Mayor of firsts
Yvonne Spicer says she’s undaunted by new challenges—a good trait for the first person to serve as mayor of Framingham.
Photographs by Frank Curran
YVONNE SPICER, like a lot of her fellow Framingham residents, freely admits that she voted against the charter question to make the state’s biggest town a mid-sized city. But once the measure passed by the thinnest of margins, the former teacher and vice president of the Museum of Science did what most of her friends expected her to do: She ran for mayor. And, with the sum of her prior elected experience consisting of a little over a year as one of 240 representatives to Town Meeting, she won by a wide margin.
When voters handily elected Spicer over political veteran John Stefanini, a former selectman and state representative who was one of the forces behind the charter change, they got a lot of firsts out of the way. She is not only Framingham’s first mayor, but also the first black woman to be popularly elected mayor of any city in Massachusetts.
“I’ve been the first in a number of things and it warms my heart,” says the 55-year-old Brooklyn native. “I was the first African-American woman to graduate from the college I went to. To be the first elected mayor and an African-American and a woman speaks volumes about my community and how embracing my community can be, not only to me but other people in other groups.”
To her surprise, not only did school officials immediately ask her to come in for an interview, they wanted her to do it the day after Labor Day, the same day as her interview in Albany, which she had planned to drive to from Boston.
“I said, ‘OK sure,’” she says, recalling her conversation 32 years ago. “I went wearing the same clothes I had because I really didn’t have any others with me. I was just here for the weekend having fun with my friend and I had the interview. And I actually had two interviews that day, one in Albany and then one here in Framingham. I actually went to Albany in the morning and then drove back here.”
The Framingham job, though, wasn’t exactly in her wheelhouse. The district was looking for a woodworking teacher in the middle schools. She took it.
“Most people go to their first job doing what they’re very good at,” she says. “I went to a job that I was least good at. I’ve always done that—looked to work with my Achilles’ heel. And I still do that to this day, where I will be assigned to an area that I know a little something about and learn something new.”
What Spicer lacks in government experience is more than offset by her self-confidence.
“The unique thing about me is that I was a classroom teacher so I know education, which is a huge part of our budget,” Spicer says. “Even in my job at the museum, I work very closely with educators and administrators. I had to know about educational policy and law. So I have studied that and I’ve had a real good, strong sense of how education is funded. In most communities, the bulk of the budget is spent on education so it’s good to have a mayor that really has a good handle on how that’s spent.”
But Spicer, who has a doctorate in education from University of Massachusetts Boston, insists her administration will be about much more than schools. Transportation, traffic, economic growth, affordable housing, income inequality—all issues she says the former town is facing that won’t go away with the wave of a mayor’s magic wand.
Spicer, who is divorced and has no children, says she’s learned a lot since the campaign and her election about what Framingham residents need, want, and expect. Some issues she knew, such as the constant traffic jams into downtown Framingham from all approaches, and some she was taken aback by.
Until she started talking with some citizens who rely on public transportation, she had no idea the buses don’t run on Sundays and end their runs too early for retail workers to get home when the stores close. Though the buses are run by a regional transit authority, she’s already met with officials there as well as Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack to see if the service can be expanded. Spicer said the town could be willing to contribute some money for service expansion, but the bigger issue is making people aware that there is a system they can access, which many don’t realize.
Spicer wants to revitalize downtown Framingham, bringing “consistency” to the buildings in both look and offerings. With a train station in the heart of downtown, she says transit-focused housing is big on her wish list. She talks of chasing federal funding that is available to cities that towns aren’t able to access.
When it comes to affordable housing, Framingham has already met the 10 percent state mandate for Chapter 40B, the statute that allows developers to circumvent zoning laws if a community is not in compliance. But Spicer wants the new city to aim higher, perhaps toward getting 15 to 20 percent of housing stock in the affordable category as a way to draw young families and professionals. But she also says part of the goal has to be to create mid-level “reasonably priced” housing to complement the affordable housing.
