Salem’s own Mayor Driscoll talks LGBT equality, school system, comparisons to the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino and more in this exclusive Q&A.
By: Nicole Lashomb, Editor-in-Chief—
SALEM, Mass.—Perhaps most known in the LGBTQ community as the champ who publicly took on Gordon College by opting to terminate its city contract due the violation of Salem’s non-discrimination ordinance involving the LGBT community, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll was thrust into the national spotlight as the pro-LGBT small city Mayor with big city actions and expectations.
The former college athlete is no stranger to taking one for the team and that’s what she does in the mayor’s office while tackling the “hardest job in the world,” she said. Sworn in a decade ago, Driscoll has lead the efforts of Salem’s revitalization, a blend of the old and new, in just about every aspect of life and culture. In this exclusive sit-down interview with the mayor, The Rainbow Times learns of the motivations of one of Salem’s best, her inevitable political future, aspirations and insights for continuing to ensure Salem, Mass. remains at the competitive forefront, fiscally and culturally, while addressing the needs of marginalized groups within the city of change.
TRT: You’ve been in office for a decade. Do you consider yourself the Tom Menino of Salem?
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll: [Laughs] That would be quite a compliment because I think Tom was a real urban mechanic and was very thoughtful about both the people in Boston and the way he hoped Boston would be developed. And, I think we probably share the same desire to be someone who connects with the people. Ultimately, any city is about the people who live there, but also as we’re changing and every city changes and grows, that we are being really thoughtful and intentional about that. But nobody is, there will never be another Tom Menino. For a big city Mayor … to connect with people so frequently and at that level is just phenomenal.
Q: What is the key to your success with such high favorable ratings each year?
A: I think that democracy is hard, so we do our best to share information with individuals, including how you came up with decisions. At local government, when you think about it, local government is the thing that, for people’s lives, connects with them the most—whether it’s picking up trash outside their door, or educating their children, [or] providing safe parks and safe neighborhoods. All of those services are delivered at the local level. As much as we are enamored of state government and of congress and federal government—we know we need those areas—but one thing that’s key and touches every single individual who lives or passes by Salem, are the services we deliver locally. We try to do a really good job. I really do believe that part of my job is making sure things go well, always looking for us to continuously improve and trying to create a culture like that, and then [focus on] that really big vision. … That’s what we strive to do—and to share our rationale for decision making. I think that’s the other key piece when you’re local. I know the people who are affected by the decisions we make and that means I need to explain it. I hope at the end of the day when people disagree with me, and there are plenty of people we’ll have disagreements with, that they respect the process that we went through or understand the rationale even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.
Q: What are the two or three priorities that you have for the rest of 2016 and going into 2017?
A: I would say that I view finances as really critical. When I took office there was a major deficit. So we have tried to ensure that we have a good fiscal house and that enables us to do really sexy projects. We’ll continue to do those sorts of things. We just started the new fiscal year; we really keep tabs on that. That also means trying to keep Salem affordable. We are growing as a city and … there are more demands but for some people who live here, their tax bill is really hard for them to afford right now. I think we are trying to strike that balance. We have people who have been living here their whole life or new people who are like “Salem is so affordable!” It’s that balance that you’re certainly trying to strike and we will continue to do that. Throughout the next, I’d say year, we are focused on public schools and education, really trying to create not only a culture of educational excellence within our district but within our community. Having our entire city engage in thinking about the importance of educating children here for the next generation and that is not how it’s always been in Salem.
This is really a community mission, if you are a gateway city that has folks with limited means and folks with great wealth [and] all these different cultures, that makes passing a standardized test a little trickier and it needs to be a community mission to make sure we have high quality schools that serve all, big capital letter A-L-L, ALL our kids. I think that would be a big push. Certainly, with the the new superintendent we’re poised. To come out of level 4 status from the state and [we’re] working hard on trying to ensure that our educational systems are strong, not just an initiative, but strengthening on opportunities. And, then there’s the waterfront. We are really focused on the redevelopment of the power plant site [and] the 45 acres around that. We hope to develop a cruise port, as well as having more waterfront activity. We started a water taxi this year, water shuttle I should say—a harbor shuttle. We’ll have more visiting vessels coming in beyond cruise ships … the Coast Guard Eagle’s coming. We really see an opportunity to take advantage of this beautiful Salem Sound as a coastal community … Salem with this great maritime history, for a good numbers of years, we sort of have forgotten about that. It was much more industrial. We’d love to continue to work on allowing access, providing public access and getting people out on the water more frequently, both as [leisure] and a means of travel. I mean the least cars we can have on the road, the better. It is an opportunity to take in, just to treasure the harbor, that we are so fortunate to live next to. Then, there’s the last piece [which] would be continuing the focus on the downtown revitalization. We love having an urban, livable, walkable downtown and want to continue to treasure that and see it grow in a thoughtful and intentional way.
