Harboring ambition

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll often mentioned as candidate for higher office

Photographs by Mark Morelli 

HALLOWEEN IS A WORKING HOLIDAY for Kim Driscoll, so she comes to City Hall as herself. Clad in a simple dark business suit, she meets up with Police Chief Paul Tucker at her office to head down to the Essex Street pedestrian mall to check in with police posted around the area. By the time the fireworks go off after 10:00 p.m., more than 40,000 people will have descended on the downtown.

After stopping to chat with a local drag queen, Driscoll navigates crowds dominated by zombies, witches, and people drenched in fake blood with the nonchalance of a person who’s seen it all and then some. Noticing that Driscoll is being trailed by reporters, a man yells out, “She’s the best mayor we’ve ever had!”

It’s not hard to see why Salem residents might feel that way. Driscoll projects a breezy manner and down-to-earth persona—with a no-nonsense approach to the constant stream of challenges confronting municipal leaders these days. She vowed to take Salem to the next level when she ran for mayor nearly eight years ago. She knocked out the city’s budget deficit, professionalized departments and services, and dialed the municipality’s attributes up several notches. The former college basketball player gets points for her put-me-in-coach drive and her geeky delight in number-crunching, downtown revitalization, and municipal health insurance reform, one of several issues on which she began to burnish a bit of a statewide reputation among municipal insiders and political types while serving as president of the Massachusetts Mayors Asso­ciation.

Today, she reminds anyone within earshot that Salem is much more than an October playground for people who like to dress up. Salem’s comeback, and the solid reputation Driscoll has earned presiding over it, have cast her into what might be called “the pool of possible”—elected officials who get mentioned when the chattering classes speculate on potential future candidates for higher office in Massa­chu­setts. Following the well-rehearsed script for such occasions, Driscoll tamps down talk that she’s focused on anything but being mayor of Salem and a reelection race she faces this fall, while leaving the door ajar because, well, that’s just what politicians do. “I’m not looking for the next brass ring,” Driscoll says. “That does not mean, hey, do I think I have some skills, do I think I could be useful, however that landscape shakes out, and that there might be opportunities in my future? Maybe.”

Managing a community like Salem, a small city of nearly 42,000 that has some big-city problems, is no slam dunk. Driscoll faces a particularly steep challenge with Salem’s underperforming public schools, which are one step away from a state takeover. She knows any continued talk of a future for her on a bigger stage depends on her performance on the smaller one where she currently plays the lead role.

SALEM BOUND

Driscoll, 46, is a risk taker. She ran for mayor after just three years as a ward city councilor and without first seeking a citywide council seat as a steppingstone. Instead, Driscoll stepped down from the council two years before the 2005 election to begin working on a campaign. She went door-to-door, reeling in older residents and newer transplants who, like Driscoll, had not grown up in Salem. “In a lot of ways, the mayor has personified a larger transformation that has gone on in Salem,” says Mickey Northcutt, the executive director of the North Shore Community Development Coalition.

Driscoll was born a Navy brat in Hawaii where her father, a chief petty officer who served in Vietnam, was stationed. Her mother worked as an accounting assistant. When she was four, her family moved to Rhode Island and then Maryland. Her parents divorced when she was in middle school.

A self-described “total tomboy,” she spent most of her youth in Clearwater, Florida, where she liked to go to Philadelphia Phillies spring training games. “Mike Schmidt was the big enchilada back then,” Driscoll says of the team’s Hall of Fame third baseman.
The second of four sisters, Driscoll says her siblings are “drop-dead gorgeous,” while she favors a no-nonsense look of sober suits, solid color shirts, and minimal everything else. Her lack of interest in the world of nails and hairstyles that consume her mother and sisters is a family joke. “I certainly don’t have that gene,” she laughs.

The high school basketball and softball player learned about Salem State College (now University) and its women’s basketball program through visits to her grandparents who lived in Lynn. Impressed by the team’s championship season in 1985-1986, she enrolled the next year. The 5-foot 7-inch point guard graduated in 1989 with a political science degree.After interning in Salem’s planning department during college, she started her public sector career after graduation and later moved on to become Beverly’s community development director. She earned a law degree at Massa­chu­setts School of Law, and spent three years as a real estate and commercial development attorney.

