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Cambridge city councilors elect Simmons to third mayoral term

Mayor E. Denise Simmons, a city councilor since 2002, succeeded former mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who faced allegations of fostering a toxic workplace

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise SimmonsCITY OF CAMBRIDGE

Cambridge city councilors have turned to a familiar face to serve as the city’s next mayor: E. Denise Simmons, a longtime councilor who was selected Monday for a third term as leader.

The board denied a third term for Sumbul Siddiqui, who was elected to a pair of consecutive mayoral terms starting in 2020 and led the city through the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. But Siddiqui came under criticism last fall over allegations she fostered a toxic environment as an elected official.

In interviews last year with the Globe, eight women who have worked for Siddiqui since 2017 said she jeopardized their future job prospects and undermined their self-esteem, behavior that they said prompted people to leave her employment under difficult circumstances.

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Simmons, 72, sidestepped the controversy in a phone interview Tuesday and said she did not know enough about the allegations to comment on them.

In general, Simmons said she is committed to modeling the kind of behavior she hopes and expects to see in municipal government.

“It’s imperative to me that we treat all city staff with dignity and respect, and that we all obey that golden rule,” Simmons said. “We should all strive to treat our colleagues, our employees at every level respectfully.”

Siddiqui, who has said the allegations are not true or mischaracterizations, played down any connection between the controversy and Monday’s vote in a brief phone interview Tuesday.

“There has never been a third [term] consecutive mayor, and I think the council rotates. And so I think that’s what led to the decision,’’ Siddiqui said.

In November, Simmons and Siddiqui each were reelected to the City Council, which chooses the city’s mayor from among the board’s nine members. The mayor’s office comes with somewhat limited power, as an appointed city manager oversees the city’s day-to-day operations and finances.

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Simmons was elected mayor following two rounds of voting during the council’s meeting Monday. The initial ballot ended with votes for several contenders, including Siddiqui and Simmons.

At the start of the second round of voting, all but Councilor Patricia Nolan switched their ballots to Simmons. Nolan then changed her vote to Simmons, giving the new mayor the unanimous support of her colleagues.

During brief remarks Monday following her selection as mayor, Simmons said Siddiqui led the city “with distinction and with dignity” and led councilors in a round of applause.

Following a separate 8-1 vote, City Councilor Marc McGovern was elected the city’s vice mayor.

Siddiqui, who was the first Muslim woman to be elected Cambridge’s mayor, was also the first woman to serve two consecutive terms in the post.

While she was mayor, the city launched a program that provides $500 monthly payments for 18 months to qualifying families who earn less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. In a phone interview, Siddiqui hailed Simmons as the new mayor.

“She has provided great leadership these many years, and I look forward to working with her,” Siddiqui said of Simmons on Tuesday.

Simmons, a lifelong Cambridge resident and former city employee and School Committee member, began serving on the City Council in 2002.

She is believed to have become the nation’s first Black and openly lesbian mayor when she was first elected by Cambridge’s City Council for a two-year term in 2008. Simmons was picked for a second mayoral term in 2016, when she served alongside McGovern as vice mayor.

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In a phone interview Tuesday, Simmons said she hopes to use her mayoral platform to inspire more young women and young people of color to serve in elected office.

“I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it,” Simmons said. “I see [that] by lifting me up to the position of mayor lifts them up as a community.”

In the interview, Simmons also spoke movingly about her daughter, Atieno Adoyo Pilipa Steen Simmons, of Cambridge, who died Aug. 23 after a battle with acute myeloid leukemia, according to her obituary.

“She was an incredible woman,” Simmons said.

The 46-year-old, who went by Ati, cofounded “Just a Swab” to raise awareness about blood diseases in the African American community and had been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, the obituary said.

Despite her daughter’s illness, Simmons said Ati encouraged her to continue serving her community as an elected official. It was similar to the advice Simmons said she received from her own mother, who also died of cancer about two decades ago.

“‘We can’t stop living, so let’s live our lives to our fullest potential,’ " Simmons said her daughter told her. “And from the time she was diagnosed until the time she took her last breath... we lived like there was always going to be a tomorrow.”

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify the description of the city’s mayor.

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Diti Kohli and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.