Q: Speaking of the Level 4 status of the Salem Public Schools and cultural changes within the city, fifty percent of students, give or take, are students of color, mostly being Latino. Without people of color in key decision-making positions that can understand the students culturally, does that contribute to the low performance level of the school system?
A: I definitely think we need to build our cultural competencies and not just within schools but certainly as a community. Our positions of power—whether it’s [with] elected officials [or] appointed bodies—should be reflective, and I think could be more reflective, of the community make-up here and we are striving to do that. We have bilingual officers [and] bilingual firefighters. We had no Spanish-speaking firefighters when I started here. None. Zero. We now have over half dozen. So thinking about your hiring practice, those numbers will build. The same thing with the police; we really want to connect, not just with the language but also the culture. We’re fortunate to be able to have young men and women who have grown up in Salem and some even in The Point Neighborhood—our large Latino neighborhood—that are now working for the police department. That’s full circle and those are the sorts of barriers we want to break down and continue to do that. Our new superintendent is thoughtful, educated, experienced, technically proficient strong Latina, and I think that is really helping us build systems and connect in a way our thinking around this.
You don’t have to be Latino to understand the need to educate all of our kids, but we need that culture to be stronger within our city, within our schools systems that we want to be representative and also responsive. I say to folks, “if I went to Spain and dropped down in the middle of Spain and had to figure out how to get my three kids into school and what the rules were (Do they wear uniforms? Do they not? Am I supposed to go to parent teacher conferences?), all these things that you don’t know [because] it’s a different culture; I’d struggle with that. We have that happening in reverse and I’m not sure that we’ve always done as good a job as we can in breaking down those barriers for people who come here for from a different culture or didn’t have the level of formal education that we have in this country or even a different country. So, we need to do a better job. That’s incumbent upon us to say we need to do more and I’m not sure we are always there, nor do I think we had the population.
If you looked at our schools twenty years ago, it was a much smaller percentage of English Language Learners—a much smaller percentage of the population for whom English was not their first language. So, those tables have turned, but we haven’t really changed our traditional teaching methods as quickly or built our cultural competencies as quickly. … I think that people understand that. I think that people are excited about the work ahead and mostly, I think families, especially some of the young parents and young adults who are settling here, they want to live in a community that has blended cultures. They don’t want a homogeneous population of income, of backgrounds, of sexual [orientations] and we offer that, but it can’t be at the expense of education. We need to make sure that we have a system that works for everyone who walks through the door, not just my three kids who came from a home with two college-educated parents [and] have been read to since birth, but everyone.
We had one school that was level 4, that means the whole district is level 4 and we didn’t just focus on that 1 school, we said, “we are going take this on as a district because we’ve got other schools that needed to advance as well.” I’m really hopeful and really excited about the work that’s under way in our schools. We’ve got the hardest working teachers that I’ve ever seen who have taken on a lot of newer tasks, things that they weren’t familiar with. We had no data platforms here; we didn’t have really solid systems around Special Ed. or ELL. That means there are a lot of new things going on and every time they double down and do more. We’ve expanded time, we’ve really tried to be, I think, thoughtful about how we use that time because we’re not just kill-n-drill—you know with the idea of just keeping kids in school longer and saying it twice and maybe louder and they’re going to get it. I think we realize that’s not what it’s about. We want kids to be excited and inspired to learn, so we are closing opportunity gaps and building enrichment programs, not just remedial programs within the building, so I’m excited. As Mayor, you chair the school committee so it’s a big part of what I spend my day on and I’m really hopeful.