Spicer said she doesn’t think the move from a town form of government to a city will lead a sea change in how things are run. That said, Spicer herself represents the biggest shift, as Framingham moves from having a hired town manager as its chief executive to an elected mayor, someone who will be a much more publicly visible face of the community. On January 1, she was inaugurated, the same day that Framingham officially became the Commmonwealth’s newest city. When we sat down to talk in mid-December, she was still working out of a sparse small office in the back of the selectmen’s administrative office, gearing up for the big day. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: Usually when somebody takes over as a mayor there are past mayors they can rely on. Who are you talking to about this job?
YVONNE SPICER: Setti Warren in Newton has been helpful. Lisa Wong, the former mayor in Fitchburg. Kim Driscoll [in Salem]. They’re offering advice. And recently I went to a mayor’s boot camp, which was hosted by Harvard, and there were all of these new mayors and mayors-elect from across the country. A number of veteran mayors were there to offer presentations and workshops on different issues, whether it be infrastructure, budgeting, staffing, or dealing with a crisis in your community. The mayor from Orlando talked about the shootings at Pulse [nightclub] and how he relied on his other fellow mayors. There were mayors of cities that have had hurricanes, flooding, and other mayors who have reached out to send support and help to each other. I thought it was wonderful, and what I got out of there was a list of numbers of mayors from all over the country that have dealt with so many different issues who said ‘call me, call me, call me if you need me’ and so I have. We’re getting ready to have our very first inauguration and I know the planning team has reached out to cities that have gone through this transition from town to city like Braintree, like Weymouth, to find out protocol, what did they do for a ceremony and everything.
CW: What was the most surprising thing that you’ve heard from other mayors, things you didn’t know?
SPICER: There isn’t anything that is tremendously surprising. I mean they all say, when there’s a snowstorm, make sure the streets are plowed. Trash day. Make sure the trash is getting picked up. Those basic fundamental things. I, quite frankly, think our services have been wonderful. One thing that has been terrific is our current town manager. He’s here with us, with me, to advise me. The Board of Selectmen ensured that he will stay on to advise me as need be.
CW: In what capacity? What will be his job title?
SPICER: As a senior adviser to the mayor, that’s pretty much how the Board of Selectmen viewed his role going forward. His contract technically does not end.
CW: Your only elective experience was as a town meeting member.
SPICER: Interesting story how that happened. I was involved in politics in the late ‘80s on the Democratic Town Committee. I was a delegate to the state convention. I worked very hard on Mike Dukakis’s campaign for governor. Then, of course, life gets in the way and school and everything else. So last year, I go to vote and I looked on the ballot and I saw all these empty spaces. Then I said to the woman that works at the poll, can I just write myself in? And she said yes, so I wrote myself in. Then I took to Facebook and I said if you haven’t voted, would you please write me in if you live in my precinct? I won by a whopping one vote.
CW: You weren’t in favor of becoming a city, were you?
SPICER: I’m very candid about it. I didn’t vote for the charter question and the reason I didn’t was because I felt that it was too much too soon. And so when the vote happened and it only won probably by about 110 votes, you basically had a community that was sharply divided. When that vote happened, some friends had suggested to me, would you ever consider running for office? And I thought about it long and hard. I talked about it with a few of my close confidants and mentors and I just kept trying to find a reason not to do it. And I couldn’t find one. Because the reality is, I felt like I had a tremendous amount of skill sets that I brought to the job. I felt like I brought ingenuity, new ideas. Being in STEM, I work with policy makers, I sit on a number of statewide boards. I work internationally, I made relationships on the global front. I’ve built programs from nothing. I work in a startup division in the Museum of Science, so I know what it’s like to grow something that doesn’t exist and I’m not afraid to take chances.
CW: Creating an entire government infrastructure was not enough of a reason to say no?
SPICER: We had some really good bones here already in Framingham. It’s not like we don’t have an infrastructure, we have that. But what we’re building as a city is a way to think very differently about how we operate, how to be much more nimble. We can access other resources that we weren’t able to access.
CW: Do you have the flexibility as a city that you didn’t have as a town? To blend departments, to blend jobs?
SPICER: We’re doing that as we speak. We’re talking about it. The school superintendent is having those kinds of conversations and looking back and forth at where can we share some resources, where we can combine our efforts in a way that we can save our community a little bit of money. The other thing that is wonderful is that our superintendent is relatively new. He joined us in April and he’s very open and receptive to thinking outside the box on the ways in which we deliver our services and trying to think smartly about how we move our schools where we need them to be.