But Driscoll wanted back in to government. So she decided to plunge into the deep end of the municipal-government pool. In 1998, Guy Santagate was tapped as Chelsea’s first city manager following a string of municipal corruption cases that ensnared mayors and other local leaders. He was impressed by the 30-something lawyer who had tired of the soul-sapping chase for billable hours. Although colleagues advised him to go with a more experienced attorney, he gave her the job as the city’s chief legal counsel. Dris­coll represented Chelsea in an early test of the new city charter. Leo “Buddy” McHatton, a former police officer convicted of tax evasion, had been elected to the city council in 1997, but Santagate, pointing to the charter’s anti-corruption language, refused to seat him. The Supreme Judicial Court eventually backed Chelsea up. “She learned in a tough environment,” says Santagate, who is now the city manager in Claremont, New Hampshire.

“Time had stood still in Chelsea,” says Driscoll. “Where there was corruption, there was mismanagement, and there was politics running the agenda. There are politics everywhere but they cannot run the agenda. [A city] always has to be open and transparent and honest with folks.”

WITCH CITY

Driscoll’s path to City Hall opened up when it became clear that incumbent mayor Stanley Usovicz had been politically wounded after a Salem Evening News investigation revealed that he claimed a University of Massachu­setts bachelor’s degree that he had not earned. Usovicz did not survive a 2005 challenge in the mayoral preliminary election, with Driscoll and Kevin Harvey, a veteran city councilor, finishing in the top two spots. Driscoll went on to beat Harvey when they squared off in the final election.

 
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll says whether it’s meeting constituents on the
street or poring over budgets in the office, her focus is on her curent job,
not the future.

The new mayor’s first goal was to dig Salem out from under a multi-million dollar budget deficit. She bid out contracts, reorganized city hall departments, and implemented better business strategies. Today, Salem has about $3.5 million in its stabilization fund, which is roughly equal to the deficit that Driscoll found on the city’s books seven years ago.

“Super aggressive” by her own admission in seeking out state, federal, and private grants, Driscoll’s city hall has reeled in nearly $124 million in awards since 2006 to kick-start everything from hiring consultants to beautifying the downtown pedestrian mall to launching new programs in the city’s troubled schools.

She persuaded the business community to transform the neglected tourism office from a members-only organization into a public-private partnership funded, in part, by local hotel and motel tax revenues. “She’s a strong enough leader that she can stand in front of a room and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be, get on board or go home,’” says Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing and tourism office.

The mayor calls Salem a “hot city.” But Salem was not always so hot. Not far from the witch trial and maritime tourist spots were blue-collar neighborhoods that had never really recovered from the decline of the city’s manufacturing industries.

Downtown Salem bustles with thousands of visitors every Halloween, but it had otherwise long been as lifeless as a neighborhood after a zombie apocalypse. All that changed about 15 years ago, when a condo boom put the center of Salem on the map for young professionals and empty nesters searching for housing at reasonable prices and within reasonable commuting distance of Boston. The Peabody Essex Museum’s 2003 expansion capped the city’s downtown renaissance. The museum, now undergoing a second $200 million expansion, attracted new upscale shops and restaurants. “What was great about the Peabody Essex Museum investment is that it gave people the OK to live here,” says Driscoll.

Driscoll also embraced Halloween tourism, but wanted to get a grip on it. She transformed Halloween night from a beer-soaked bacchanalia into a family-friendly affair, says Tucker, the police chief, who credits Driscoll for bringing in carnival rides, concerts, and other diversions. The 2012 October festivities netted the city a little more than $293,000, largely from parking and licensing fees.

Over the coming decade, Salem officials plan to shift their attention from downtown to the waterfront, where a $20 million wharf facility project is underway. In 2006, Driscoll helped push through a $2.3 million grant from the state to buy a long-sought-after ferry to add travel options to Boston for commuters and visitors. The city owns the Nathaniel Bowditch, which can transport 149 passengers. Boston Harbor Cruises took over the operation of the service last year.

Salem is currently the only Bay State community that owns a ferry. (Winthrop hopes to own a boat by the end of the year.) There was grumbling from some residents about a small city like Salem owning a ferry, but all told the purchase was a popular move. “People were impressed that she was able to get that amount of money,” says Nelson Benton, a retired Salem News editorial page editor. Passen­ger traffic hiccupped last year due to a late start to the season, a transition between operators, and Hurricane Sandy. But, overall, ferry ridership has been healthy and hit a high of 89,000 passengers in 2010.

