The Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard hosted a candidate forum on March 11, where City Council-At large candidate David Halbert and mayoral candidates John Barros and Jon Santiago spoke about their platforms and addressed questions and concerns from Charlestown residents.
A Cincinnati, Ohio native, David Halbert moved to Framingham when he was in fourth grade, eventually attended the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and has lived in Boston since 2004. He used to live in East Boston, but now resides in Dorchester.
Halbert said that prior to the pandemic, there were already so many Bostonians who were facing challenges, but now they have been exacerbated by the public health crisis.
“Opportunities aren’t shared equally by everyone,” Halbert said. He said that it is important to “have a city council that is as representative and inclusive as it possibly can be.”
He said that “housing is a human right,” and figuring out “how to lift up the small business community” is high on his list, as he’s a board member for East Boston Main Streets.
A resident asked Halbert what his thoughts were on COVID recovery.
“The pandemic has really laid bare a lot of the inequalities,” he said, adding that he’s “really focused on housing economic development and education,” to “make sure people aren’t losing their homes.”
He said that cultural competency is a must, and that it’s important to “cut through the red tape where we can.”
As a parent, he said he’s also very concerned about education and “making sure we have the supports” where they are needed “beyond” what existed before the pandemic, as the way things were before “wasn’t adequate.”
He also said that there need to be “parallel supports in place for social and emotional learning and health and wellness.”
Charlestown resident James Lister asked Halbert if he believes kids should be back in school full time.
“I share your concerns about school,” Halbert said. “I have a five year old and a two year old,” he added, saying that he and his wife “personally don’t feel we want her to be in the building,” they said of their oldest child. “We don’t feel there is an adequate plan in place.”
But “I would love to have my daughter in school,” he said. “She misses out on seeing her friends.”
Halbert said that while he feels it;’s safest to keep his daughter at home learning remotely and he is able to do so, he realizes that “school was a safe place for some kids,” and some parents need their children to return to in-person learning so they can go back to work.
Halbert said he was grateful to have been able to come talk to the Charlestown community.
“Charlestown is often overlooked,” he said, adding that having lived in a “parallel” community in East Boston, “you always have a friend and advocate in me,” he said, adding later, “you deserve that.”
John Barros was Mayor Walsh’s Chief of Economic Development, a position he has since left to run for mayor full time.
Barros was born and raised in Roxbury to immigrant parents from West Africa, and has a history of contributing to the city. He helped start the Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Roxbury, as well as the Dudley St. Neighborhood Charter School, he told Charlestown residents.
“Mayor Menino appointed me to the School Committee,” Barros said, adding that “local government, city government is a place of great change; of great importance.”
When Marty Walsh became mayor, he “asked me to start up a new cabinet for him,” Barros said—the cabinet of Economic Development.
“I’ve been around the world talking about our city,” Barros said, as well as learning “what the residents of what the city want.”
Barros co-chaired Mayor Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan, and said that more than 140,000 jobs have been brought to Boston over the past seven years.
He also said that Walsh “ran a tight ship,” and “for seven years, we were fiscally responsible.”
Barros said he believes “I’ve got the experience to take us out of the pandemic more safely,” and “in a more inclusive way.”
He said that the unemployment rate in the city is “hovering over 7 percent—it’s too high.” Additionally, he said that women and people of color are being hired at a slower pace, and he believes special attention needs to be paid to the hospitality, food, arts, and culture industries to safely bring back many of those jobs that have been lost.
“Affordable housing is a major issue in the city,” Barros said, adding that low and moderate income professionals who were raised in the city are being pushed out because they cannot afford to live here.
He said that he was able to increase linkage funds—“money that we, the City of Boston, is able to get from commercial buildings over 100,000 square feet that goes to housing and workforce development.”
Resident Jean Wilson, who said she’s a big fan of Walsh’s, asked what Barros would do differently from the current mayor.
“A lot of things I would do the same,” Barros said, adding that he’s “learned a lot about fiscal management” from being a part of Walsh’s administration.
“But I would be more involved in the developments in our neighborhood,” he said. He spoke about the city’s “pilot initiative” in Upham’s Corner in Dorchester as a result of the community’s desire for a library and affordable space for art and culture.
“The only way to get those things is to have the City involved,” he said.
Thara Fuller, Executive Director of the Kennedy Center, said that many people cannot afford childcare, and asked Barros how he will ensure that childcare is affordable for all.
