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Interviews U.S Mayors

Interview with Kim Driscoll, Mayor of Salem, Massachusetts

The Politic: How has your summer been? What has it been like being mayor during the summer with tourist season? Although, I’m sure that some of the tourists tend to come towards Halloween, given the nature of this particular city

It’s never boring in Salem from the perspective of the local government. There’s always something brewing here, so to speak. The beginning of the summer kicks off the end of a long budget season. It’s definitely been great weather wise, so we’ve had lots of people in town, with lots of festivals and activity, so summer in New England is pretty awesome. We wait all winter for it, and there have been lots of opportunities to spend time with friends and family.

The Politic: So, you’ve been mayor for quite some time now. 8 years, is that correct?

8 years, that’s correct. This is my ninth year.

The Politic:In that time you’ve done some pretty great things. You balanced the budget, which was in a deficit before you came to office, the city was voted one of the top cities to live in in 2013, and it’s also experienced some new growth. What exactly have you done to carry out these accomplishments, and what has been challenging while trying to accomplish them?

Salem is a great place because it’s a small city, eight square miles, population of 42,000, but it has this terrific history and great bones, as I always say—we’ve got a world class museum in the Peabody Essex. We’ve also got one of the largest state university colleges here, Salem State. And we’ve got the North Shore Medical Center, Salem hospital, one of the premiere cardiac care [centers] in the region, which is saying a lot, given that it’s the greater Boston area. With a city with such great assets, I sort of look at myself as a steward. I want to leave Salem better than I found it. For us, it’s really been strengthening those partnerships, getting out of the way, not letting politics drive the agenda in the community. I try to allow good things to happen, for investment to occur, and to really work in a way that’s collaborative with the chamber of commerce, with the main streets, with our Salem partnerships, and with organizations that help promote and advocate for the community. It’s been successful so far. There’s always more things on the list to do, but it’s been a really exciting job.

The Politic: You mentioned both the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem State University, which you yourself graduated from, is that correct?

Yes, my alma mater.

The Politic: What are some of the things that Salem has done to focus on education? With the Peabody Essex Museum—I went there on school field trips as a kid, it’s a really great place—and Salem State, which is one of the bigger state colleges, how do you think education is important for the future of Salem?

Our public education is the most important thing we can invest in to make sure that we have terrific quality of life in our community going forward. We’re really making strides to recognize that we have a really diverse community, and that means that we need to think about our public education differently. That means more time in the classroom, longer school days, and longer school years. Intervention efforts really help when you have students who come from an array of different backgrounds, economic levels, and languages.

For us, we’re really trying to focus on meeting the educational needs of today’s Salem. The kids in Salem twenty years ago don’t necessarily look like the kids we have in class right now. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a difference. We need to adjust our teaching methods to meet this change. We’re fortunate that we have great partners, like the PEM and Salem State University. The Peabody Essex Museum has only grown over the past decade, and it has only provided more opportunities for students to experience our culture and to embed that culture in core academic areas.

Salem State has really been a leader in developing new teachers; they graduate new students and they have a number of partnerships with our schools. Two are considered laboratory schools, which means they have high doses of students and faculty involved in them, and that’s just an added plus both for us and for the university. So we’re fortunate that we have both of those two partners. I’d also add that we have the natural park service. The Salem Maritime site gives students an opportunity to know their history first hand and to experience the ship at Derby Wharf. We’re lucky in that regard.

The Politic: Salem has a very diverse history. To ask a more general question, what impact can a mayor have that no other elected official can?

That’s a great question. Being chief executive of your hometown gives you the chance to leave your fingerprints in many areas. I always say that the best part of being mayor is that you get the chance to work on issues that matter and make a real impact. Being a legislator has its advantages, but you’re not always getting your hands dirty fixing problems that exist today. As mayor, you have that opportunity every day. In being the CEO of the place where you live every day, you do get to see the community through a different lens. You get to work and solve problems in a way that is direct and often non-political. It doesn’t matter as much if you’re a Democrat or a Republican at the local level; our races are non-partisan, and people evaluate you and hold you accountable every single day. I’m not in Washington or in Boston. I see people every day, and they let us know what they like and what they don’t like. You’ve got to be up for that challenge and humbled by the opportunity it presents.

The Politic: So, this is your ninth year in office, and I’m not sure what your future plans are, but what is your vision for the city in 2020, so six years from now?

My hope is that we’ll continue to be a place that offers a terrific quality of life, that is a city—a small city—but a city that is robust in its offerings, that has wonderful amenities for people who choose to live here, but also for people who choose to visit. For many people, this city is the hub: where they work, where they go out, where they enjoy our culture, festivals, activities. We definitely see ourselves as being a destination for the region, and I hope that will continue and that we’ll continue to see people moving here who want that new urbanism, that quality of life. So you can walk to those activities, or bike, or take advantage of green space. We have great public places, areas open for people to congregate to listen to music, to eat at restaurants, stuff like that. And I hope that will continue in a way that allows Salem to grow, and I hope investments continue in a positive way.

