Questions arise about campaign for $1b Union Square overhaul
Dianne Doherty Sullivan doesn’t give out her e-mail address. Ever. And she doesn’t really follow housing and zoning issues in Somerville, where she has lived all her life.
So she was surprised when she saw an e-mail, sent under her name to Somerville aldermen, supporting a proposed billion-dollar overhaul of Union Square.
It was one of dozens of e-mails that aldermen say poured in earlier this year in favor of the project, which is scheduled for a key vote on Thursday. But the push — and the lack of familiar names or even accurate Somerville addresses on some of the messages — make some aldermen suspicious. They wonder whether some of this public comment might not actually be from the public.
“People are being led to believe the community is supporting this project,” said Alderman Matt McLaughlin, who tried to reach a number of e-mailers, with little success. “We’re making this huge decision, based on all this public pressure. But I don’t recognize these people.”
The episode is an indication of how contentious the Union Square project has become.
The developer, Union Square Station Associates, known as US2, and a coalition of community groups pushing for stricter affordable housing and jobs requirements have been squaring off in recent weeks over a series of city votes, as officials hammer out details of the long-planned project. It would put more than 2 million square feet of housing and office buildings on several blocks.
It’s also a murky window into the ways developers drum up support for controversial projects.
For that purpose, US2 has hired Novus Group, a Boston political consulting and lobbying firm, one of several that specializes in helping big builders win local approvals. Led by veteran pollster Frank Perullo and a former Boston City Council member, Paul Scapicchio, Novus promotes its skill at “disruptive lobbying for the innovation economy” and counts among it clients Airbnb, medical marijuana companies, and several major real estate developers.
On its website, Novus describes a blend of inside lobbying and outside organizing, using relationships with local officials and techniques honed in election campaigns to help build support for its clients’ real estate projects.
“You build the community, we build the community support,” it says on the site.
The firm has ties to state and local officials all over the Boston area, including an indirect relationship with Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.
For several years, Curtatone’s campaign has hired Meredith Lerner Moghimi — a former partner of Perullo who still appears on Novus Group’s website — as a fund-raising consultant. The campaign has paid her firm, MLM Strategies, $3,000 a month, according to campaign finance records.
Moghimi did not respond to messages, but both Scapicchio and Gregory Maynard, a spokesman for Curtatone’s campaign committee, said MLM is a separate business from Novus, with separate clients.
“I don’t think there’s any violation of propriety,” Maynard said.
Either way, Scapicchio said, his work for US2 is focused on fostering community support for Union Square, from businesses and other engaged stakeholders, and from the broader city population.
That effort included canvassing Union and Davis squares several times in late 2016 and early 2017 to find people willing to send letters of support to the Board of Aldermen. Novus trained and paid canvassers, armed with iPads, to stop people on the streets and — after asking whether they lived in Somerville — find out if they supported development in Union Square, said Lauren Fowler, who ran the campaign for Novus.
People who said yes could send an e-mail, on the spot, from the iPad. They simply had to type in their name, street address, and e-mail address and hit “send.” The e-mail cited the benefits of the project, included a resident’s name and address at the bottom, and was delivered to the in-boxes of all 11 aldermen. The messages featured subject lines such as: “The Green Line brings promise” and “Other communities are moving forward.” Novus generated 71 e-mails using that formula.
“We can only do this if the person participates,” Scapicchio said. “There’s no way to manufacture these.”
Of 10 people who e-mailed McLaughlin through Novus’s system, only two responded to the Globe’s queries and confirmed they had agreed to send letters. Another person said he did not send the e-mail, but didn’t respond to further questions. Two other e-mails bounced back as undeliverable.
Then there’s Sullivan. She remembers talking with a young woman with a clipboard who stopped her during a January coffee break in Davis Square. They talked for a few minutes, and then Sullivan headed back to work.
“I never — I never — gave her permission to use my name,” said Sullivan, who said she has only a work e-mail, which she doesn’t use for personal business. “I never gave her a phone, a cellphone, or an e-mail, ever. I would never give them out to anybody.”
And, she noted, while e-mail to the aldermen is signed with her correct name and street address, it did not have the right e-mail address.
Scapicchio and Fowler said they didn’t know why a message would be generated by someone without that person’s knowledge. They said they can’t easily verify the names or e-mail addresses people give their canvassers. Besides, they said, a prime reason for the canvassing is to get more citizens involved in development debates, which typically are dominated by neighborhood activists and City Hall regulars.
“We want to get as many voices as we can to participate,” Scapicchio said. “We really try to find out what the man on the street thinks, and use every tool we can to engage them.”
Other groups try similar methods, including Union United — a coalition of activists and community groups that is pushing for more affordable housing in Union Square. It used the same database software as Novus to blast e-mails to the aldermen. It also submitted piles of postcards from people who called for “development without displacement” — some of whom don’t live in Somerville. In addition, both sides have enlisted supporters to write lengthy personal letters.
Such campaigns for real estate projects are not unusual in Boston, where big development proposals can spark pitched political battles. But in Somerville, they’re rare, said Alderman Mark Neidergang, one of 11 who are elected to the governing board. He, too, said he received lots of “suspicious” e-mails this year and noted that public meetings about Union Square have been packed, with some people telling him they came from outside of Somerville to voice their opinions.
“None of this is against the law, and probably none of it will affect the outcome,” he said. “But it just doesn’t happen much in Somerville.”