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Four mayoral candidates contend in Somerville’s preliminary race for mayor

The rising cost of housing is among the key issues generating discussion as a spirited race to fill Somerville’s open mayoral seat heads toward a preliminary election Tuesday, Sept. 14.

While the Boston mayor’s race has claimed the regional spotlight this election season, the four-way competition in Somerville to succeed retiring Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is also attracting interest.

Two-term City Councilor at large Will Mbah and four-term Ward 7 Councilor Katjana Ballantyne are vying with first-time political candidates Mary Cassesso and Billy Tauro. The preliminary will pare the field to two candidates for the Nov. 2 city election.

The election is a milestone moment for the city, which come January will have its first new mayor since Curtatone began his 18-year tenure in 2004. It also comes at a time when the city has just opened a new high school, and is awaiting the start of Green Line service in December.

”Every election is an important one but this is the first time for as long as I’ve been around in politics that we’ve had an open mayor’s seat,” said City Council President Matthew McLaughlin. “And we have a very ‘strong mayor’ form of government so the next mayor is going to be very important in setting the tone for the city, possibly for the next 20 years.”


Mbah, a native of Cameroon, works as an environmental analyst for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Ballantyne, a native of Greece, has worked for a number of community nonprofits, most recently as executive director of an anti-violence program for at-risk girls in Boston.

Cassesso until recently was chief community officer for Cambridge Health Alliance. Previously, she held executive positions in health and housing in two Democratic state administrations, and served as Somerville’s city auditor, and as a dean at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.


Tauro is publisher of the Somerville/Medford News Weekly and the Boston News Group.

The need for more access to affordable housing is a priority for all the candidates.

”That’s the most pressing issue facing us right now,” said Mbah, who favors rent control as one solution. “In Somerville, housing costs are skyrocketing. This will ensure working families can stay here.”

”My goal is to create 1,000 affordable homes,” said Cassesso, who wants the city to take advantage of its ordinance requiring affordable units to be included in housing projects, and supports funding for a new community land trust.

Ballantyne would expand resources for the city’s Office of Housing Stability, push for a renters bill of rights, explore rent stabilization initiatives, and seek to build more affordable housing.

Tauro pledged to ease permitting rules to help spur more affordable housing. “No developer wants to be in a city where they have to struggle with red tape,” he said.

On other issues, Ballantyne said she has been a city leader on climate change, and would seek to build on that record by pushing for Somerville to set a goal of being carbon negative — not just carbon neutral.

Climate change is also a priority for Mbah, whose strategy would include helping residents retrofit their homes to make them more heat-resistant. He said his professional background in environmental science would enable him to lead on the issue of sustainability.

Cassesso would expand mental health services within the schools and also make them available to assist police responding to calls involving people in distress.


Tauro said he wants to increase the police budget to provide more community outreach, and provide services to seniors to help them remain in their homes and independent. He would also convert the city’s designated bus lanes to car pool lanes. “Our bus lanes are creating gridlock,” he said.

Mbah cites his “lived experience” as a key strength, noting that he lost his parents when he was young, and as an adult has had to move often due to rising rent, and endured racial discrimination.

”I know what it’s like to be part of the marginalized community,” he said. “Right now, the most marginalized in our community do not have a seat at the table. ... The way to change this is electing people who truly reflect the community.”

A longtime board member of Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Cassesso said she offers “my lifelong involvement in making Somerville a better city.”

”I have the executive experience to achieve results, I understand the struggles that so many of us face and I care deeply and intensely for our city,” she said.

Ballantyne said she offers the qualities the city needs in its next mayor: “Someone who embodies the culture and values of Somerville, and has the inclusive leadership style and the skills and experience.

”For over two decades, I’ve worked on creating affordable housing and connecting local people to jobs,” said Ballantyne, who cited as an example of her inclusive style her work forging community consensus for the Clarendon Hill public housing redevelopment project on North Street in West Somerville.


”I’m a wealth of knowledge. I have been in the city over 60 years,” said Tauro, who has been active in numerous Somerville organizations.

In contrast to the other three candidates, who are Democrats, Tauro is a registered Independent who supported Donald Trump in 2016, a decision he says he now regrets because “I feel the Republican Party failed their party miserably.”

”I’ll be a mayor for all, a voice for all residents — a voice for the tenants, a voice for the property owners, a strong voice for business,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at