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Cambridge's new Madame Mayor

Brian Wright O’Connor | 3/11/2009, 11:14 a.m.

CAMBRIDGE — It’s public comment time in the Sullivan Chamber at Cambridge City Hall, and newly elected Mayor E. Denise Simmons is making sure everyone gets a turn at the microphone.

Sitting in a high-backed chair with the city seal carved into the oak, she listens impassively as speaker after speaker comes forward to share observations on everything from the history of sewage overflow in the Miller’s River to proposals teaching drunks to drive.

Every petitioner from the People’s Republic gets the mayor’s undivided attention — for three minutes. Then the gavel comes down.

In the high-ceilinged council hall, the right of the citizenry to address their elected representatives is a cherished tradition, but not an open invitation to filibuster. Simmons’ quiet manner in maintaining the proper balance is in keeping with a career that has opened doors with persistence rather than thunderbolts.

Becoming the nation’s first openly gay African American woman mayor may have raised expectations of window-rattling change, but the simple fact is that Simmons, after years of grassroots activism and service on both the Cambridge School Committee and the City Council, is not looking for headlines — she just wants to get the job done.

“Becoming the mayor really brings it all together,” she says during an interview in the mayoral suite adjacent to the council chambers. “I’m going back to the school committee and will have the opportunity to address so many of the issues that got me involved in public service in the first place.”

Chosen as mayor last month for a two-year term by her colleagues on the nine-member city council — all elected at large under the unusual system of proportional representation — Simmons serves as chairman of the seven-member Cambridge School Committee, as well as the city’s figurehead leader. Her selection as mayor preserved a black presence on the school board after the defeat of incumbent School Committee member Richard Harding — a factor, some observers say, in her election by council colleagues.

Under the Plan E form of municipal government, the day-to-day executive authority of running the city resides in an appointed city manager, but the mayor has a significant ability to drive the debate and set the agenda at City Hall.

In a city dominated by Harvard and MIT, it’s not the business of education that dominates Cambridge’s agenda right now, but the challenge of closing the yawning achievement gap between black and white students in the Cambridge Public Schools.

The contract of the city’s school superintendent is serving as a flashpoint for debate about the future of the system, with many black parents urging his ouster. But others, like Simmons, advise caution, saying Thomas Fowler-Finn’s future should depend on his willingness to accept benchmarks for improvement.

“There’s sometimes a wrong way to do the right thing,” says Simmons. “Is it the best thing to spend thousands of dollars to search for a new superintendent? Sometimes we focus too much on the person and not enough on the system. I only have one chance to get it right. Our decisions have to be more about the schools and less about the leadership.”

To Simmons, the stakes are personal. She has three grandchildren in the Cambridge schools, ages 10, 14 and 16, and has raised them since the death of her son in 1995. She brought up all four of her children in the Newtowne Court projects in Cambridge, sent them to the public schools, and won a seat on the Cambridge School Committee in 1991 after years as a parent and neighborhood activist working to shut down industrial polluters and bring amenities like bus stops to senior citizens.

She served five terms on the school board before winning election to the city council in 2001.

While public educational development has been the focus of much of her political career, as mayor Simmons hopes to undertake initiatives to link educational achievement to career opportunities.

“Let’s look at ‘green collar jobs’ from an employment and training perspective, to teach young people the skills they need to obtain jobs in today’s marketplace,” says Simmons. “You can’t outsource the installation of solar panels — you can’t just send them to Japan. You have to hire people here. We need to be in the forefront of bringing young people into the high-growth green industries.”

Again, for Simmons, the stakes are personal. Sitting on the couch in her office, her voice drops as she describes the struggles of her mother to find meaningful employment in post-World War II Boston.

“Mattie Simmons was a cum laude graduate of Tuskegee Institute and could no more than become someone’s maid,” she says. “This is a prideful moment in my career, for my mother.”

She pauses. “There are days when I’m not allowed to forget that I’m a black girl from the housing development, but that didn’t stop me from opening my own business or running for office, and it won’t stop me from trying to do right as mayor.”

In Cambridge, with a reputation for openness and tolerance, Simmons’ life as a gay woman has attracted little attention. She is a justice of the peace who has married scores of gay couples and has a partner who prefers anonymity. She draws a large number of number one votes — critical in a ballot system in which voters rank their preferences — from the gay community, while also drawing strong support from African Americans.

Sexual preference has been less of an issue in her career than gender, she says, recalling the many times that male visitors to her Cambridgeport Insurance Agency on Brookline Street have looked right past her and addressed themselves to men in the office. Besides, the sexual preference and racial barriers in the mayor’s office were broken down many terms ago with the election of Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves to the post.

Reeves, who finished his latest term as mayor in January, credits Simmons with knowing the issues in detail facing the schools and the city.

“Denise Simmons has many talents,” says Reeves. “The city will benefit from her leadership. And I know she’ll work very hard on issues of student achievement, particularly minority student achievement.”