One in series looking at newly elected mayors across Massachusetts.
FORMER SOMERVILLE mayor Joe Curtatone was known statewide for his harsh criticism of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, and his pithy soundbites about topics of national importance.
Newly elected Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne represents a major change in style. Ballantyne, 59, is steeped in the minutiae of urban policy, with a deep understanding of topics like affordable housing and workforce development. Ask Ballantyne about her stance on the controversial topic of municipal COVID vaccine mandates, and she’ll answer the question. Then she’ll pivot to a topic she’s more comfortable talking about: urban rats.
Ballantyne spent eight years on the Somerville City Council. Professionally, she worked in the footwear industry and in supply chain management. She sat on the board of a Somerville affordable housing development corporation and worked for a neighborhood development corporation in Jamaica Plain, focusing on affordable housing and workforce development. She has worked on job training initiatives in health care and environmental justice and spent five years as executive director of a domestic violence prevention program.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: You have a multi-cultural heritage. How does that affect your worldview?
KATJANA BALLANTYNE: I was born an orphan in Greece and adopted by my Scottish father, hence the name Ballantyne, and Czech-German mother, hence the name Katjana. We immigrated to the United States when I was four.
I learned early on that sometimes people are afraid of differences. It could be your accent, it could be your food, or it could be your culture. It’s always important to me to make sure people feel included.
My parents would always say we’re the United Nations. That was a good thing. All the cultures were melting together. I was the first and only one in my family to go to college. I worked two jobs and took out loans to get a BA and an MBA. And I’ve worked for 30 years. I started off in business, in international supply chain management, then I moved to the nonprofit world.
CW: What brought you to Somerville?
BALLANTYNE: I moved to Somerville in 1993. I came single, eventually got married, and have stayed here. I’m the mom of two daughters. They attended Somerville public schools. At the time I was coming in 1993, Somerville was just starting to embrace its progressive values. There was a tremendous amount of organizing around issues like how do you create an urban environment, a mixed use development, what do you do with the Assembly area, the underutilized sections of Somerville. I just started going to some of the meetings to better inform myself and learned about land use, mixed use development, bigger issues of affordability.
The work I’ve been doing, whether I was in Boston or here, has all fallen under the bigger picture of affordability. It’s giving people housing, trying to connect people to jobs. How do we do that in Somerville, but how do we do that to a point where we’re also not displacing the people who are here now.
CW: What got you interested in politics?
BALLANTYNE: I’ve always been interested in my community. When I became a parent in 1996, I’d lived here three years, you start looking around more. I wanted to be involved in community. That brings you to the people who are here, and then to elected officials. Why I entered at the time was I felt that there wasn’t a big, strategic vision of how we were going to move forward. I saw the intersection of housing and jobs as being something very important. I said to myself why them and not me? I did not come up the traditional political routes, I came up as a community member who volunteered in her community, whether it was on the board of an affordable housing developer or volunteering in the school district.
CW: Why did you decide to run for mayor?
BALLANTYNE: I wanted to take the policies that we have been working on for the last decade and make sure that there’s continued progress. I also feel that my vision for Somerville is for an inclusive, equitable city where we can all thrive together, and I did not necessarily hear other people talking about the inclusive piece.
CW: What do you mean by inclusive?
BALLANTYNE: Inclusive leadership to me means it can get messy, that all people have an opportunity to have a voice at the table. It means that you sit back a little bit and you let those who are most impacted be able to speak and listen and not necessarily step over them. For me, inclusive leadership works because you get buy in, you get shared purpose, you get a better result at the end of the day.
CW: Somerville historically was more of a dense, working-class community. It’s now popular with young professionals, including many people who can’t afford rents in Cambridge. How do you balance the constituencies of old and new Somerville?
BALLANTYNE: You talk to them. You invite them in. It’s starting the conversation, it’s engaging people, it’s letting people feel like they’re listened to. In my time as city councilor…a few people have said to me you know I’m not so sure that I agree with your politics, but one thing I do know is you’ll listen to me. I think that’s a wonderful thing that people feel they can have a conversation with me, and that is certainly something that I continue to make sure happens in my administration.
CW: Somerville has seen a building boom in recent years. Does the city need more development, and what kind?
BALLANTYNE: Cities aren’t static, they’re dynamic, they’re moving. I would say that there are under-utilized areas of Somerville. They are going through a master planning community process. I think the community has said that yes, there is opportunity for more development.
