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“The people change, but the work has not changed, and very often, I’ve found the issues are the same,” former Cambridge mayor and incumbent Council candidate E. Denise Simmons said in an interview.
Simmons is currently running for her 12th term on the Council this election cycle. She was first elected in 2001, making history in 2008 as the first Black lesbian mayor in the nation and the first Black female mayor in Massachusetts. Simmons served a second term as mayor from 2016 to 2017.
Before getting elected to the Council, Simmons was the executive director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee in the 1980s and a member of the Cambridge School Committee in the 1990s — collectively serving almost four decades in public service.
Throughout her two decades on the Council, Simmons said some of her proudest moments were during her time as chair of the Housing Committee, increasing funding for the Affordable Housing Trust by tripling linkage fees — a charge on certain types of developments — and leading the conversation on inclusionary zoning.
Simmons has long advocated for various affordable housing initiatives, from sponsoring a passed policy order allocating an additional $20 million from the city’s budget towards affordable housing to voting to pass amendments loosening building height restrictions to the 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay.
Simmons also said she is proud of “bringing common sense to the Council meeting and speaking up with diverse voices.”
“One of the things I always say that people have not begun to say it back is, ‘Who’s not in the room?’” she said. “That’s extraordinarily important. You cannot govern if you don’t have the representation of the people that you’re governing.”
“Why am I here? I’m here to represent the people, and so I’m really proud of being able to have that opinion, attitude, point of view, to get people to work collaboratively together for one common good — the citizens of our city,” she added.
Simmons said one of her favorite phrases for governing Cambridge residents is, “You have to talk to the people, not about them.”
“The idea of community engagement has to be rigorous. It has to be authentic. It has to be thorough, and it has to be direct,” she said.
When asked about the Charter Review Committee — a group of 15 residents who meet regularly to evaluate the city’s charter — Simmons said she is “glad that we’re having this conversation.” Still, she said she supports the current system of the Plan E charter, which calls for an elected Council and an appointed city manager.
Simmons said one reason she likes today’s structure is because “it puts a firewall between the Council and the city managers.”
“The city manager can actually just do the work, whoever he or she may be, and not be swayed so much by the influence of politics,” she added.
Another reason Simmons said she likes the charter is because she believes the Council and the city manager’s roles complement each other.
“You think of the Council as the board of directors — the city manager being the CEO. Now why would I like that particular model? Because you can hire someone with the express knowledge of how to run a large business, which is what the city is. The city is a large business,” she said.
Simmons’ priorities include supporting small businesses, public safety, and multimodal transportation.
Simmons did not sign the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Pledge — a promise to implement protected bike lanes and support the Cycling Safety Ordinance — out of concern for senior citizens who may find an increased amount of bicycling infrastructure difficult to navigate, according to Simmons’ campaign website.
“I’m not 100 percent driver or 100 percent cyclist. How do we find the unhappy medium? How do we make sure it’s safe for you, but not so exclusive?” she said in the interview.
For Simmons, the motivation to run for Council comes from a desire to “leave a city that is fair and open to people, whoever they are.”
“I ran for office for the same reason I run for office,” she said. “I believe in putting people at the center of what we do.”
“I want that city to reflect who we are as a people, a community, as a city. I want when you walk through the street, you see something and someone and people that reflect who you are, and get that back,” she added.
—Staff writer Jina H. Choe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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