The Interview: Joe Curtatone Is a Rebel With a Cause

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone on how his city is charting its own course during the coronavirus crisis.

Photo by Jeff Brown

As the leader of one of the region’s most “abnormal” (his word) cities, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has never been afraid to go against the grain—a quality that’s become even more apparent in the pandemic era. When Massachusetts marched into Phase 3 of reopening this summer, for example, the politician opted to hold his city back, keeping restaurant dining rooms and gyms closed. And amid statewide debate over hybrid school models, Somerville was one of the first districts to announce it would start the year with fully remote learning. We recently caught up with the famously progressive mayor—currently serving a record ninth term—to talk COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and where he’d tell Donald Trump to go if he ever came to town.

With respect to COVID-19, how do you think we’re doing as a state?

I think we’ve done a great job of flattening out the curve. Coming out of the gate, we really stuck together. What I think we’re failing at is vigilance, not just as a state, in terms of government, but as a society, too. We need to give a damn more about the people around us. We haven’t won anything yet. As individuals, we all have a responsibility to look out for one another and to wear a face covering, wash our hands, and stay 6 feet away. Some places I go, like with my kids to a sporting event, I look around and I see some people complying, and then others not at all. And you wonder: Where is that selflessness that we’ve prided ourselves so much on throughout our history as Americans?

You’ve been unafraid to buck trends when it comes to reopening, including opting not to take Somerville to Phase 3. Why did you decide to do that?

Being informed and questioning what you think is real or not real is critical. We have always leveraged science and data in our policies and interventions, and that is no different in a crisis. Science and data have guided us through this process. We have deliberately tried to be bold. Especially in a crisis, leadership is necessary. You have to be bold, you have to be decisive, and you can’t be afraid to stick out.

You are sticking out on school openings, too, as one of the first districts to announce a fully remote start to the school year.

It goes against what we all want to do. I’m acutely aware of that. Two of my four boys are still in the Somerville Public Schools, and I’d love nothing more than for them to get out of my house and be back in school tomorrow. Today! It is hard for any elected official to make a decision like this. But if we are all in it for saving lives, this is what we have to do.

Do you think of yourself as a maverick?

No. I’m just a kid from Prospect Hill, and someone trying to do right by my community. I grew up here. I’m the son of working-class, immigrant parents. I’m raising my family here. I love my community. I just try to lead with my values. I don’t think that’s being a maverick. It’s just trying to do the right thing.

What’s the most inappropriate text, email, or social media comment that you’ve received recently?

There’s a long list for that, so I’ll just mention the most recent one. As a result of our delay on some activities, either the owner or the operator of a fitness or health club emailed to tell me basically what I should do to myself. It wasn’t the worst one I’ve ever received, just the latest. But then again, I haven’t checked my email this morning or my social media, so it’s still early in the day.

Who’s the leader you most admire?

Nelson Mandela. He understood that leadership is about listening and hearing. And he was able to move a country, not just in the fight to bring down apartheid, but then to rebuild a nation of Black and white Africans, to reconcile, and to build trust in one another. His ability to reconcile with his oppressors is something that was unprecedented.

What’s the single biggest reform that you’d like to see on the federal level?

In terms of our society, the single biggest reform that I’d like to see has to be the eradication of racism. It’s embedded in our housing policy, our transportation policy, our economic policy. It is really structural racism. That is one of our greatest existential threats.

Term limits: pro or con?

I’m rethinking them. I have to be honest with you: I was really opposed, and then I started to reconsider it. Because not having term limits is, to some extent, to compound the status quo, which sort of prevents a sense of urgency on some of the necessary structural reform we need in our society and in our government, and in our state and our communities.

How would you describe Somerville?

I describe Somerville as “abnormal,” and that’s what I love about it. I think when you stand out, you don’t think or do things normally, and I mean that in a very positive way. In fact, when I hire people, I look for two qualities: passionate curiosity and a willingness to be abnormal. Somerville’s abnormal, because it’s willing to stick out and be a leader and a standard-bearer, and to take risks.

You’re 54 now. The city has changed dramatically during your lifetime. What have been the biggest changes?

Somerville has always been a great city. It’s always been a community of hope and opportunity for immigrants, much like the rest of America. But it’s also a community that was segregated. In the past, if you were African-American, you lived in a particular part of the city, and when you went to school, it was the same. The city was also dirtier, and it was corrupt. It took a long trajectory of not just elected leaders but also community members to change that and to break down those barriers for new residents in this city.

Still, there’s always more work to do.

