City Council Candidate Chat: Suzanne Lee

This is the 40th in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. Former school principal Suzanne Lee is running in District 2.

David S. Bernstein: You lost a very close race two years ago; why do you want to be a city councilor, and why are you going after it a second time?

Suzanne Lee: I am running for the same reason I ran two years ago: because I know we can do better. To fight for better schools, access to jobs, affordable housing, and having ordinary folks have a say in what goes on, particularly on development issues in our community. Working together we can have better outcomes. I am just continuing work I have done my whole life. I’ve dealt with all these issues. I’ve always felt a passion for our neighborhoods and our city. I know I could do a good job.

There is a lot of development going on in South Boston in particular; when you talk about ordinary people having a say, what would that mean – what would be different if neighborhood residents had more input?

There are a lot of developments happening, which is a good thing—every city needs good development. But, we also need balanced development; development that allows us to build the future but not impact negatively on people who are living there. Who knows better what impacts the quality of life, than the people who are living there? They need to be part of that equation. That doesn’t mean every little thing, but the overall picture. What happens now, is that there is no master plan that looks at what good, sustainable, healthy quality of life in a community looks like. When we don’t have that, then you have developments springing up here and there and all of a sudden you say wait a minute, what happened to the traffic, what happened to open space, what happened to the environment? All those issues. I know the BRA is supposed to look at all that, but often it is one project at a time. And when you look at the totality of all the developments, all of a sudden, boom, what happened?

You feel that the district councilor should be keeping an eye on that, but do you lay some blame on Mayor Tom Menino, for the lack of a master plan and the BRA not seeing the totality of the effect?

I’m not blaming the mayor. It’s just that any bureaucracy has a life of its own. That’s why, from time to time, you have to take a look at it. When bureaucracy takes a life of its own, it does things in the best interests of that bureaucracy. Right or wrong, with the best of intentions. So from time to time you do have to step back and take a look at it. Development is supposed to be good for everybody. We need to have that balance. It can’t just benefit the people who make money.

Speaking of bureaucracies that have built up a life of their own, the Boston Public Schools department is something you’ve dealt with for many years. How has that bureaucracy developed into what it is today?

It has to do with the whole education reform push nationally, and locally too. A lot of pressure comes from the state Department of Education to produce good testing, and that’s what the school department was forced to react to. Then, in the course of that, you sometimes forget what children need, and it went too much on the side of making them do more math, making them read more, and getting to better [test] results. There are better ways, and I have had success with that, because I always look at the whole child, the totality, the whole family. The same way that I want to work on the City Council: how do we do policies that address the whole family and the whole community?

Do you think that in these political campaigns we split these issues up too much—talk for two minutes about public safety here, talk about schools at this forum; breaking it into too many pieces?

You have a forum just on planning, a forum on youth, a forum on housing, a forum on economic development. And you have people going to just one of those forums, because they are interested in that particular topic. But at the end of the day, everything needs to come together as a whole. One does have an impact on the others; they’re not in a silo.

Looking at things holistically, it seems to me, has to take place at the highest levels, to be fully integrated. But at the same time, we constantly hear with the schools about the need to delegate down, to give people closer to the ground more autonomy—getting outside that central bureaucracy. Isn’t that contradictory?

Just because you need to have high levels looking at the system as a whole, looking at the city as a whole, looking at the district as a whole, doesn’t mean that you need to control everything. No one person can no everything. This is where you really need to listen, because the best ideas come from the people who are doing it, from the people who are living it. I don’t see city government any different, in that if you want to have solutions to a problem, you really need to listen, and ask the people who are impacted before that decision gets made. We’re a long way from that, and I think the council office can do a lot to change that way of doing things in the city.

This district that you’re running in has many different pieces, very diverse components, so when you talk about people who are impacted having the answers, don’t they sometimes have very different answers, and different priorities, depending on who you’re talking to, in which parts of the district?

Well again, I circle back to experience: being the principal of the biggest elementary school in Boston, that served from Beacon Hill all the way down to the projects. Talk about diversity. And you would think parents of different backgrounds would have different demands, and different views. Sometimes they do. But at the end of the day, if you are a leader, you need to focus people on those issues that are for the common good.

When you were campaigning a couple of years ago, we were still in a tougher economic time. As you are talking to voters now, have the priorities, the issues they’re focused on, changed much?

Not that much. Pretty much the same. People are still frustrated with the process, from Government Center to South Boston to the South End. A lot of times, it’s the people on the street in those neighborhoods, that say: Don’t they know that’s going on over there, and this is going on over here, and we end up caught in the middle? Like the traffic jam in Fort Point right now. You’re going to tell me that they didn’t know this was going to happen? People on the ground knew! That’s what I’m talking about. That’s no different from community to community.

I’ve been talking to you for about 15 minutes and you haven’t mentioned Bill Linehan’s name. Isn’t all of this ultimately an argument that you would do a better job advocating on these things than the incumbent has done?

Like I said at the beginning: this is a continuation of work I have done my whole life. Obviously, I know that I can do a better job. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. It’s not about him. It’s about what I can do.

I just recently learned that you started teaching back in the 1970s, riding with bused students from the South End to Charlestown. You’re now running in a district, including South Boston, that just elected a Haitian woman to represent them in the state senate. Is there something full-circle about this – could you have imagined then you would be running for office in South Boston today?

You know, this is why I love people. [Laughs] Because in the communities,when you talk about issues, and really focus on solving challenging issues that impact people’s quality of life, people respond. They say this is what we want. It’s not about a person’s background, where they come from, or what they look like. If you have a chance to really focus and talk about the issues, people know what they want. When you have an engaged, informed public, that’s when you have the best results.


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