats. They had kids who were unprepared to learn, because they were still shaking the cold off, because they were coming to school in sweatshirts and sneakers. We went to the Goodwill that’s right next door to Orchard Gardens, and their response was “absolutely, just tell us what size you need.” We were able to turn that around so quickly, and the principal was extremely grateful. There’s now a relationship between the school and the Goodwill. We’ve replicated that hundreds of times over, in a number of different ways. That kind of work, as a city councilor at large, I can help to facilitate on a bigger scale.
You’ve been working for Tom Menino, in one way or another, for the past six years. You worked on his last re-election campaign. You’ve also worked on the campaigns of Governor Patrick and Senator Warren. Is it fair to call you an establishment candidate? And is there anything negative about that?
I’m opposed to some of the older labels. This is a new opportunity—it’s a new mayor, it’s a new council, so everything is going to change. The establishment isn’t necessarily going to reflect what the term might be defined as. I look forward to having insight and a fresh voice on the council, because my purview is beyond what might be perceived as an establishment candidate. I’m not your average politician. I’ve been a straight-shooter on every issue. I don’t dance around my positions, and a lot of them might not be in line with what you might call an establishment candidate. If anything, I’ve been calling myself a common-sense candidate. I think there’s a lot of really common-sense proposals and changes that are out there, that just need to be promoted, and as a city councilor at large that’s the role that I can play, and to really be a voice for every neighborhood. I wouldn’t hide from that label, but at the same time, I think that my campaign is broader than that.
When you talk about common-sense solutions that are out there to be instituted, can you give me any examples, aside from education, which we’ve already talked about?
We need to think a lot harder on how we keep working-class families in our neighborhoods. One way we can do that is by working with low-income or middle-income families around down payments for homes. We have families who are struggling to get by, but they can pay their rent and they would be able to afford a mortgage. But because of the recession, having the savings is whole other issue. If we had more opportunities for low-income families to pay into a low-interest trust or housing fund, then we would be able to have more of our working families more stable. That can happen with something like a housing trust—there’s one that exists now in the city of Boston, but it’s hard to find; you have to go to DND [Department of Neighborhood Development] and ask the right questions. But it should be out there for everyone to take advantage of, as long as you take a course in owning a home, and as long as you meet certain benchmarks.
You previously worked as a legislative aide to Michael Morrissey of Quincy, when he was a state senator and chairman of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure—where I always viewed him, correctly or not, as one of the major roadblocks to the expansion of liquor licenses in Boston. What do you make of the current effort of the City Council to move control over those licenses from the state to the city?
I was the author of liquor license legislation, on behalf of the senator—that was one of my roles in the office. I sat down in the meeting with Mayor Menino and Senator Morrissey in advance of working on that piece of legislation. I’m very familiar with Chapter 138. The obstruction was the state law, which was written by the Brahmins to try to keep the Irish away from the liquor licenses, many years ago. We worked with the mayor to try to craft legislation that was as broad as possible, that would be digestible by the rest of the legislature. I thought we did a pretty good job, but we’ve come up against it in the past few years, with the limit. I tend to agree with councilor [Ayanna] Pressley’s proposal. I think we have to be very careful, though, with how we approach licensing when it comes to neighborhoods like the North End, and South Boston, and others, where they’re currently really up against it in terms of the number of licenses they have versus residents, and the neighborhood’s concerns around the number of bars. I think that the city of Boston should have control over the number of licenses, but you still need to fight through the state legislature’s bureaucracy, because as it is now, it’s based on population—even though for the city of Boston, that wouldn’t make as much sense because our population doubles every day. It’s nonsensical. So, there’s a lot of work to do there. As city councilor I would advocate for more flexibility for the city being able to distribute liquor licenses.
You said that with Felix Arroyo leaving, you would like to, in a sense, take his place on the council. Are you referring to the fact that he is the only councilor with a beard, and you are a bearded at-large candidate?
I’ve heard that a lot on the trail. I’m going to own the beard. It’s been suggested that maybe I should shave it, because I don’t want to be too closely associated with him, or something, but I’m a totally different kind of candidate. I come from a different world, I have a different set of experiences and skills I can bring to the council and to our city. And yes, the fact is, I’m the only one out of 19 candidates that is a Latino. When we have a significant amount of Latino students in our public schools; we have a significant amount of small businesses owned by Latinos, that we should have a voice on the council that is representative of that. I make no bones about it, and I think the beard is part of it.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.