Somerville’s turn to ‘sewer socialism’


FOR MUCH OF the first half of the 20th century, the municipal heart of New Deal politics was in cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This growing industrial hub was home to a long succession of Socialist Party mayors and city council members who gained a reputation for transparent administration and for getting the fundamentals of local government right, especially basic infrastructure like sewers. The Socialists took what was originally an epithet and made it a badge of honor, describing their governing philosophy as “sewer socialism.”

The Socialist Party, backed by large and well-organized unions, pushed for significant expansions of public housing and the annexation of wealthy neighboring suburbs to generate tax revenue for public services. Clean finances and administration were a hallmark of decades of Socialist rule in the city.

Earlier this month, Somerville saw its own socialist revival. Ben Ewen-Campen and J.T. Scott, two members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which was formed in 1982 in the wake of the collapse of the Socialist Party, were elected to Somerville’s Board of Aldermen.

Our Revolution Somerville, the local chapter of an organization that emerged out of the presidential campaign of self-described “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, endorsed Ewen-Campen and Scott along with another seven winning candidates.

This group included Jesse Clingan and Matt McLaughlin, two long-time residents and activists who were part of the Occupy Boston movement in 2011. McLaughlin, who won his third term as alderman, is also an Iraq War veteran. A third member of the group was Will Mbah, a naturalized citizen from Cameroon. Though he holds a masters degree in soil science from Uppsala University in Sweden, he started work in the United States as a janitor at MIT after entering the country through the Diversity Visa program. He was later promoted to the position of technologist.

The eleven-member Board of Aldermen will now be dominated by a veto-proof majority of nine aligned to the informal Our Revolution-Democratic Socialists alliance.

Perhaps the most important message to emerge from this month’s election is the revived health of the city’s democracy. Turnout was 2.5 times greater than the previous municipal vote in 2015, at 32 percent citywide. In the most competitive ward-based races, in which Ewen-Campen and Scott were victorious, turnout was 38 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Each of these candidates defeated long-time incumbents by margins of more than 15 percentage points, and won by similar margins in each precinct of the wards that they were contesting. Two at-large incumbents were also defeated.

These candidates have upset the insular establishment of Somerville politics, which the election proved is a minority and increasingly without influence. Incumbent aldermen were generally defended on the basis of their attention to “constituent services.” In practice, this meant that a resident could call an alderman who would then call in a favor with staff at the Department of Public Works to move a fallen tree or fix a pothole. These are important issues that are the bread and butter of citizens’ relationship with local government. But they are the purview of the city’s 311 constituent service system, which should — and generally does — operate on an autonomous and rational bureaucratic basis.

Somerville now has an opportunity to build a new kind of 21st century sewer socialism: getting the basics right while attending to the core distributional questions of municipal governance. The election showed that Somerville voters want to see their aldermen focus on issues of legislative policy. This is, of course, their primary task. The informal alliance of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America in Somerville has coalesced around the politics of development: affordable housing and the rights of tenants, workers, and immigrants. This is clearly a response to developer-friendly policies that have made the city a more sought-after place to live, but also a place that is increasingly out of reach to all but the most affluent. The past two decades of growth in Somerville have produced an increasingly polarized and unequal city.

It won’t be easy to change this reality. Joseph Curtatone, a traditional, developer-oriented mayor, will begin his fifteenth year in power in 2018. He continues to hold the most significant levers of executive power, especially the authority to appoint boards and officials such as the city solicitor.

In May, the city’s Planning Board approved a deal negotiated between the mayor’s planning office and Federal Realty Investment Trust to reduce the share of guaranteed affordable units in the trust’s Assembly Square development from 20 percent to 6.25 percent. This shift was a turning point for the anger that propelled the Our Revolution-Democratic Socialist alliance to victory in November. Protest marches at Board of Aldermen and Planning Board meetings in the lead-up to this approval mobilized hundreds of residents.

The challenge for the new Board of Aldermen will be to act on a policy agenda worthy of the hopes that the Our Revolution-Democratic Socialist insurgent campaigns have now raised. The board will struggle to achieve change through legislation in the current institutional context.

That being said, the issues at the heart of the socialist campaigns for the Board of Aldermen underscore an ambitious and well-conceived agenda for governing. Policies such as raising affordable housing requirements in new developments, establishing an Office of Housing Stability to prevent evictions, and new transfer fees on speculative real estate transactions should all be relatively quick wins. The planned redevelopment of the city’s Union Square neighborhood by master developer US2 will come under renewed scrutiny and its future may be in question.

Direct city investments in new affordable housing availability will have to be a mid-term goal for this movement, and two such proposals were discussed on the campaign trail: community land trusts and new public housing. Creating pathways for small and mid-size business development that generates local jobs should also be a priority for both diversifying the city’s tax base and ensuring that the city does not become an exclusive home for highly-educated professionals. On that score, the city will finally have to sit down and negotiate a new contract for city employees.

The key will be to maintain the grassroots movement basis of this month’s victory. Groups like Our Revolution and Democratic Socialists of America will have to ensure that the Board of Aldermen is accountable to promises made on the campaign trail, and to organize to support progressive legislation against inevitable resistance from entrenched interests. To govern well is to govern not only with integrity and competence, but also in a way that continues to mobilize citizen action.

Benjamin H. Bradlow is a Somerville resident and a PhD candidate in sociology at Brown University, where he studies the comparative politics of urban development and globalization. He holds a masters in city planning from MIT.

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