Lynn’s new mayor, Jared Nicholson, vows to oversee ‘inclusive growth’
Former legal aid lawyer -- and college wrestler -- says development should benefit all
One in a series on newly elected mayors across Massachusetts.
WHEN PEOPLE TALK about Lynn as an immigrant-rich city, they don’t have Jared Nicholson in mind. The city’s new 36-year-old mayor is a fluent Spanish speaker, but he was born just 30 miles west of the coastal community, in the leafy Boston suburb of Sudbury. What he shares with the 37 percent of Lynn residents who are foreign born is a decision to put down stakes in the gateway city and make it their home.
In 2014, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Nicholson was awarded a fellowship to do work with low-income business owners and entrepreneurs in Lynn. He thought it was important to get to know the community he was going to serve, so he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Katherine Rushfirth, a nurse midwife at Mass. General Hospital, moved to the working-class community of 100,000. We “fell in love with the city and were really excited to get involved,” he said. A year later, Nicholson won a seat on the Lynn School Committee, and last November he was elected mayor, defeating a longtime city councilor by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Before his election, Nicholson was directing a business assistance clinic run by Northeastern University School of Law, supervising law students doing the same type of work that brought him to Lynn. His background working with lower-income business owners fed directly into the theme of Nicholson’s campaign for mayor, in which he emphasized the idea of “inclusive growth.” He vowed to push policies to grow the city’s economic base and promote new development, but make sure that growth benefits residents on all rungs of the economic ladder.
“He really hit the ground running. I’m hoping he’s the most successful mayor in my lifetime,” said the self-effacing McGee.
There were efforts during the race to paint Nicholson as a carpetbagger, but McGee said the new mayor is part of Lynn’s long history as a welcoming place for people who have come to make a better life. “That’s what we’ve done for 400 years. People come from somewhere else and build a life. It says alot about our community in a good way,” McGee said of Nicholson’s election.
The new mayor faces big challenges and opportunities. Median household income in Lynn is $56,000, considerably lower than the $79,000 figure for Essex County as a whole. Educational attainment also lags the region, with 18 percent of Lynn residents having a bachelor’s degree compared with 40 percent of Essex County residents. But its proximity to Boston – just nine miles away – waterfront potential, and a commitment to workforce development and training are all assets Nicholson says Lynn can leverage to lift everyone in the community.
I spoke with Nicholson by Zoom from his City Hall office to learn more about his plans for Lynn and how his background as a wrestler at Lincoln-Sudbury High School and Princeton prepared him for the challenges of a mayoral run in the state’s eighth largest city. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: What have your first couple of months been like?
JARED NICHOLSON: Well, it’s been really exciting to dive right in. I’ve felt really encouraged that it feels like there’s a lot of folks on the same page, that we have a really big opportunity in Lynn to move things forward.
NICHOLSON: A key for us in our vision is the idea of inclusive growth. We’re really grateful for the foundation that Mayor McGee’s administration has laid, and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to build on that and to grow as a city coming out of the pandemic and working towards a way for the city to recover fully and fairly. Also taking advantage of the opportunities we have to make investments through the ARPA funds and other avenues hopefully coming available, and really to continue some of the momentum we have for private sector investment and helping the city live up to its potential and achieve that kind of growth, and to do it in a way that’s inclusive, that benefits people that are here now who created this opportunity, to make sure the kind of growth that we are after is not only bringing investment and bringing in tax revenue, but is also including the current residents in the plan.
CW: What does that mean to be “inclusive,” or, on the flip side, what would be a direction you’d worry is not bringing everyone along or being inclusive?
NICHOLSON: I think it’s about being really deliberate about finding ways for the community to participate and benefit from the growth that we’re pursuing. We’re starting to work on the implementation of a housing plan that was put together over the course of the last administration. One of the main recommendations in that plan is inclusionary zoning, a way to create more opportunities for affordable housing while we’re attracting growth and investment, and creating market rate housing as well. One of the big goals that I think we started to make some momentum on is trying to tap into the explosion of life sciences in the region. For us, I think wanting to be deliberate in making that inclusive means not only identifying sites that would be great for investment and wins for the companies that we want to attract, but also being really deliberate about creating pathways for Lynn residents to get into those jobs, and really coupling that with the right kind of workforce development to make sure that our residents here now get to get to participate in that, too.
CW: Are there any signs that there’s some potential in the life science area? We think of the Cambridge-Kendall Square area and some of the Route 128 communities when talking about that sector. I haven’t heard, frankly, about forays into that part of the state.
NICHOLSON: We think that we have a tremendous opportunity there because we’re so close – 20 minutes away – to the hub of that activity [in Kendall Square]. We also have, I think, a really good fit for some of what they’re looking for because we have this commercial industrial space that’s underutilized and available. And we also have a rich history of manufacturing in the city – and that continues to this day in terms of what we have with General Electric and other companies.
CW: In talking about the state’s gateway cities, we often describe them as former industrial hubs that are looking to reinvent themselves, but you still have some industrial and manufacturing presence. In fact, I saw that earlier today you were at an event with Sen. Markey and other officials raising concern about some 80 or so jobs at GE in Lynn that may be leaving. So there is a fight to keep that industrial presence there.
NICHOLSON: Folks are sometimes maybe too quick to move on from this idea that there are really important industrial jobs in a city like Lynn. With respect to GE, we are really optimistic that that plant [which makes jet and helicopter engines] could have a really bright future in the city in the region and continue to create really good middle class jobs and careers for people.
CW: Like other gateway cities, Lynn has lower household income than many of its neighbors and lower educational attainment. Are those things that are in your sights, and can a mayor move the needle on those?
NICHOLSON: Absolutely. In terms of household income, there are a lot of strategies, but one is around workforce development. We’re working to submit a proposal with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to try to come up with a more collective strategy for workforce development, because it’s really cross-sector. Education plays a very important role. You have institutions like MassHire [the state’s workforce investment boards] that play a very important role and the private sector as well. I think the mayor’s office can play an important sort of convening role for the different institutions that are involved in workforce development and create those opportunities for better paying jobs. On the school side of things, we have a lot of exciting programs. One specifically connected to the other metric you mentioned – educational attainment – is the Early College program that we have. We have one of the largest in the state already and are working to grow it in a serious way, working with Salem State and North Shore Community College for opportunities for our students to earn college credits at no cost to them while they’re still Lynn Public Schools students.
CW: On the housing issue, Lynn is thought of as a working-class community in a lot of ways, but there’s also been higher end development recently. You’re a waterfront community, coupled with your proximity to Boston. I’m guessing you welcome that kind of growth.
NICHOLSON: Yeah, absolutely. I do welcome that kind of growth. And I think we are excited about the momentum. We also are facing real pressure in the housing market. Our families and residents are suffering with rising rents. More than half the city rents, and almost half the city is considered cost burdened under federal guidelines, paying more than 30 percent of their income towards housing. We have to do something about it, and that goal of trying to achieve inclusive growth is, in the housing context, really about how can we continue the momentum we have that’s creating positive developments and do something for residents that are struggling with the cost of housing.
CW: Lynn recently completed a waterfront master plan and open space master plan. How significant are those in terms of trying to bring some coherence to things in those areas? And what’s the vision that they lay out?
NICHOLSON: I think it’s huge. Anyone that’s driven through Lynn, down the Lynnway, knows that that stretch should be a lot more than it is. It’s the Atlantic Ocean, and we can do a lot better there. What I think is really significant about the planning that you just mentioned is wanting to help that part of the city live up to its potential, but do it in a way that really allows the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s not just about a bunch of projects that pencil out right next to each other, but really about taking an asset that’s really a community asset – that access to the Atlantic – and making sure we can all benefit from that. And open space is a big part of that. Take a look at other examples of communities that have grown rapidly and maybe wish there had been some more opportunity to carve out the open space so that you make residents feel like they are able to access and participate in this neighborhood, too, even if they don’t live there.
CW: Talk a little bit about how you landed in Lynn. You came after finishing law school eight years ago, not long before you first ran for school committee. You’d been doing some legal services work there. How did you find your way there to do that work, and then what made you decide to move there?
NICHOLSON: When I was in law school, I applied for a legal aid fellowship at the Skadden Foundation. You kind of design your own project, and I wanted to work with low-income entrepreneurs and small businesses, to support community led growth. I speak Spanish, and I also have old family ties to Lynn, and so I proposed to do this project in Lynn. I moved here because I felt like it was going to be really important to the work to get to know the community. My then-girlfriend at the time, my wife, and I fell in love with the city and, and really were really excited to get involved. And we’ve built our life here and, and couldn’t be happier to be serving the community in this way now.
CW: I read somewhere that, going way back, you have a family connection to Lynn.
NICHOLSON: Yeah. My great-grandfather grew up here, went to [Lynn] Classical [High School].
CW: The mayoral campaign got a little testy at times over these issues. You grew up in Sudbury. Here you are a guy from a well-to-do Boston suburb, went to Princeton, Harvard Law School. There was a little bit of an effort to say, what’s this guy’s connection or bond to Lynn. How did you deal with that issue as it came up?
NICHOLSON: It’s a fair question and it deserves an answer. Why are you interested in doing this and, and where are you coming from and where do you want to go? I’ve found that people are really interested in where we want to go together in the future. And that’s the kind of campaign that we ran – very forward looking. And that is an approach that I think we have wanted to continue to bring to city government – to focus on where we want to go together, and to really be there for everybody, no matter how long you and your family have been in the city of Lynn.
CW: There’s a big immigrant population in Lynn. Coming from Sudbury, you’re not exactly an immigrant, although maybe you’re regarded similarly as a newcomer or an interloper by people who cling to this idea that there are the lifelong Lynners and then the others. You’re kind of in that other group.
NICHOLSON: I certainly have a much different experience [from immigrants] obviously. I think it’s wonderful that folks are proud of their history in the city, their family’s history, of being a lifelong Lynner. I don’t see any problem with that kind of pride. I also felt like, and continue to feel like it also matters that when you got here, we’re talking about the future. And I felt over the course of the campaign that a lot of people felt the same way.
CW: What are the three top priorities for your first term?
NICHOLSON: We have a huge need for new schools in the city. We’ve had an explosion in a number of students and half our school buildings are over a hundred years old. We are in the process of working with the [Massachusetts School Building Authority] to build a new middle school. Another top issue we talked about already is the cost of housing. And I think we have a great plan in place with the housing production plan that was developed. It’s going to fall on us to actually implement that and create those opportunities. And then I think there’s a lot of deferred capital maintenance. I think we have what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to really make some game changing investments, infrastructure investments, and we’re really excited to be working on that.
CW: All this money that has come into cities related to the pandemic. How much is it that Lynn suddenly has, and how are you proposing that it be deployed?
NICHOLSON: We got about $75 million in ARPA funding. It’s already started to be spent a little bit. The last administration put about $13 or so million towards HVAC improvements in city buildings, in school buildings. That’s a great use of those funds. And then right off the bat we felt like there were a couple priorities that we needed to fast track in response to the pandemic. And one of those was testing. So we ordered rapid tests for Lynn residents and we created grants for small businesses in January as the variant was peaking and businesses were trying to make it through the winter. For the rest of that, about $58 million or so, we are running a really robust community input process to try to figure out how to best allocate those funds, involving the city council and community groups. We’ve put some funding into translation and hiring interpreters to make sure that that outreach is multilingual, and are working really hard to try to make that a really inclusive process to make decisions for the rest of those funds.
CW: I read that you were a wrestler in high school and in college at Princeton and that you helped launch a program here in Lynn. So there were no wrestling teams at the schools here?
NICHOLSON: No, there weren’t.
CW: What drew you to the sport and gave you the idea to try to bring it there?
NICHOLSON: What drew me to the sport is my [high school] freshman football coach was the wrestling coach. My dad had wrestled, too, in high school. I fell in love with the sport. I thought it was such a great fit for the city of Lynn because there’s no limit on the number of students that can participate. So you can have a big roster. There’s not a lot of equipment needs. And kids of all sizes can participate. I’ve had some really great experiences and lifelong lessons about discipline and teamwork – putting yourself out there as the only person, but also having the back of your team that’s practiced with you all week.
CW: Is there any carryover from wrestling training to being mayor and the rough and tumble of politics?NICHOLSON: Absolutely. I knocked on close to 6,000 doors over the course of last year and there’s a lot of discipline to get out every day and pound the pavement. I was talking to a group of high school leaders the other day and we were talking about this idea. One of the things I learned in wrestling is that the time to push yourself and really psych yourself up is not right before the match, because at that point, you’re already nervous and you don’t wanna psych yourself out, but in the off season, when you’ve gotta push yourself to train or running that extra lap after practice. It’s similar for a lot of things in life. You’re not going to pass the test if you start studying the morning of the quiz. And I wasn’t going to win the election on Election Day. I was going to win it in July, out there knocking doors.