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Candidate Profile: E. Denise Simmons

By Lydia Chen, Contributing Writer

“Green collar” jobs, forums for students, celebrations of diversity from Haiti to Ireland—all on a frugal budget. These are the ongoing projects of Councilor E. Denise Simmons, who will be running for her sixth term on the Cambridge City Council this month.

The top priority in Simmons’ reelection campaign has been the quality of life in Cambridge. She has initiated and continues to support projects that work toward security and prosperity for city residents in various stages of their lives. This includes quality education for children, affordable housing for families, opportunities for small businesses, and public services for seniors.

“I have always been a loud and forceful advocate for those I represent,” Simmons writes on her campaign website.

Simmons has been in public service since the 1980s, serving on civics and school committees. She first joined the City Council in 2002 and served as Mayor of Cambridge from 2008 to 2009.

“I think my ability to relate to people, and to translate that to effective advocacy, is one of the reasons voters keep returning me to City Council,” Simmons says.

As a lifelong resident of Cambridge, Simmons has experienced many of the situations that her constituents now face. She describes herself as a small business owner, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and an activist. She has faced the challenges of each of these roles and hopes to continue bringing that experience to the Council.

As the owner of a small insurance business, Simmons believes that “micro enterprises” are essential to growing communities. However, Simmons also promotes the creation of so-called “green collar” jobs: skilled jobs that she says are not easily outsourced and pay good wages. To this end, she has secured $100,000 for green job training and placement programs.

As a mother and grandmother to children currently and formerly enrolled in Cambridge public schools, Simmons has promoted dialogue about improving the quality and accessibility of education.

Simmons has been a strong supporter and key player in the Kids’ Council, which brings Cambridge residents of all ages together to discuss family support centers and youth engagement efforts. As part of her support, Simmons has tapped into the vast educational resources provided by Cambridge’s universities. For example, graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School advised the Kids’ Council in 2009 during the development of its three-year strategic plan for improving opportunities for Cambridge’s children and young adults.

As an activist, Simmons says her dedication to public service stems from a belief in the power of citizen involvement.

“I have always believed in the power of civic engagement. ... This is what got me involved in community activism,” says Simmons.

In addition to her own participation over the last three decades, Simmons encourages other members of the community to become actively involved in local politics. As Mayor, Simmons created a Citizen Advocacy Program to teach Cambridge residents about civic engagement. As a public official, Simmons also encourages citizens to interact with her—inviting individuals, for example, to speak with her one-on-one about traffic and parking issues. Part of her reelection campaign includes going door-to-door to listen to the concerns of Cambridge residents and offer her proposed solutions.

Simmons finds individual participation in government important because of the wide array of cultural and political beliefs represented in Cambridge.

“One of the things that’s really complicated but also wonderful about Cambridge is that it is so incredibly diverse,” says Sally Haslanger, an MIT philosophy professor and Cambridge resident who has collaborated with Simmons on several community projects.

As the first black and openly lesbian mayor in America, Simmons is a symbol of that diversity, says Haslanger. However, Simmons also seeks ways to actively promote dialogue on the diversity in Cambridge. One of her projects as Mayor was the creation of the Prince Hall Memorial, a monument to an overlooked African-American Revolutionary War hero and civil rights activist, which now stands in Cambridge Common.

During her service as a city councilor, Simmons has also had to deal with the issue of race in a less positive light. In 2009, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. in front of his house pushed the issue of diversity to national headlines. Simmons was interviewed by a number of national news outlets about the arrest. Even after the subject faded from the headlines, Simmons pushed to ensure such events would not be repeated, taking measures to implement the recommendations of the commission appointed to study the incident. Many constituents at the time responded positively to Simmons’ handling of the situation.

“She’s someone who has walked the talk, lived the talk, and I think that everybody can see that,” says Haslanger.

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