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In Everett, the first Black woman on historically white council stands alone

Everett, MA - 06/24/20 -  Gerly Adrien is the first Black woman elected to the Everett city council.  (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter:  (ebbert)  Topic: (25adrien)
Everett, MA - 06/24/20 - Gerly Adrien is the first Black woman elected to the Everett city council. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (ebbert) Topic: (25adrien)Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Gerly Adrien racked up the largest vote tally of any at-large council candidate last fall to become the first Black woman on Everett City Council. Suffice it to say she has found no similar base of support within government, where she has spent nearly six months relentlessly questioning and visibly antagonizing the powers that be.

Council President Rosa DiFlorio recently called her “a problem” who had been “trying to destroy our city since day one.” Former councilor Stephen Simonelli, a cancer survivor, called Adrien “the cancer on our City Council.” And things grew so acrimonious at a Monday night council meeting — where Adrien sponsored 14 resolutions and dominated a debate that stretched for nearly four hours — that the entire rest of the council turned on her.

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Adrien’s fellow councilors rejected her proposal for a committee on racism, and one took umbrage at the very notion of racism in Everett, challenging Adrien’s assertion that constituents have told her they feel unwelcome in City Hall.

“I personally have not experienced racism in Everett,” said Councilor Wayne Matewsky, who is white.

The uncomfortable meeting came amid a nationwide reckoning on police brutality and institutional racism that has ignited a multiracial movement for change.

But change comes hard to a city like Everett, where until last year, leadership had been almost exclusively white and often handed down by generation. Matewsky has been on council for the better part of 39 years. Simonelli was a third-generation councilor. And the youngest and newest councilor elected before November was a cousin of the mayor.

Though it’s considered one of the most diverse communities in the state — 19 percent Black, 26.5 percent Latino, and 40 percent foreign-born — Everett had elected only four councilors of color before 2019. Along with Adrien came the city’s first Latina councilor, Stephanie Martins, and first Asian-American, Jimmy Tri Le — part of a national wave of candidates determined to make governments look more like the communities they serve.

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The entry of such changemakers can be uncomfortable to behold.

Monday’s council meeting was the first that Everett resident Kristina Nies had watched since she moved to the city over two years ago. She was stunned.

“I just didn’t realize there would be so much blatant racism occurring in a public space by public officials,” said Nies, 39, who is white. She cited microaggressions, and rules that seemed to be altered for Adrien alone. “This is completely not OK.”

The councilors don’t see it that way. They see the newcomer as an attention-seeker and a troublemaker who is never satisfied with the answers to her many, many questions.

DiFlorio, the council president, said she tried to give the new councilor a chance but found Adrien to be always “on the attack.”

“She started in January right out the gate and nothing is ever enough,” said DiFlorio. “If you disagree with her, she goes on Facebook and calls you racist. I’m far from racist.”

Even some of those inclined to root for Adrien privately disagree with her approach, finding it unnecessarily confrontational. They say she alienates city officials by calling them out publicly and won’t collaborate on efforts she can’t lead.

As a case in point, they cite her insistence that council create its own committee on racism; she hoped to chair it. Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria Jr. had just empaneled a similar, citywide advisory board made up entirely of people of color. In fact, Adrien is on it. But when that board met on Tuesday, Adrien didn’t show up. Adrien said she didn’t get the notice, released just two hours earlier. She also fears that an advisory board is toothless and that its mandate to make recommendations in 120 days hardly gives enough time to stamp out systemic racism.

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Some of her critics suggest she’s not a team player.

“You don’t get anywhere like that. You have to work together with your colleagues to get things done,” DiFlorio said. “And she’s not doing that.”

“I’m 65 years old,” DiFlorio added. “She’s been disrespectful to me since day one. She has no respect for seniors or white people.”

DiFlorio is not the only one who complains about a lack of respect. In November, Simonelli marked his ouster from the council with a Facebook lamentation for “old school politics” and a demand that the newly elected officials show respect for their predecessors.

Simonelli said he felt disrespected because both Adrien and her husband called him a racist in text messages. (Adrien said they did not, but that her husband has questioned Simonelli’s behavior on social media.) In 2018, Simonelli survived a voter recall effort after echoing a resident’s Facebook comments about a “nasty Haitian woman.” Though other councilors defended his right to free speech, he lost the next at-large council race when Adrien, a 30-year-old Haitian-American who works in finance, topped the ticket.

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“She’s making history — and that ain’t easy,” said her friend and mentor Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is also Black.

Edwards noted how different Boston is now than it was in 2009 — when Ayanna Pressley became the first woman of color elected to City Council.

In Boston, women of color now dominate the City Council — and have pushed that city’s conversation on racism and policing.

Edwards pointed to her predecessors of color — Pressley (now a congresswoman), Michelle Wu, and Andrea Campbell. “They made it easier for me to be me,” Edwards said. “And Gerly is all of that. She’s all of those women right now with an even more hostile environment. I am inspired by her.”

Adrien made waves from the start, casting the lone vote against DiFlorio for council president and vowing to shake things up. She acknowledges she can be “aggressive” but she is not getting discouraged.

“I think I’ve been able to change the conversation. I love it,” she said. “As hard as it is, I can see the impact. And I see how important representation is.”

This spring, after schools were closed due to coronavirus, she ruffled feathers by publicly questioning the leadership of the superintendent, who had started the job only nine days earlier. She also raised concerns about a three-week interruption in the delivery of student lunches and Chromebooks for remote learning.

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At Monday’s meeting, Adrien expected the superintendent to report on the number of students who never participated in remote learning. Two weeks earlier, the council had passed her resolution requesting such a report.

But the superintendent was not asked to speak at the meeting, and DiFlorio said Adrien’s resolution had been “reconsidered” between public meetings after one of the councilors changed her mind. When Adrien protested that she’d never heard of such procedure, Councilor Peter A. Napolitano pointed to her inexperience.

“You haven’t seen it in the five months you’ve been on the council,” Napolitano told her. “But I’ve seen it on the 20 years I’ve been on council.”

One by one, councilors chided Adrien for requesting the information, reminding her that the superintendent reports to the elected school committee, not to them.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree. It’s not in our purview,” said Napolitano.

Adrien began to speak up, only to be interrupted by DiFlorio. That led Adrien to protest that she would use her allotted time. “You do not cut anybody else off but you cut me off every single time.”

Later, Adrien cut off DiFlorio as she name-checked councilors for their volunteer efforts during the pandemic and Adrien pointed out her own efforts at coronavirus fund-raising.

“Stop interrupting me because I’m not going to take it,” said DiFlorio, who then accused Adrien of violating ethics policy with that fund-raising. (A spokesman for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance said candidates can raise money for charitable causes and confirmed that Adrien had sought the office’s guidance beforehand.)

In an interview, Adrien said she used to question whether she was fielding backlash due to her forceful personality or racism. She doesn’t wonder anymore.

“I honestly think it has to do with me being a Black woman,” Adrien said. “What could happen if we let this Black woman change things or make noise? I’m getting a lot more popular and they’re acknowledging that. And I think they’re scared of it.”

Some of her fellow councilors made clear on Monday night they think she is the problem. Matewsky said although he understands racism is “the issue of the day, besides the virus,” he hoped to move on.

“We can’t keep beating a dead horse here,” he said.

Reiterating that he doesn’t perceive racism in Everett, he described his vantage point.

”I’m a Polish-American,” he continued. “I’m really a minority myself here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Everett schools superintendent did not attend Monday’s council meeting. It should have said she was not asked to speak at the meeting.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert