Somerville’s longest-serving mayor, Joseph Curtatone, will in January become president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, scuttling speculation that he might enter the 2022 Democratic primary for governor.
Curtatone, 55, who has presided over the rapidly changing city of more than 81,000 people for 18 years, will finish his term as mayor before starting his new role at the NECEC, a member advocacy group that lobbies for environmentally friendly laws and regulations and includes a nonprofit research institute.
Curtatone announced in March that he would not seek a 10th term as mayor, leading many in the state’s insular political world to wonder whether he’d run for governor. Instead, he’ll take the reins at NECEC as the organization looks to expand its portfolio and establish the Northeast as a global leader on environmental issues.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Curtatone called the job “the right thing at the right time.”
“This is the issue of our lifetime: the fight against global climate change,” Curtatone said. “I found something that really aligns with my experience and desire to still serve the public at large.”
He has made the environment a focus of his time in City Hall, including with a push to divest the local pension fund from fossil fuels and a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality in Somerville by 2050.
Curtatone has also earned a reputation as an outspoken progressive with an active online presence, and during the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most vocal municipal critics of Governor Charlie Baker’s decision-making.
In the last few decades, Somerville has transformed from a blue-collar city into a liberal enclave, with a makeover in its Union Square and, in its Assembly Row, one of the state’s biggest development projects. The city has also built a new high school, and it’s on the verge of realizing the benefits of an extended Green Line through its borders.
Emily Reichert, chief executive of the climate tech incubator Greentown Labs — which Curtatone recruited to Somerville — praised Curtatone for setting “an example for what cities across the Commonwealth can do to take climate action.”
“The time for climate action is more urgent than ever before and bold climate policies and partnerships are core to tackling the climate crisis,” said Reichert, who also serves on the board of the NECEC Institute. “If there’s anyone who can help bring people together to act on those topics it’s certainly Joe Curtatone!”
Curtatone passes on the 2022 governor’s race as political insiders wait to see whether Baker, the popular second-term Republican, will seek a third term in office. Three major Democratic candidates have already entered the race: former state senator Ben Downing, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is seen as a potential front-runner, has said she would take the summer to weigh her options.
Curtatone told the Globe he is not ruling out a future run for office.
“I haven’t lost one ounce of passion for public service,” he said. “Never say never.”
The NECEC position could prove a springboard to a future in elected office, said Mark Horan, a political consultant who has worked for Curtatone and served as an informal adviser for years. Curtatone could stand out in future fields for his executive experience, Horan said.
“He’s young and he’ll be working on a vital issue,” Horan said. “It’s the best fit for a progressive executive type.”
Four candidates are competing in the Sept. 14 election to replace Curtatone in Somerville City Hall. The two top vote-getters will proceed to a Nov. 2 election. Curtatone has not endorsed a successor.
Dan Goldman, the chair of the NECEC Institute’s board, said Curtatone was selected from a pool of dozens of candidates because his leadership will “expand the scope of this organization.”
“What Joe brings to this organization as we take it into the next decade of action . . . is really thinking about intersections and systems thinking,” Goldman said. “How does climate impact real estate? How does it impact the hospitality industry? How does it impact biotech? All are industries that are prominent in the northeast, in New England and New York, and we need to have them addressing climate action as much as we need all the energy companies.”
Curtatone also earned praise from some of his fellow elected officials.
“In my line of work, it is rare to come across a leader like Joe Curtatone — a leader who takes the time to understand the issues of working people in his community, prioritizes intersectionality in every solution, and who always thinks multiple steps down the line about where we need to go,” said Senator Edward J. Markey. “Joe is a tireless, undaunted worker, and we need him in the fight to build our clean energy economy. I cannot wait to work alongside Joe and NECEC as we build a more sustainable and hopeful world for generations to come.”
For now, Curtatone said, his focus is on finishing his term as mayor and ensuring a smooth transition for the next administration.
“This has been the best job I have ever had,” he said of his work in city hall. “It’s a great roller coaster ride and I’m almost done with it. I found the next roller coaster.”