FRAMINGHAM — Yvonne Spicer originated the role of mayor here nearly four years ago, when voters chose the STEM educator and Museum of Science executive to lead the freshly minted city government they had just voted to create. Her election “smashed a concrete ceiling,” as Representative Ayanna Pressley put it, making Spicer the first popularly elected Black female mayor in Massachusetts’ history.
Now, the incumbent finds herself an underdog in her reelection bid against a challenger who could hardly be viewed as the next face of change. Charlie Sisitsky, a 76-year-old former city councilor who ran the Department of Public Works in neighboring Natick for two decades, is the consensus candidate of voters who have soured on Spicer’s leadership.
He is also white, which presents a symbolism that’s hard to overlook in an election cycle that has already seen the political ambitions of other promising Black women dashed. In Boston, both Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Councilor Andrea Campbell were eliminated from contention in the preliminary election for mayor in September. In Everett, the first Black woman to serve as city councilor, Gerly Adrien, was the only candidate for mayor who didn’t advance to the general election, now a duel between two white men.
Pressley, a changemaker herself who is the only Black woman elected to the Massachusetts congressional delegation, stepped into the race earlier this month by endorsing Spicer, saying that “in the midst of this unprecedented moment for our communities and our country — she has laid out a clear, inclusive vision for the future of Framingham.”
Yet in September, Spicer drew fewer than half the votes of Sisitsky, whose pitch to voters centers on his 40 years of municipal experience — including involvement in Town Meeting, the Board of Selectmen, City Council, and other committees — serving as an antidote to the Spicer experiment.
“The biggest problem is, she had no experience,” Sisitsky said. “It’s a very, very complex operation. People think they can come from the private sector and jump right in. And it’s so different.”
The leading complaint directed against Spicer is a nearly 10 percent hike in water and sewer rates that kicked in over the summer, raising the average annual cost to nearly $900. Spicer, who held off on rate increases during the pandemic, blames financial patterns that predate her tenure, but her opponents fault her management.
While she acknowledges public criticism, she attributes many of the bumps of her tenure to the seismic changes in Framingham’s governance during a tumultuous time in the city’s history.
“The day Framingham became a city, I became its first mayor,” Spicer said in an interview. “How do you navigate a 317-year-old town into a city, and do it during a pandemic and racial upheaval? And still stay standing? But we did it.”
She maintains that Framingham’s political gatekeepers are eager to see her fail.
“There are a number of folks who really didn’t like the fact that here comes this newcomer, trying to shift the paradigm,” Spicer said. “I’m not always going along with the business as usual, which is, you know, upsetting to the old guard.”
Framingham voters only narrowly approved a charter change four years ago to reconfigure their form of governance to a city, and they were bitterly divided over who should lead it. In her upset win, Spicer defeated City Councilor John Stefanini, a former state representative and selectman who worked on the city charter commission.
Outside Framingham, Stefanini was best known as legal counsel to former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran during the 2004 redistricting scandal that ended Finneran’s political career. A federal court ruled that the state’s redrawn legislative maps violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Black voters to protect white incumbents.
The Stefanini-Spicer showdown of four years ago was bruising enough. This time around, the unofficial opposition to Spicer has been merciless. She is regularly pilloried on an anonymous local blog that has photoshopped her image onto a caricature of a white-faced clown. Another public campaign urges voters to back “Anyone But Spicer” and distributes yard signs with profane slogans. The attacks have been so vitriolic that Sisitsky issued a statement in the spring distancing his campaign from them.
“We condemn bigotry of any kind and categorically denounce all forms of racism, sexism, and misogyny,” he said.
“I just feel like she did not get a fair shake at all,” said City Councilor Tracey Bryant, who is also Black and has also been caricatured as a clown on the blog.
But the battle lines are not so simple. Another more credible crop of Spicer critics emerged to oppose her reelection, focusing solely on her performance as mayor. While the 2017 election was viewed by many as “a race between Framingham’s future and Framingham’s past,” as one put it, those feuding factions now seem to have coalesced around a shared goal of ousting the present mayor.
Onetime Spicer allies now working to unseat her include School Committee chairman Adam Freudberg; Representative Jack Lewis, a Democrat who is the first LGBTQ representative of Framingham; and Representative Maria Robinson, a Korean American Democrat from Framingham.
The legislators’ abandonment stung Spicer., who identified with both of them as political “others,” and noted that “both of them have Black and brown children.”
“In all honesty I have absolutely no idea what I’ve ever done to them. I mean I really don’t,” Spicer said. “I’m baffled.”
Lewis bristled at Spicer’s reference to his children, saying they “aren’t a political pawn.” He said he had long defended Spicer but gave up when other disaffected progressives began encouraging him to run against her.
“I could no longer allow identity politics alone to prevent me from doing what I knew was in Framingham’s best interest,” said Lewis, who instead decided to back the consensus candidate.
“There are times when it is certainly uncomfortable to be part of this coalition,” Lewis said. “Because it includes people who I think never gave the mayor a chance and people whose politics are very different than mine, who I would not have supported had they decided to run for mayor. However, things in Framingham have gotten that bad.”
Communication breakdowns date back to the earliest days of Spicer’s tenure. She still smarts remembering how the newly elected city councilors planned their own inauguration party rather than attend hers. Sisitsky countered that she didn’t invite them. Lewis said Spicer didn’t invite legislators and councilors to emergency meetings early in the pandemic. Spicer flat-out denied that, saying, “there were periods of time we were meeting seven days a week.” (“I don’t appreciate being called a liar,” Lewis said. “We remember those weeks differently.”)
Relations were further strained last year when a local news organization, the Framingham SOURCE, published texts that Spicer sent during City Council meetings, calling some of the councilors “the most disgusting human beings I’ve ever met,” and “a------s.”
But councilors have also diminished Spicer. In May, they took the unusual move of cutting her $187,639 salary, noting it was among the highest in the state, even though it was set by the new charter, months before anyone knew who the mayor would be.
“A lot of things are done in our meetings to humiliate her and degrade her,” said Bryant, the city councilor who defended Spicer.
Robinson condemns the tenor of the attacks on Spicer, saying it “undercuts any legitimate criticism by turning it into absolute cruelty.”
“As a woman of color, you’re held to different standards,” Robinson acknowledged. “But at the same time, there’s still a floor for what is expected in terms of doing the job and doing the job well. And we need to not conflate those two things.”