CW: Where do you need them to be?
SPICER: We have a couple of schools that are currently Level 3 [the bottom 20 percent of all schools statewide] and part of thinking about our school department is looking at analyzing where their struggles are. Looking at the data, our MCAS data and thinking are these resources where they are needed in these buildings.
CW: The schools were a big part of your campaign, understandably, given your background. What is it that you want to do with the schools?
SPICER: First when I think about the goals that I laid out, coming closer to the top of the list is really economic development. I strongly believe our community thrives when we are growing businesses, residents are employed, and we have services for them. How do we grow business in downtown? What do we need to do for business in terms of education? You’re right, teaching, that’s my strong suit so therefore going back to the beginning of this conversation, I’m going to the Achilles heel first and my Achilles heel is economic development.
CW: Framingham has been built out for years. There’s not a lot of room for growth here. So anything that you do has to be economic growth, can’t be physical growth. Are you looking for more permanence or are you looking to attract a certain type of business like tech companies?
SPICER: I am particularly looking at attracting more STEM-related tech companies, businesses that don’t require a large carbon footprint in downtown because there are some buildings and spaces that could be repurposed. And as you look at downtown Framingham, it is pretty compact. But there’s also some great opportunity right near town hall, at the intersection of Howard Street and Concord Street that has been designated for some new housing development. And the hope is that it will be what they call transit-oriented development. There’s a train right there. So we could attract people to come into southern Framingham and live and work in southern Framingham.
CW: You said you went to the Gateway Cities conference, but I don’t believe Framingham qualifies as a Gateway City, either by the educational standards or by income standards. So where is some of this extra money going to come from that you might need for these programs?
SPICER: In my current work I have worked with other states and as they think about education and growth in communities, they have federal programs, Neighborhood Empowerment grants and community block grants to look at. Are we eligible for more? Also, we need to look at our state. What have we been able to tap into? What haven’t we been able to tap into because we were a town versus being a city?
CW: Have you identified anything?
SPICER: I haven’t identified anything just yet. We do get community block grants for some of our funding and projects like downtown renaissance but there may be some pockets that have been underutilized. I had a really good meeting yesterday with Jay Ash, the secretary of economic development. I did attend the Gateway Cities conference in Lawrence and it was a mission to learn what things they did and to really try to look and see are there ways in which Framingham can learn from other people’s experiences, especially as we think about developing downtown.
CW: You have about 16 percent of the population below the poverty line, the bulk of it under 18 and over 65. What is it that you can do to improve that? You’re talking about bringing economic development and talking about bringing in growth but the people under 18 and the people over 65 aren’t necessarily going to benefit from that.
SPICER: I have spent a lot of time with our seniors during this campaign, listening to them. Affordable housing people are very concerned that they’re not going to be able to stay in their homes or buy homes. I know the state development law requires 10 percent to be affordable but…
CW: Framingham actually has already achieved that, though. You wouldn’t be bound to [Chapter] 40 B.
SPICER: I know but some communities have 15, 20 percent affordable housing and it would be nice to achieve that same level and, really working closely with the developers, to consider that because there are other communities that have achieved that goal in diverse housing. So that’s the kind of thing I will be looking closely at for our young people in the community. So that they can live here, they can stay here.
CW: Is that a goal, 15 to 20 percent affordable housing in Framingham?
SPICER: Well, it would be one I’d be thinking about. The law says 10 percent so we can see what we can do with increasing it slightly. There are people on waiting lists to get into affordable housing. When I think about affordable housing, I also think about a young couple starting out making a fairly decent salary. And so that’s something that I would like to see—to be able to offer homes so that young people will stay. We have Framingham State [University] right here. I would love to be able to say, hey, there’s a job, you can make a decent wage and afford to live here in Framingham.
