In final days of campaign, both Somerville mayoral candidates talk tough on Tufts

Candidates for Somerville mayor, Joe Curtatone (left) and Marianne Walles (right) are pictured. Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily(left) & courtesy Marianne Walles (right)

As Somerville residents head to the polls today to decide whether incumbent Joe Curtatone or challenger Marianne Walles will be their mayor for the next two years, both candidates are still making their pitches to voters, which have included a fair number of jabs at Tufts.

Both candidates are attacking the university over issues like affordable housing and stalled payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) negotiations. 

Curtatone did not mince words at a community meeting about the status of PILOT negotiations with Tufts, excoriating the university for the lack of progress. The mayor said he was setting a February 2020 deadline for the conclusion of the talks and that after that point, “all bets are off.”

Curtatone also used the meeting to attack Tufts over the opioid epidemic, another pressing issue in the mayoral race. The incumbent mayor said that the city has had to pay a heavy price in lives and financial resources in response to the epidemic to which he said Tufts contributed, alluding to the influence that Purdue Pharma, an opioid manufacturer, may have had over a pain management program at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Walles, a social worker and union organizer challenging Curtatone, has not held back in critiquing Tufts either.

In a televised debate between the two candidates last month, in her first response, Walles pointed to Tufts regarding housing affordability.

“Tufts University has not met the demands of our community by refusing to build a student dorm and forcing the students into the community,” she told viewers of the Somerville Media Center’s Mayoral Forum on Oct. 11

Walles said that Tufts’ housing policies are the leading contributor to the affordability crisis in West Somerville.

Both candidates said that they would be tougher on the university than the other and pointed to their records dealing with Tufts in the past as evidence.

Walles has served on the Our Revolution Somerville PILOT working group for the past two years and authored an article in the Somerville Journal about an open letter several organizations, including Our Revolution Somerville, sent to University President Anthony Monaco, that was highly critical of the university’s stance on PILOT and union negotiations with Tufts Dining workers.

Walles said that she and her group pressured Curtatone and the city to include community representatives on the PILOT negotiating team and that she would be even more transparent about the negotiations with Tufts than Curtatone.

“I would take a better lead at keeping the community involved and monitoring and be very transparent about what’s happening,” she told the Daily in an interview.

Curtatone took issue with that characterization and said that it was his decision to increase community involvement in the talks in this round.

“Let me clarify, there was never any type of community benefits or PILOT agreement until my administration came to office. We developed the first, we negotiated the second and in this round we’ve done something that no other community has done,” he told the Daily.

Curtatone also stressed that his administration not only put community members on the negotiating team, but also commissioned a 2018 survey to get community input on how negotiations should proceed and has been personally involved with the negotiations.

Walles says that in her first meeting with Monaco upon becoming mayor, she would press for the university to construct a new dorm to slow the flow of Tufts students into the West Somerville rental market, while Curtatone says that his administration has been pushing that in the PILOT negotiations.

Both Curtatone and Walles want to see Tufts paying more in PILOT cash payments and doing more in Somerville public schools. Both candidates believe the key to getting the university to accept the city’s demands is more public pressure from the community. And both say that they stand with students fighting for these changes on the hill.

The candidates’ focus on Tufts comes after years of tense town-gown relations over housing and PILOT that have stirred up resentment among residents and voters.

Regardless of what either candidate says about Tufts, Curtatone will be hard to topple. Curtatone beat Walles in the low-turnout preliminary election in September by 20 points.

 If he wins reelection tonight, he’ll be entering his ninth term as mayor of Somerville, a role that he’s served in since 2004 after eight years on the Somerville Board of Aldermen, now called the Somerville City Council.

According to campaign finance reports, Curtatone has raised some $128,000 since the beginning of the year and spent nearly $144,000. Walles, on the other hand, has raised more than $15,000 and has spent only about $13,000 in the same period.

Walles said that Curtatone’s significant advantage shows his coziness with real estate developers, who, according to a WGBH analysis this year, have contributed to Curtatone’s campaign.

Despite their criticism of Tufts’ administration, Curtatone and Walles have both been courting students voters. Curtatone says that he met with several student groups on campus this year, and Walles spoke at length about her involvement with Tufts Housing League last academic year.

Polls will be open tomorrow from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. and preliminary results are often posted on the City of Somerville website around 9 p.m.