Yes. We’re not a perfect community. We have our challenges. Racism exists in our city. We still have people who have to battle for equal access to the same opportunities I may have as a white male. But what I again admire is that there are people who fight. That’s one of the biggest changes. Certainly, the city’s gotten cleaner. We’ve brought in new growth. All of the schools are better. But all of that is really rooted in the fight for greater equality, and the fight for increased diversity and tolerance for everyone.

In your opinion, what will the Black Lives Matter movement look like a decade from now?

I hope 10 years from now that the movement has turned into actual work to identify and eradicate structural racism, through the lens of public health, through housing policy, transportation policy, environmental policy, economic opportunity. I hope that everyone really has the same access to all of the things we enjoy in life. I hope and pray that we won’t have to respond to another murder of another person of color at the hands of police. You know, we hung the BLM banner up five years ago, and there’s been a lot of alliance-building. White so-called progressives like myself have joined the movement, but we have to get beyond the self-congratulatory pat on the back.

So where do you start?

Moving forward? Getting into the actual work. I say this because when the murders of George Floyd occurred, and Breonna Taylor, and so many others, I called so many of my friends that I grew up with and said, “I owe you better.” I’ve got to do the work so that Black Americans, brown Americans, and all those who have been oppressed by structural racism, including immigrants, don’t have to fear for their lives when they walk down the street. I need to know that they’ll have access to housing that’s actually affordable, and access to the same jobs.

Photo by Jess Benjamin

What’s the next political step for you?

I really don’t know. I told my wife when I became mayor, I’ll definitely be here for about six years, and now I find myself here 17 years later. I love doing the work and I love being at the local level, which is closest to everything in your community. Whether the future holds politics or the nonprofit sector or the private sector, being the mayor will always be the most fulfilling professional experience I’ve had in my life.

Where’s your favorite spot in Somerville?

The roof of City Hall. It’s one of the best views in the city, and I sit down in a little shady spot against the clock tower and just pause, usually on a Friday afternoon, and reflect back on the week past and the week ahead, the good and the bad. I take a deep breath and stay up there for less than an hour and then head back.

How about your favorite tourist attraction?

It has to be Prospect Hill, and not just because I grew up there. The first flag of the United Colonies was flown from there on January 1, 1776, and besides the roof at City Hall, Prospect Hill actually has the best views, from on top of the monument tower.

Is there a thing that you want named after you?

No, there really isn’t. That would mean someone killed me. I’m okay.

How do you want to be remembered?

What I’d like to be remembered for, whether people agreed with me or not, is that my values reflected the community’s values and that I worked hard to do everything I could to make the community better.

If you had to come up with a new slogan for Somerville, what would it be?

I would say, “Friendly, forward-thinking, and freaky.”

If Donald Trump came to Somerville and asked you to show him around, what would the schedule include?

I can’t fathom why I’d want to, but I would show him a few things. I would show him our schools. I would introduce him to the families and the children, especially the many immigrant families we have, so that he could actually experience what a connected, supportive, and loving community looks like, and meet people who love this country as much as you and I.

Is there one thing that your detractors might be right about?

As leaders, we’re all susceptible and can fall prey to a hunger that’s like self-aggrandizement. Like if someone asks, “Do you think you’re the one best situated to make that decision?” And you answer, “Seventeen years as a mayor!” I’ve been guilty of that.

How do you unwind?

By coaching youth sports. I’m still coaching baseball. And just finding a moment of solace, maybe on the roof of the hall, or going out for a walk or exercise, or watching reruns (these days) of sporting events. Going fishing with my kids. I just try to be Joe, Nancy’s husband, the dad to my kids, a neighbor to my friends.

Is there a vice you have that you wish you didn’t?

I like my coffee. I like my wine. And every once in a while, I like a cigar. I can’t say I wish I didn’t have these vices. They’re all in moderation, and so I love them.

Last question: I have heard you have an uncanny ability to remember the names and faces of your constituents. Any tricks you can share with the rest of us?

Candidly, I do have a good memory in that I can remember phone numbers, I can remember statistics, just naturally, whether it is sports or history. There is nothing special I do to remember. But it is fascinating, because right now I seriously don’t know where my wallet is again. I’m going to call my wife right now and ask her.

By the Numbers

Mass. Mayors
The long and short of it

Total number of mayors

Number of communities with a city government but no mayor

Number of cities (Cambridge and Lowell) where the city council elects the mayor

Percentage of mayors who are women

Number of mayors who are Black or Latinx

Years that the longest-serving mayor in Massachusetts, Dean Mazzarella of Leominster, has been in office