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Trickle-down effect in Somerville

State budget cuts cost mayor at polls

SOMERVILLE -- Silver haired and 60, Dorothy Kelly Gaywas nearly invisible on July 1, when she crouched before a crowd of bulging police and firefighters and stared into television cameras she had beckoned to City Hall.

Then she spoke. In thundering remarks, her speech still accented from a childhood in Ireland, Kelly Gay demanded that the state Legislature veto $57 million in local aid cuts. Two weeks later, the funds were restored.

Kelly Gay thrived on the statewide stage, aides said, pushing a Democratic agenda and becoming a high-profile spokeswoman for the needs of cities and towns.

But it was quintessentially local matters that undid the two-term incumbent, who placed third in a preliminary election dominated by voters' concerns over dirty streets, gang violence, and urban development.

Somerville lost $5 million in state aid over the last year, a 25 percent reduction that led to 200 layoffs in City Hall and in the fire and police departments. Voters were unforgiving.

"People get used to a certain level of service and it's tough to take it away from them," said US Representative Michael E. Capuano a lifelong resident and Kelly Gay's predecessor. "We all knew she was in trouble."

Up until Tuesday's election, however, Kelly Gay's staff was confidently predicting victory. Her supporters seemed shocked by the results. Local voters, however, said they had expected an unceremonial ouster.

After receiving 64 percent of the vote in 2001, the mayor won only two of seven wards this week. One opponent, Joseph A. Curtatone, had served as alderman at large for eight years. But another competitor who edged her out, Tony Lafuente, had never run for public office.

"We wanted her out," said Frances Travassos, 47. "I didn't care if it was Joe or Tony, as long as it wasn't her."

Jenny Mobilia, 83, said friends have cautioned their grandchildren not to visit, fearful they will ask to play in Foss Park, a sprawling state park near East Somerville, where last year two deaf girls were raped. The attacks set off unease and fear in the neighborhood, which was already on edge over gang-related assaults and graffiti.

Mobilia voted for Lafuente, though she could not pronounce his name.

"I felt we should have a change," she said. "The taxes are out of sight. We struggle to keep our homes."

In interviews on Highland Avenue, near City Hall, and at Foss Park, residents shared an extensive list of complaints, most related to a perceived decline in living standards. Somerville, a densely populated blue-collar city bordering the Mystic River, underwent a kind of renaissance during the 1990s, as areas like Davis Square attracted cafes and eateries for young professionals, who streamed into the city after Cambridge abolished rent control.

But suddenly, when state aid declined, city services did, too. And residents who thought they were living in the new Cambridge grew angry over dirty streets and schools in disrepair. In addition, they were hit with new fees in a number of areas, including parking violations. The city launched an aggressive effort to raise revenues, doing everything from asking nonprofit organizations to make payments to the city in lieu of taxes to increasing the towing of cars on street cleaning days, and hitting the car owners with $95 fees.

Those interviewed yesterday said the problems were only growing, and most blamed Kelly Gay.

"Capuano went through tough times, but he was able to keep it together," said Courtney Wayshak, 40. He was watching a soccer practice with Sarah McClellan, 43, who also cast a vote against the mayor.

"The school layoffs were big, and Assembly Square is a big problem," she said.

She added: "The city looks like a mess. The water fountains are not working, there's graffiti everywhere, and the grass is growing over the sides of benches."

Many voters complained of their real estate bills, and grumbled about Assembly Square, a largely abandoned site on the Mystic River that residents hoped would generate enormous tax revenue for the cash-starved city. Developers proposed bringing a huge IKEA furniture store and a Home Depot to the site, but the project has been tied up in lawsuits, and residents blamed the mayor for failing to resolve the conflict.

Other incumbents fared poorly in preliminary elections held in the midst of the state's budget crisis. Sitting mayors in Fitchburg, Beverly, and Waltham were also recently unseated.

But Kelly Gay was perhaps the most prominent local official to be removed. A former candidate for lieutenant governor, Kelly Gay served on the Governor's Council, stumped for gubernatorial candidate Shannon P. O'Brien last year, and frequently advised local leaders throughout the state.

Last week, she received a standing ovation before hundreds at a Democratic State Committee meeting.

"She is an iconic figure within the Democratic Party," said Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. "I'm very distressed by her defeat."

On Tuesday, Kelly Gay blamed her defeat on the state aid cuts, saying voters did not recognize the city's fiscal strain. Sean Fitzgerald, who served five years as an advisor to Kelly Gay, agreed.

"She, like other mayors, was dealt a bad hand with the budget crisis," he said.

Independent observers were also quick to her defense, offering sympathy for any executive forced to undertake spending reductions.

Jeffrey Berry , a political science professor at Tufts University, said Kelly Gay's troubles were not unique. "A lot of mayors across Massachusetts and across the country are facing this problem," he said.

"Voters have limited choices. They're not at the State House talking to the governor, so the mayor is the one who sits at the desk with the sign that says the buck stops here."

Kelly Gay spent yesterday isolated in her office, declining to give interviews. Today, she plans to go to Ireland on a hastily scheduled trip.

However, Tuesday night, as she gathered with hundreds of somber supporters, she said her career in politics was not over.

"You never say never," she said.

Benjamin Gedan can be reached at gedan@globe.com.

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