Q: How do you build that cultural competency, particularly in the school system, if the school committee is comprised of mostly white non-Hispanic individuals? If there are not people on the committee that can speak from direct experience of the types of things that Latino kids go through, then how do we build that cultural competency from a deeper level of understanding?
A: I don’t think you have to be Latino. I certainly consider myself to come from a blended family. My mother is from the West Indies. It wasn’t a language barrier, but my father was in the navy. I was a new kid a lot. I think you can relate to how people feel, coming into a different environment—not growing up in a similar culture—without necessarily being a part of that culture. But, ideally we certainly want to have members of our school committee, members of our city council, a mayor, future leaders, boarding commission members [and so on] be reflective of our community. I think the way you do it, until that happens, is intentional. [It] is recognizing that we need to build in place protections, advocacy, opportunities among all of our staff to recognize that, not just that it’s not okay, but let’s be thoughtful. Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
Building family and community engagement is a big piece of that. If I said to you right now, I’ve got 10 boarding commission openings and I want to fill them with 10 Latino residents, I don’t know that there would be 10 Latino residents right now ready to step in … So, it’s building that civic engagement, and by the way … not everybody wants to serve on the planning board. I think we need to be intentional about it within the schools and it starts at the top. When I came in I said no, I’m not hiring another police officer until we start making sure we have Spanish-speaking officers or you want to hire a firefighter, let’s make sure that they start to reflect the community. And, you know what? All of a sudden, we started to figure it out—but unless somebody in positions like mine starts saying, “no, we are not going to just do it the way we’ve always been doing it,” it won’t happen. And, do I think that’s in place now to the degree that we want? No. With the depth that we want? No. But we are getting there and that’s not easy either. There’s a little bit of an old and new pull, you know? There are some people who think the system is fine just the way it is! I understand that, they’ve benefited from it, they’re used to it, they know it, figuring out civil service is not a foreign language to them or whatever it might be. Whatever those doors are that need to get open, they know the combination. For others, it’s not [okay] and it can be a little tricky but in a community like ours, I think we are trying to be smart about it, we are trying to be open about it, we are trying to be transparent about it and we talk about it with the union members, with the chiefs and I think we’ve got good people here who see the value and making sure that we are more representative. It hasn’t been a complete uphill battle. There are times when it’s harder than it should be, but I’d like to think we are getting there.
Q: While we’re on the topic of diversity, concerning and affecting the reflective faces of city leadership, what do you think is the cause of the lack of engagement from marginalized communities like the Latino community?
A: We are a smaller pond and I also think that we’ve had, either because it hasn’t been intentional or on anybody’s list, we haven’t had the level of civic engagement, even among our Latino residents that other places have had, having worked in Chelsea and other places. So we’ve got some work to do and I think we are all anxious to do it and I’m so glad to see a lot of the younger Latino students that are the most active. When we did the Point Neighborhood Vision Plan, some of the best meetings we had for input and about what we want to do and see [suggestions] were coming from kids, you know high school kids—active, engaged, who grew up there, some first generation, some second generation, but wanting to make a difference. So it’s upon us now to figure out how to prepare that next group and there’s a lot of good work going on in that regard.
Q: When did you become such an advocate for the LGBT community?
A: I played basketball growing up, some of my best friends like had the toughest time, like coming out and it was a different time and different era and I think when you are in women’s sports, there is certainly a fair amount of folks there who had those same struggles and it hurt me to know, these are good people, who I knew were great friends. I didn’t care who they loved. It’s never been an issue for me personally or for the way I was raised or for the culture I was brought up.
My kids go to school and their friends have two dads or two moms, they don’t look at them any different, we don’t look at them any different. I think it’s just always been there and not anything that I thought there should be an -ism around.
Q: The whole experience with Gordon College really put your support of the LGBTQ community on a bigger stage.
A: Well, that probably like brought it out, I guess into the light that raised the public profile. I mean, we passed our nondiscrimination ordinance here and we had 40 [plus] community partners, so this is not new to Salem. I think this is a place that has always sort of felt like this is a livable community. After what happened here in 1692, I think people said, “we’ve learned our lessons, no one is going to stay silent.” So, I think the Gordon College thing certainly blew it up and that was unfortunate in that, we didn’t start out like that. It certainly wasn’t like “Oh, let’s stick it to Gordon College,” but that was just nuts when this issue arose and then they said, “Well, we’re just doing what we’ve always done, look at our student policy.”