But as I look at families, not that I want to use just the term affordable, but I want to use the term reasonably priced housing and sometimes that’s really challenging because the prices of houses have gone up as the inventory is down. You have more growth in building, but I’m also looking at where do we build? Because we’re pretty dense, unless we are taking away green spaces, and then you have the argument that we’re losing our green spaces and if we lose that, we don’t have an opportunity to get those back. We want to look at repurposing underutilized property. And we’ve done some of that and there’s opportunity to do more of that with properties downtown. It’s going to require a willingness to think how we design this in a way that makes us a destination, that makes downtown Framingham like Moody Street in Waltham. Look at our neighbor in Hudson. They’re revitalizing their downtown. That’s where I see potential growth area.
CW: Do you see a population drain? There seems to be a good concentration of people 45 and over here and under 21. But between 21 and 45, young families, the young professionals, the numbers aren’t there.
SPICER: Yes, we know some people aren’t choosing to stay in Framingham but we need to really get a sense of why. We have 8,900 children in our school system. So you think that number of children and you try to factor in parents in a one- to two- parent household. There is not that proportionality in terms of our total population, which is close to 70,000. During this campaign, I tried to listen closely to what are those factors that make a difference for you to stay in this community. What are the services here, what is there that is enjoyable for us to do in the community? We have farms, we have opportunities that are right here in Framingham.
CW: Do you have good schools?
SPICER: We have very good schools, even though we have some schools that are Level 3. We need to delve deeper, do a deep dive to really understand, what does that mean? Some of our most fragile learners are concentrated in those three schools as opposed to some of our other schools.
CW: Economic growth, building up the downtown, repurposing buildings, attracting more young families, building affordable housing. The elephant in the room is traffic. It’s probably the biggest complaint in Framingham, beyond schools, beyond economic growth, beyond anything.
CW: And if I recall, the charter even specifically created a traffic commission. You don’t see that a lot in charters.
SPICER: That is a very important piece of the charter.
CW: So how is that going to impact your view? What do you see as the solution to the traffic problems?
SPICER: Some of the challenge is that we don’t have bus service on Sunday. Say, for example, you work on Route 9 somewhere and you don’t have a car. You can’t get to work unless you get an Uber or take a taxi, so the hours that you’ve just worked, you’re paying it in cab fare. I would love to be able to see our bus service expanded—it’s not a municipal service but a regional transit authority—what is it going to take? As a matter of fact, I just had a meeting with Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack yesterday about this very topic and she kind of put me in touch with someone else in her office to be able to further that conversation. I would love to see that, encourage different alternatives, see if we can encourage people biking. There’s a whole commission that looks at biking, particularly around downtown. We recently put in bike lanes along [Route] 135 to encourage biking as a means of getting around.
CW: I’m still stuck on no Sunday bus service. Framingham may be the 12th biggest city now, but it was the biggest town in the state, maybe the country. There’s Shopper’s World, there is Framingham center. There’s all this activity coming in and out and there’s no bus service. I never realized that.
SPICER: Quite frankly, I have to say until I was on this campaign trail and talking to residents that rely on public transportation, they’d say I have to get my shopping done Saturday because if I don’t, there’s no bus on Sunday. Also, the bus stops running early so that if you’re working the malls and the malls don’t close until 9:00 or later and you get out of work, there are no modes of public transportation. Also, the wait times in between buses, that is also a challenge. If you’ve got to wait 30 minutes for a bus, it’s very difficult to stand out in the cold for 30 minutes. So we have to improve the schedule but also expand the hours and also alert the public about it when we do it. We have to do a branding or PR kind of exposure around a service—save the environment, ride the bus. When I hear I didn’t even know I had a bus stop. Where’s the bus? You have to make it much more visible.
CW: When all of this happens, when everything switches over, what’s the biggest change people are going to see?
SPICER: You know one of the things that has been very important to me is the smooth transition of government. And my hope is that it will be seamless. My hope is that they won’t see obstacles, they will still come and pay their tax bill where they’ve always paid it. If anything I want them to see City Hall as a welcoming environment. There will be much more available online so people can see what things we’re working on and what things we’re getting done. You know, where’s Mayor Spicer? What is she doing?CW: Are you getting used to that yet, Mayor Spicer?
SPICER: Someone asked me what should I call you? Should I call you Dr. Spicer or do you want me to call you Dr. Mayor Spicer and such? I’ve been used to Dr. Spicer a long time. Maybe I’ll try on Mayor Spicer for a while.