Driscoll has an even bigger vision for the wharf area. At press time, Salem officials were in negotiations for the use of a wharf owned by Footprint Power, the New Jersey-based firm that plans to build a natural gas facility on the site of the former Dominion coal power plant. “Before [Dominion] decided to close its doors, [we decided] to re-engage our waterfront with cruise ships and a much more active use of waterfront than we have had,” she says.

She encouraged Salem residents to keep the pressure on the MBTA to follow through on a plan to build a $35 million commuter rail station and parking garage. “The T is hoping to start construction next spring, but we’ll need your support and advocacy to maintain this timeline,” she said in a Facebook post last June.

Driscoll “pushes the right buttons,” says Patricia Zaido, head of the Salem Partnership, the city’s chief economic development organization.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the mayor. Driscoll did not win many fans during the long-running battle over the vacant St. Joseph’s Church. Driscoll pushed for demolishing the church and building a senior and community center and housing. That plan pitted her against seniors, who blasted her proposal and called for renovating the old center or building a new one on the waterfront, and preservationists, who didn’t want the church torn down. “It’s hard for me to walk away from a project I feel is very positive,” a 2006 Salem News report quoted her as saying.

Demolition and affordable housing won out at the site, and a new senior center will be built elsewhere. But Dris­coll never marshaled real support for her initial proposal and got banged up in the process. “When she gets her mind to something she thinks is going to be good for the city, it is hard to budge her,” says Benton. “She has had her losses.”

SCHOOLS FIRST

Whatever setbacks and challenges Driscoll has faced, she knows they are nothing compared with the one she and Salem now face over the future of the city’s public schools. Driscoll often describes getting the news about Bentley Elemen­tary School “like a punch in the gut.” Two months into the 2011 school year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary designated the Bentley Elementary School as a Level 4 “underperforming” school. A state review declared that four other schools, including Salem High School, were “on the cusp” of being declared underperforming.

Driscoll’s concern for the schools goes beyond her citywide responsibility as mayor. She and her husband Nick, a bricklayer, have two daughters and a son, all of whom attend the city’s public schools.

Between 2008 and 2010, the gaps in English and math proficiency between Salem students and students statewide grew wider. Whites comprise nearly 57 percent of the district’s more than 4,500 students. Latinos make up about 31 percent; African Americans and Asians together are about 8 percent.

Salem is a magnet for Halloween tourists, but its harbor holds
the keys to future development in areas like the old coal power
plant sites.

Over the past decade in Salem, the numbers of non-English speakers and students with limited English proficiency have remained roughly the same. How­ever, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of low-income students. About 55 percent of the students are low-income today, compared to nearly 35 percent a decade ago.

The district has had no continuity at the top, having gone through three superintendents in six years. The state report faulted the Salem schools for what amounts to the soft bigotry of low expectations: “The community has found it difficult to adjust to its changing population, particularly the increase in residents who speak other languages; cultural issues are not addressed in the schools; and some administrators and staff do not have high expectations for students, especially [English language learners].

Driscoll rejects the view of residents who blame the schools’ decline on new immigrants. “There is some undercurrent there that it’s about Latinos. It’s about poverty and the challenges that poverty brings,” she says. “We have plenty of Anglo parents who aren’t involved [in the schools] and are struggling to get by.”

There were difficulties elsewhere, too. Salem’s Latino immigrant community “put up a wall in the past and [didn’t] reach out to the rest of the city,” says Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, executive director of the Salem Education Foundation.

Few people suspected that the public schools were on the verge of failure. But Salem’s problems mirror those found in many struggling Gateway City communities. For years, families concerned about Salem’s mediocrity, and who had the money to do something about it, quietly transferred their children into private or parochial schools or simply moved to neighboring cities and towns.

“I thought for a long time that there has been a disconnect between the reality of what happens in the system and the perception of the system in the community,” says former Salem mayor Neil Harrington. “Now that mask has been torn off the situation.”

As the school committee chairwoman, Driscoll has had to own up to her own shortcomings. “Looking back at it, I would say that we were less focused than we should have been,” she says. “We were seeing scores not improving at the level that you would like, [and then we were] throwing lots of things up against the wall: new literacy curriculums, more investment in our math curriculum, [and] piloting different technology uses.”

The district has three years to achieve specified benchmarks to avoid a state takeover. The mayor plunged into the crisis, holding community meetings, recruiting Harvard Graduate School of Education turnaround expert Roland Fryer to work with the school and community leaders, and helping establish Education Now/ Educación Ahora, the city’s first bilingual newspaper, to keep residents up to date on the turnaround project. Still, urban school districts are notoriously resistant to fast fixes and it’s unclear whether Driscoll, who is already battling with the Salem Teachers Union over various contract issues, can get buy-in on goals like a longer school day for all schools.

LADDER CLIMBER?

Driscoll, a Democrat, says that she anticipates serving out her term if re-elected, but everyone else in Salem is resigned to her eventual departure. Benton, the former editorial page editor, doesn’t see “any real resentment” from residents about the mayor running for re-election and then, if she wins, making a move to a higher office. “Most people would be more concerned about losing her as mayor,” says Benton.

If anything, the mayor has developed an easy fluency in the major issues facing the Bay State. She played a prominent role in one of the biggest challenges in recent years directly affecting local government: the skyrocketing costs of health care coverage for municipal employees. Driscoll was an outspoken member of a coalition of municipal leaders that succeeded in forcing Beacon Hill lawmakers to come up with legislation to give cities and towns more control over municipal employee health care plans—or face a ballot initiative that would put the question to voters. She ended a stint as the president of Massa­chusetts Mayors Association last year.

Driscoll has been a good foot soldier for the Patrick administration, speaking out most recently in a battle to require Amazon to pay the state sales tax, something that could indirectly help cities and towns by bolstering the state coffers they rely on for local aid.

Her work on the Salem power plant-waterfront development attracted the attention of the NewDEAL (Developing Except­ional American Leaders), a national network that brings together rising state and local leaders who are committed to innovative economic development strategies that are pro-growth and progressive. She cites Robert Kennedy as one of her earliest influences on how she thinks about politics. “I took the notion that government could do more for others and that you could use what is happening in your community to do good,” she says.

Kennedy-style pragmatism would go a long way to explaining her views on one of the state’s most prominent Republicans. Driscoll gives a surprising shout out to Charlie Baker, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor, whom she knows from his days as a selectman in neighboring Swampscott. She thinks he would be a “much better candidate the second time around.” Would she support Baker? “I don’t know about that,” the mayor says. “But I will say this: It’s not automatic that if you have a “D” next to your name that Kim Driscoll’s in your corner.”

As for her own possible future runs for higher office, Driscoll gets mentioned most often by insiders as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor, state treasurer, or even governor. “It’s way too soon, it’s all talk,” is all Driscoll will say about a future statewide run. She will say she has no interest in a seat in the Legislature. “It’s hard once you’ve been in the executive to switch gears,” she says.

But Driscoll has scattered enough crumbs around to suggest that she’s set her sights beyond Salem. She has Liberty Square Group, a Boston strategic communications firm, on retainer. Benton notes she is close to Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and likely wouldn’t run for governor if he did. “If he takes himself out of the race,” says Benton, “she might take a serious look at it.”

Making the leap from small-city mayor to statewide player is always something of a leap of faith, but Driscoll has a compelling narrative: a hard-working, plain-talking, policy wonk, family woman, and college-hoops player from a blue collar city. Her stint at the mayors’ association enhanced her visibility among municipal leaders.

“The truth is, she’s probably polling somewhere south of single digits in name recognition,” says David Guarino, of Melwood Global, a strategic communications strategies firm and a deputy to former House Speaker Sal DiMasi. If Driscoll were to take a shot at a statewide office, says Guarino, she would have “a huge task ahead in getting better known, first among the Democratic insiders, money men and women, and the media who drive the caucuses and primaries and, later, with real voters.”

First, Driscoll must win reelection this fall. She had nearly $90,000 in her campaign war chest at the end of 2011, and barring any dark horse challenger suddenly catching fire or major controversy, she is almost certain to be reelected.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

While winning another term is the first order of business, Driscoll understands that keeping her eye on the ball while in office is the single best way to keep alive any ideas she may harbor of trying to move up the political ladder. First and foremost, that will mean showing steady progress in pulling up the performance of the city’s schools.

The biggest mistake a local official can make is an “error at home” while casting their eye on a bigger prize, says Guarino, who lives in Salem. “Whether it is the Salem schools, which are in crisis and need sustained, strong leadership, the waterfront power plant redevelopment, or some other issue, there are plenty of hometown challenges that can trip up a mayor looking to run statewide.”