I remember vividly sitting there, talking with the president [of the college], and I said, “Wait a minute, you have a policy?” I’m on the website scrolling for it while he’s talking to me. He said, “Yeah we’re just being consistent with our student policy and our code of conduct,” and I’m like okay, what does that say? I’m looking at it and I’m like, this is worse, this is worse! “Your code of conduct is worse than anything,” and they had no clue …
Q: You probably got a lot of heat for it as well? I mean, it’s Gordon College.
A: Yeah, we did.
Q: I just remember reading the positives of it, not the negative.
A: Yeah, they’re not happy. They’re not happy at all and they felt betrayed somehow. I’m like, you feel betrayed? I feel betrayed. You have a code of conduct that has this awful. … It [has] hateful language in it and you call yourself a Christian College? Come on. And, they see none of that.
No, this was just freedom of religion [according to them] and they have a right to practice their religion and I’m like you do, not in our building though. So it was interesting, there were definitely a lot of people who saw freedom of religion. I’m like, religion is not about hating people though or hurting people and I don’t care what religion you are. You know, it’s just not okay.
Q: For years now, people have made assumptions that you have your eyes set on something bigger than the mayor’s office. Are you thinking more about sticking around or do you see yourself going in a different direction?
A: Since I got this job, people have pigeoned me for something else, right? I don’t think I was Mayor for a year and they’re like ”oh you’re going to be judge, she’s going to be a judge” or “Oh, she’s leaving to go work in the Patrick Administration to be a Secretary of blah, blah, blah.” And, I have been here now; this is my eleventh year, for three terms and I’ll tell you what I tell everybody—I love it. I feel really fortunate to be in local government but not just in any city, in a place like Salem where we kind of punch out of our weight class, right? We are a small city but we have all the partners and opportunities of a larger urban community. Having people who are engaged, like it can drive you crazy to go to a public hearing for three hours about something that seems small, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I mean that because I’ve worked in places where nobody shows up at a public hearing and you have a lot more responsibility because you really are making decisions without a lot of oversight. I’d much rather have the oversight. I think we get to better end results by having a really public process. Even the things that I started off over here, we end over there. I think generally speaking, most of the time, it ends up being for the good.
So I don’t quite have itchy feet. I do want our schools to be in a place where I really feel like we are hitting it out of the park, and I am concerned about the remaining 45 acres along the power plant, so I feel like there’s a couple of things on the to-do-list that certainly have me focused on re-election.
I can’t say, like that’s it, one more year and that’s it because that would be sixteen years [in office], and that’s long enough for anybody to be Mayor, I think. So that’s where I am right now but you know, it’s not even a year out, it’s more; it’s a year and a half away, a lot can happen in that time frame. Thank God my family is healthy, beyond three teenagers driving me crazy [laughs]. … I’ll make the final decision as we get closer to it but right now, I’m kind of liking what I do. I talk to other people and whether you are a legislator or even in state government, you’re not able to always do as much as you want to do.
Q: You are undertaking massive developments right now. What is your biggest one that you’re really excited about, the most excited [that is]?
A: We’ve got a billion dollars of worth of investments. Salem is definitely going through a growth spurt. I would say in downtown, the District Court project is something that we are super excited about. We’ve taken a lot of things off the drawing board. It used to be, if you ask me, we need an MBTA garage and a new station—check. We worked with the state to get that. We really want a cruise port. We have a pier that we are using but we haven’t really fully built out or redesigned, I would say, what we want that waterfront area to look like, but the landing’s there and the water taxi. I’m excited about the growth on Blaney Street and what we’ve seen there. So that is definitely at top of the list. The most exciting project though, far and away, is the senior center—our new Community Life Center that … [Knocks on the table.] we’ll start construction on this year. Our current building is well beyond its age, well beyond its usefulness for a senior center. It’s multiple levels. We have not been a good steward of that building and we have been trying to get a new community life center. We do call it a Community Life Center because we really do want people to go there at all ages. Although, we certainly will have robust senior programs and want our seniors to have a place they can call their own. The last local permit was obtained just this month, just a week ago. Hopefully there are no appeals from neighbors and we can start construction later this year.
