LYNN — Count me among those who are disappointed, and maybe even a little miffed, that Lynn Mayor Tom McGee is leaving the city’s top job after just one term.
Still, you can’t really blame him for wanting out. If you do the job right, being mayor is an all-consuming, astronomically difficult job — even when things are going well. The pandemic has been brutal to mayors all over the country, particularly to those who presided over cities like Lynn. This city — home to more immigrants, low-wage essential workers, and dense housing than many others — was seeing 200 new cases a day for a stretch there. Like other leaders, McGee was grieving the city’s losses, and attempting to balance the need to protect the health of Lynn’s most vulnerable residents against the city’s already-tenuous economic well-being. Every decision hurt somebody.
He’d been a state rep, then a senator, for 27 years before becoming mayor in 2018. That’s a lot of missed family celebrations and vacations.
“I am 65,” he said, sitting in an Exchange Street cafe on Thursday afternoon. “Last year was pretty demanding and challenging and stressful. I felt like it was time to take a step back.”
There are few cities in the Commonwealth — or anywhere — with more untapped potential than the one he’s led for almost four years. It’s close to Boston, on the commuter rail and the waterfront, has an economically and racially diverse population, and mountains of delicious food. Electrify the commuter rail and lower its fares, open up and activate the shore (miss you, Lynn ferry!), and the city would almost be too great.
So much of Lynn was floundering before McGee took over: The city was a fiscal disaster for years, led by a mayor who acted as if she represented only part of the city, and who scapegoated undocumented immigrants to cover for her own haplessness. McGee leveraged his influence on Beacon Hill and professionalized city government to get Lynn’s finances back on track, and to unlock tens of millions in state and federal funds for upcoming work to make streets safer and more welcoming. Long-stalled developments are finally getting built. There are fewer vacant lots downtown, and more handsome new public spaces. And he made it clear that immigrants and poor people matter in the city of 94,000; his board of health declared racism a public health emergency.
The city is still plagued by problems: The fortress-like new luxury condo building with rooftop pool on Munroe Street has heightened fears that those who struggle to afford housing here will be left behind; a bunch of police officers are being investigated for alleged drug use and racist texts; too many barren lots still stand as weedy monuments to waste.
But Lord, what a difference a good mayor can make in a city like this.
“The next mayor needs to build on our work with social justice,” McGee said. “We can’t lose sight of the progress we’ve made.”
A couple of the candidates vying to succeed McGee seem to understand that the future of the city lies in embracing everyone who lives here, housing folks who struggle, and reaching kids let down by the schools. One candidate, hotheaded City Council president Darren Cyr, seems less likely to get all of that: His critics say Cyr is a throwback, including on race issues, who is slowing down a citywide affordable housing plan.
This is a crucial moment for Lynn. But this massively important election, like those for mayor in Boston and other cities, comes at a time when folks are exhausted by the pandemic, and less engaged with politics after the Trump years. Which means the Sept. 14 primary might be decided by the small minority of voters — disproportionately white, and older —who cast ballots in every election.
Four years ago, when longtime senator McGee’s political operation went up against that of a two-term incumbent, turnout was just 28 percent. Unless voters of color and newer Lynn residents mobilize, this year will be even more dismal than that.
“There’s a lot of power to be had here, if people wanted to get involved,” McGee said.
That’s where Lynn’s most valuable untapped potential lies: in its voting booths.