The Politic: That sounds great. I know you’ve done some environmental initiatives like the bike sharing program.

You got it. Yeah, we’re pretty green. We’ve got a coal plant that is now closed and is hopefully being redeveloped into a natural gas plant that will be smaller and cleaner and more efficient. But we’re definitely a community that’s thirsty for those green initiatives, like converting to LED, a number of water conservation efforts, valuing fleet management efforts, things like that that we can do as a city to leave a smaller carbon footprint. There’s a real desire to do that here.

The Politic: That’s something that we very much need at this point in time.

For sure.

The Politic: For those who aren’t living in Salem but just coming to visit, since I know that Salem gets quite a few tourists, particularly around Halloween season given its unique history regarding the Salem Witch Trials, what’s something that you would recommend that people visiting Salem for a couple of hours, maybe just for a day? Maybe both something traditional, and something that people might not know about.

Ostensibly, if people just come here for the day, they realize that there’s so much and wish that they had booked a longer visit. If folks are coming for the day, I always encourage them to take a walking tour or a trolley that gives them the opportunity to experience little bits of Salem’s history, from the maritime history to the House of Seven Gables, to the literary giants that lived here, to the architecture. We have a lot of federalist-style architecture here in many of our neighborhoods, from Derby Wharf to the Cummings House, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace. There’s so much to see and do, but what a walking tour enables you to do, because we’re small enough, is get a flavor of those arenas, of just how special Salem is. I would also recommend taking the opportunity to get into the Peabody Essex Museum or ticketed attractions—we have a number of witch trials and witch museums. There are people who just come and get their cards read. But if you’re just here for a short while a trolley or a walking tour is definitely the best way to get a flavor for all the city has to offer.

The Politic: How important is Salem’s rich history to its present, because as you said, it’s a changing city, the demographic looks a bit different than it did twenty years ago. There’s still a lot of history there, both the maritime part and the literary—Nathaniel Hawthorne was born there. How do you strive to encourage a study of the past while still focusing on present issues?

I think there’s a real conscious effort in Salem to preserve a lot of our historical assets and to make sure that people who move here or visit here are aware of the amazing history that Salem has. The witch trials have really informed modern day Salem. They have added to the fact that we are a community that is receptive and welcoming, and they really make it our job to make sure that human rights and social justice areas are a part of our calling here, given what happened in 1692 with this witch trial history, where victims lost their lives because people ostracized them. For us, we want to make sure that never happens going forward. For the most part, Salem is welcoming and receptive and accepting of all people’s backgrounds, and I think that makes for a more livable city. You’ll find sea captains’ houses around the corner from tenement houses. It’s part of our history, and I think it’s very much representative of how modern day Salem would appear.

The Politic: I know just recently you cut ties with a college over a decision to sign a petition asking for a religious exemption for the non-discrimination act against LGBT employees. So, that’s a pretty great thing to have done.

It’s a pretty great thing that we have a community that backs us up and supports us too. They see it as discriminatory and aren’t just willing to allow it to occur. It’s a nice community we have here.

The Politic: So what’s been one of the most rewarding things for you personally, being mayor, and what’s been one of the most difficult things in your nine years in Salem?

There’s no doubt about the fact that the most difficult part is having to say no to people you know. There are times when you have to make decisions that are not always popular, but they’re purposeful, and that means that there are supporters and friends that you like that you have to say no to. It’s just the job of being mayor, of being a leader; you have to look out for everybody, not just the folks that you know. That can be hard. You like certain people, and a lot of times you have to say no. And I would say that the most rewarding part is feeling like you can make a difference. It’s not a job where you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall every day. You can see a problem, find a solution, and then implement and execute it. It’s really satisfying to know that you can make that kind of a difference in the place where you live, and for those of us who do this job, it’s also the place that we love.

The Politic: And what is your favorite part about Salem, the city specifically?

I love the geography. I love that it’s small scale, and you feel like you know people, like it’s a small town. It’s an internationally known destination that has a world-class museum, great restaurants, and terrific culture. You’re getting that in eight square miles and in a community that’s very welcoming, so you know people that have a certain set of characteristics or interests that you’re interested in—maybe it’s historical preservation, maybe it’s literature, maybe it’s architecture. There are just groups to join, and people of like minds that you can hang out with, all around. So I love the scale that we have: a big city with a big history in a small setting.

The Politic: Great. So I know you’re quite busy, and that this was only a fifteen minute interview, but if you have anything left that you’d like to say, now is a great time to do it.

No, I appreciate what you guys do, shedding light on cities and on the comings and goings of mayors. Most of us, myself included, are pretty humbled that we can do this, that people elect us to do this, and we take it seriously. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take the job seriously, so thanks for shedding light on what goes on.