Q: And this will be all inclusive? LGBTQ people can come and participate?
A: Absolutely! … Senior Centers are wonderful, but we are finding more and more people who are seniors think of it as a place for old people, not necessarily a place that they want to go. So having a Community Life Center made—and we already have our park and recreation [department] and our council on aging kind of housed together along with our veteran services—that means we’ve got one building that should be able to serve all ages, but we do want to make sure our seniors who have sort of viewed that building as their own, have some great programs there, great opportunities, and multiple dimension space. So something that is used by seniors [at the Community Life Center] for a stroke awareness clinic in the afternoon could be used for a youth chess club in the evenings.
Q: What is the projection for finishing this one?
A: It’s a public/private partnership that we are working with Gateway Center, at the corner of Boston and Bridge Street. It’s a stand-alone center. It was initially going to be inside a larger mixed-use building but the commercial market wasn’t strong enough to support new construction, so now they’re having a residential complex and we will have our very own stand-alone—roughly twenty thousand square foot—Community Life Center (CLC) and we are hoping they are going to start this fall … Then, it’s a one year construction period. It’s long overdue. I have been trying to do this since my first year in office. We initially planned to put it in the old St. Joseph site in The Point Neighborhood and the City Council did not support that by one vote [and] decided there was too much traffic and not enough parking in The Point Neighborhood and opted not to put it there. It was interesting. So, we formed a committee and identified few other sites, this one came up.
Q: Describe yourself in three words?
A: That’s pretty funny, I guess [Chuckles.]. Three words. [Contemplates]. I would say fair. I would say funny and I would say hard working. Now if you ask my 3 teenagers … [Laughs.]
Q: What would they say?
A: Oh, they would say—definitely not funny, humorless [laughs.] That would be just to poke me, right? They would say late, untimely—which I have a well-earned reputation in that regard. They would say, “mean Yahtzee player.” We’re game-players.
Q: Are you competitive?
A: Yes! That’s what they would say, competitive, thank you. You don’t really have to let them win at 4, do you? No, just kidding. [Laughs.]
Q: Select the words that most represent you. Pink, blue or green.
A: I am wearing pink, but I would say green.
Q: Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies?
A: Come on! Sox!
Q: Vegetarian or carnivore?
A: Carnivore all the way.
Q: Caribbean Islands or Alaska?
A: Caribbean Islands.
Q: Massachusetts or Florida?
A: Florida in February, Massachusetts every other month [Laughs]. Yeah, of course, yeah. [Laughs.]
Q: According to your FY17 budget, you list key investments, one of which is better access to services with a bilingual elections office worker. In 2013, The Latino Leadership Coalition (LLC) and other concerned Latino leaders initiated a letter to city clerk, Cheryl LaPointe regarding voting violations, irregularities, intimidation tactics and so on experienced by the Latino community. A follow-up letter was sent in 2015. Latinos were asked for their ID or names two or three times and so on, you know the roles.
A: Yes, yes, unfortunately I do.
Q: What the LLC asked the city clerk’s office was that it provides sufficient financial resources to hire Spanish language translators. In this fiscal year, will you have the resources to hire more than one translator?
A: We started, I would say, … pushing the city clerk to think about bringing on board a bilingual worker in the office because they, of all offices, have the most public interactions—birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates. So it took a little while, but they have a bilingual staff person on board and I believe they asked for another full-time staff person to assist with both early voting and with additional bilingual training and the like. Our budget approves a half-time person for them, and also funds some dollars to assist with early voting and if we need money for posters or printing. There’s some for half-time personnel and then some additional dollars for non-personnel.
Q: Will you have bilingual interpreters at the voting polls?