“We need to diversify the revenue stream,.” Barros said, which he said is currently between 71 and 72 percent “reliant on property taxes.” He said that increasing property taxes during a pandemic is not the answer, but looking to the federal government for assistance with programs for cities regarding things like education, infrastructure, and small business development.
“We have a friend there now,” he said of the federal government.
Resident James Lister brought up affordable housing and the planning process in Charlestown. He said he feels that it is “squeezing out the middle class within the neighborhood,” and he has a “fear the housing is going in the way of the haves and have nots.” He said he’d like some “guidance” on what to expect in the neighborhood looking forward.
“There has to be a balance in trying to be realistic with our residents,” Barros said. “When we provide tax relief for corporations,” it is done so with the understanding that it’s “based on tax gains it will be expected to bring to the city,” such as income tax from the employees.
Barros also talked about “amenities down by the waterfront” in Charlestown, and how he believes the city will have to “step in in a major way to create some subsidies for it.”
He told residents that he believes his “experience over the past seven years” makes him a good candidate for mayor during this “pivotal point” for the city.
As an ER doctor and a state rep., Jon Santiago sees Boston residents from different viewpoints, and now he’s also running for mayor.
“I look forward to getting out there to Charlestown…and starting a conversation with you,” Santiago said. He called this upcoming race the “most consequential mayor’s race.”
Santiago grew up in Roxbury after coming to Boston in the late 80s. He said that after his family had been “priced out” of the neighborhood, “I came back to serve this community.”
Santiago served in the Peace Corps, is a captain in the US Army Reserve, and still treats people in the emergency room, despite being a full time state representative.
When he was running for state rep., he said he knocked on 9,000 doors, and ended up beating Byron Rushing, a 40 year incumbent, for the seat.
Santiago said that when Mayor Walsh announced he would be leaving to serve as President Biden’s labor secretary, he thought, “how can I best serve my city?” So he decided to run for mayor.
He said he believes the challenge moving forward for Boston is not this year or next, but rather the next “two, three, four years post-pandemic.” He continued, “I think it’s going to be a transformative opportunity,” and he hopes to “tackle wealth inequality” in the city as part of the recovery process.
He said he believes working together with the residents to tackle the issues is the way to go.
Jean Wilson asked Santiago the same question she asked Barros: if he’d do anything differently from Mayor Walsh.
“I have tremendous respect for Mayor Walsh,” Santiago said, adding that speaking with Walsh was “one of the first conversations I had” after deciding to run for mayor.
“His style of politics really came from the State House,” he said. “Those skills have made him successful.”
Santiago continued, “he’s been a tremendous source of inspiration and advice,” and “he’s done a tremendous amount of work for the city.”
He said that he believes more work needs to be done at the Mass Ave./Melnea Cass Blvd. intersection in Roxbury and the South End, adding that he knows Walsh would “admit that” as well. He said that there is always room for improvement on any number of issues in the city.
Resident James Lister asked how Santiago would ensure that new developments are “responsible” and would serve the entire neighborhood.
Santiago said the same thing is happening in the South End, and that “construction costs are too high.” He said the city needs to “take advantage of our AAA bond rating.”
He said that “when it comes to development,” the city has “to be innovative. Just like in the ER, we can’t wait around.”
Lister also said that with “surrounding communities that touch Charlestown” increasing their development, “we’re going to miss out on the opportunity to get more housing. How do we make sure that still continues to come to Charlestown and Boston?”
Santiago said that by being “surrounded by all this development,” there is “increased tax revenue for all these cities. What about Charlestown? There are people in Charlestown who will say ‘I don’t want any development at all.’ My first step would be to listen…to folks across Charlestown” and “have a frank conversation. I’m not your average politician.”
Kimberly Mahoney said that a “big question for Charlestown” relates to the community’s relationship with Mayor Walsh, and how a new mayor will fit into the neighborhood.
“The Charlestown community had a great relationship with Mayor Walsh,” she said, and he “spent a lot of time” in the neighborhood. “We want to make sure Charlestown stays on the radar,” even after the campaigns are over and a new mayor is elected.
Santiago said that “spending time with people…gives perspective.” He said he really wants to come to the neighborhood and spend time with the residents to get to know what they need.
“I’m vaccinated; I will be out there as soon as you feel comfortable,” he said. “We are going to be present; we are going to be walking the city. That’s how we get things done…it’s a team game.”
Santiago repeated throughout his remarks that “I know what I don’t know.” He said he wants to come out to the neighborhood to meet “each and everyone of you” to “learn about how to improve the neighborhood.”