The question is what is that mix, and what is that right development. And I would say some of it takes into account the feedback of the community. Some of it takes into account our progressive values. Some of it takes into account where we want to be financially. We need to bring in revenue in order to also deliver on those progressive values. The bottom line is cities are dynamic, and we as people are dynamic, and we’re evolving, so there’s going to be changes and adjustments, and as long as the community is part of the process then I think that’s a good thing.
CW: Are there particular industries you see as being key to the future of Somerville?
BALLANTYNE: Many industries would be welcome. I think we have to look at those that can help us provide career ladder opportunities, living wages, skill building, and preserve space for the arts.
CW: Housing prices are rising statewide. Are you seeing that in Somerville, and are policies needed to ensure working class people can still afford to live in Somerville?
BALLANTYNE: I’ve supported every tool possible to keep things affordable. Affordability is whatever municipal tools the law allows us to use, it’s also making sure as you’re planning your budgets that you have a mix of residential and commercial. To date, we rely heavily on the residential component, and we have less commercial. That is starting to shift. But we need to make sure that we understand where our financial goals are going be and have this mix.
It is housing, it is jobs. It’s also understanding where you want your budget to go, where the future revenue is coming from. There’s not a one-stop-shop or fix for the affordability issue. As we’ve learned, the job creation has been in Boston and Cambridge for the last decade, but they haven’t built the housing to sustain it. So the pressure goes out to communities like Somerville.
I’ve door-knocked people who say you need to build more housing, that’s all we need. If we build only housing in the city of Somerville without understanding we need commercial development, we put ourselves in a really not good financial future. There has to be a mix there.
The housing crisis is a regional problem.
CW: You stood next to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu when she announced Boston’s COVID vaccine mandate for entering certain businesses like restaurants and gyms, but Somerville decided not to impose one. Why not?
BALLANTYNE: I would say it was the [independent] board of health that decided that. I was in support of the mandate. I was in support of a regional approach. Many of the things we’re working on or we can advance as a municipality require regional support. The virus knows no boundaries. Housing is a regional issue. We’re looking at rats, they know no boundaries too. There’s a lot of things we have to collaborate and work with our regional partners on. The virus is one of them.
CW: Do you think Somerville will impose its own school mask mandate now that state mandate is being lifted?
BALLANTYNE: It’s really encouraging that the COVID cases are going down, but they still remain higher than the previous spikes. We do have to be cautious. We will be discussing the end of the state mask mandate with public health experts, the school department, the unions, community members, and other stakeholders. That’s what we’ve done throughout the pandemic, it’s engaging everyone. Public health and safety will always come first. Any decisions will be grounded in keeping our teachers, our staff, our students, their families, safe.
CW: How will you measure success at the end of your first term?
BALLANTYNE: I have been developing an agenda that’s progress for all, and we are a progressive city. Our question really is how do we create the progress for everyone?
I envision Somerville to be an inclusive, equitable city. Inclusion means everyone’s at the table, that there’s equity and social justice, that there’s affordability for all, there’s access and transparency, that we’re making sure that people have the quality of life, where flooding or rats are something that doesn’t bother them, that the environment and sustainability are things that we integrate in everything that we’re doing, and that we are strengthening our workforce. So those are all the big categories that I’ve been working towards for my entire time as an elected official, and I will continue to do that.
How will I be measured? I want people to feel that they have been included, that they feel we have made the appropriate advancements on equity, and that equity is not just a buzzword, and the feedback that we’ve been getting on my 100-days agenda has reiterated that people feel we’re on the right track.
CW: Your predecessor, Joe Curtatone, maintained a high profile in the state. Do you anticipate having a similar profile?
BALLANTYNE: Every person, every mayor, brings their own unique style and perspective, their own skills to a position and the challenges of the time. What I have been known for is my inclusive leadership, and that inclusive leadership can be within Somerville but it can also be outside our borders in terms of on the state and national level. I will do what helps Somerville move forward and puts us in a place with progress for all. I will say I put Somerville on the map when it came to the ordinances and the initiatives that I was pushing on the environment and sustainability. I proposed the LEED Platinum requirement [an energy efficiency standard for buildings]. I worked with building scientists, architects, planners, for two years to push to get that legislation through, and we were the first one in Massachusetts to do it, and one of a few in the country to do it. The native species ordinance took three-and-a-half years to get through the city to rebuild our ecosystem. I’m getting calls from around the state and outside the state to ask how did you get that through?