A: So the hope is … that we will be able to work closely with the city clerk and the Board of Registrars on developing some protocols that ensure—not only equal access for all—but prime the pump to make sure people who felt disenfranchised before, that that’s never happening again. We still have, I think, some work to do in that regard. We did appoint a new Board of Registrars’ member … [who] has now replaced one of the board members. So I think that will help have more constructive dialog at the Board of Registrars level with the city clerk who oversees elections. … The city clerk would not take kindly to me telling them to hire this and do that and do the other. The Board of Registrars is really the group that needs to—and nor should I be—I’m on the ballot at some point. But, we want to make sure that we’re doing all that we can to ensure equal access to voting and given what we’ve seen, we have some work to do overboard in certain communities and I think that we want to ensure that happens. The resources are there to do that, the question is going to be, is the will? We’ll have a Board of Registrars with some new members and I think there’s a lot of sunshine on this issue now and I think the group is better prepared as well to say, well, here’s what we’d like to see done. Laura is here to help as well so that we can hopefully put in place a timeline for what needs to be done when and who’s doing it and there should be resources in that office, based on the budget we just passed FY17, to help make that happen. And, if we need to spend some more, if there’re other costs that aren’t incorporated that are certainly reasonable, I wouldn’t see a problem with this.
Q: So people should feel more comfortable in November when they’re going to vote, even if their language skills are not so developed?
A: They should. But, we’ve got work to do between now and November to make sure that we’re doing all we can in our communities, and the polls and with the training of poll workers, there’s money to fund. People are being trained; come in to get paid to be trained. You know, not a novel concept and they weren’t doing that in past. I don’t know why they didn’t even ask. So some of this is just, we need to get better at our practices, I think. Hopefully, with a revived Board of Registrars and some external interest, we can start to think, “what’s the timeline?” You know, “how do we do that now and how do we work together and [have] a community that’s interested as well?” It’s not just like they’re saying to the elections officials here, “hey you better do this.” They are actually saying, “hey we want to help, let’s have a voter drive and let’s make sure people know what their expectations are and [that] we’ve got the polling location in the right place.
Two elections ago, the polling location had been moved, so it’s been moved back, so I think we’re on the right path, but we’ve got to stay on top of it. We’ve got some new people to do that and there’s a little bit of—the city clerk doesn’t work for me and they’re in charge of elections and they know they don’t work for me, and so I think we need to figure out collectively how to make sure that happens. If any one’s denied a right, it’s not ok.
Q: How many people of color are in key leadership/decision-making positions appointed by you and/or the city council?
A: Margarita Ruiz, our superintendent of course, on one boat of seven, but we’re really proud certainly to have that. We just brought on board three, I had to swear in, three new bilingual fire fighters. We’ve got half a dozen …
Q: I was really referring to key leadership positions. I love the idea that some of the firefighters and police officers are bilingual. It’s really necessary.
A: So I think those are more entry level, but they are important. And keep in mind—you have places like the fire department and the police department—they promote from within, like you’re not bringing in somebody from the outside. The system is geared that way, that you take a test and eventually you might become a sergeant or a captain. I’d love for us to, frankly, to not always have these handcuffs of civil service because it doesn’t allow anybody else from the outside to come in or [be in] external positions of leadership. So the hope is that by bringing on board more folks for firefighters and patrol officers that they will take the test and become superiors and move up, but it takes a hell of a long time to do it.
We don’t have enough senior staff around the table. I’d say that we have more of an LGBT community around the table than we do people of color. I’m trying to think of the city planner position we just had. I don’t think we had one person of color that was even interviewed. But who knows if somebody applied who was a person of color, but at least the list of the applicants that we selected to interview, who met certain requirements and work experience, and things like that [weren’t people of color]. … Certainly, none of the finalist were and I don’t think the initial screening committee were either.
We have to be purposeful about recruiting. I know we’re doing that more for teachers and we need kids in our schools and adjustment counselors and you know in those positions, to feel like “oh my gosh, there’s somebody here who understands me a little bit better or looks like me.”
Q: I hope you stick around and continue your work in the mayor’s office.
A: Well I’m glad. I’m glad! It’s good, but keep in mind, nobody is indispensable. Like I really am a story. Look up on that wall [Points.]. All those people, you know; they were in this chair at one time. You want the system to work that put good people here and that you have good foundations in place.
I think we are at a growth spurt and there are things that you kind of want to finish too, so like I said, I do really love local government. I’m like a student of how cities solve problems and given all the frustration, who the heck wants to be a Congressman right now? Seriously, let me go bang my head up against that wall but do it in Washington D.C, like, no. Or some of these other positions where you don’t actually get to see something through to fruition and really play a large role. We’ve got great partners, world-class museums, a great university, a terrific healthcare institution, eight square miles—it’s off the hook.
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