WHMP forum brings together five Northampton mayors, past and present

Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — In the early 1980s, some participants in Northampton’s first pride march wore paper bags over their heads. Today, a rainbow crosswalk straddles Main Street downtown, proof to many of the city’s progressive bent. In a morning of collective reflection Wednesday, the city’s current and former leaders traced this path through their vantage points in City Hall over the years.

All five living Northampton mayors gathered in the Senior Center for a rollicking and wide-ranging conversation broadcast live by radio station WHMP, that spanned nearly four decades of the city’s history. It was a very Northampton affair: talk of affordable housing, tax overrides, Village Hill development, gender equality. And a joke about a rainbow gavel.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz was joined by his four living predecessors: Mary Clare Higgins, Mary Ford, David B. Musante Jr. and Harry S. Chapman Jr.. Former mayors David Cramer and Sean Dunphy died earlier this year.

Bob Flaherty and Bill Newman of WHMP, and Stanley W. Moulton, an editor at the Gazette, hosted the broadcast, probing the city leaders on everything from the city’s relationship with Smith College to their post-mayoral experiences.

Political opposition

Wednesday’s discussion was cordial and jovial, but city issues often spur heated disagreements. Mayors touched on the importance of political debate, recalling various contentious issues that arose during their tenures and certain Northampton residents who gave them a hard time.

“I think we have a population in this city, old and new, that wants their local government to succeed,” Ford said. Part of that means listening to those who disagree, she said, noting that it’s crucial for city officials to hear from “curmudgeons” and take their views into account.

“I’m a firm supporter of public debate,” Ford said. “It keeps you honest.”

A changed city

“Northampton has not always been this progressive mecca,” Newman said, recalling bitterness over a domestic partnership ordinance that was defeated by 97 votes on a ballot question in 1995. “It has not all been one long kumbaya moment.” He referred to the so-called “Noho versus Hamp” divide, often used to distinguish between the city’s newcomers and natives, as well as progressive and conservative strands.

But Higgins said in some ways it was that ordinance’s failure, along with failed attempts elsewhere in the state to codify same-sex unions, that led Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage. Though the ordinance failed in Northampton, Higgins noted that she was out as a lesbian and still one of the top vote-getters on the same ballot. The sentiment she took away at the time was: “Institutionally we aren’t going to recognize gay and lesbian people, but they’re OK.”

Back in the early 1980s, Northampton was a far cry from the progressive city it is known to be today, Musante said. He recalled debate surrounding the city’s first pride parade. Some participants wore brown paper bags to hide their faces, out of fear they would lose their jobs, Newman said.

Asked whether she was simply tolerated as a lesbian mayor or fully accepted, Higgins said that tolerance plants the seeds for acceptance and celebration.

“There’s really no gay or lesbian approach to the business of governance,” Higgins said, joking that she considered lavender parking meters.

Northampton for all

The discussion also touched on gender, exploring shifts Northampton has seen since Ford was elected as the city’s first female mayor in 1991. “There were definitely people in the community and inside city departments who were not ready for it,” she said of her experience as chief executive.

Fast forward to the news that Narkewicz would be succeeding Higgins — ending 20 years when the two women held the office — when a young girl asked her father if a man could actually be the mayor.

Indeed, so inspired by the work of his female colleagues, Musante said were he to run for office today he would consider a sex change — prompting Higgins to call dibs on producing the documentary.

Higgins noted that she and Ford handed diplomas to 20 graduating high school classes, calling that a significant feat that likely sent a strong message to young women.

Development, economic challenges

Each of the city’s recent leaders has addressed development in different ways, from building the industrial park to introducing residential and commercial properties on Village Hill.

Northampton has long struggled to address homelessness and create affordable housing, Higgins said, noting that it remains a critical issue.

Several mayors discussed their decisions to request Proposition 2½ tax overrides, a proposal that permits the city to raise taxes beyond the state limit and which always sparks controversy.

Another approach to finding revenue is the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes or PILOT program that Narkewicz has introduced, which will ask 10 of Northampton’s largest nonprofit, tax-exempt property owners to contribute voluntary payments to the city. It’s an idea many of his predecessors had considered, with Ford noting that “since you have to choose your battles” she instead decided to pursue individual negotiations with area nonprofits.

Musante commended the PILOT plan, highlighting Smith College’s devotion to the city, calling the town-gown relationship in Northampton one of the best he has seen.

Community outreach

The city’s leaders agreed that keeping citizens abreast of City Hall’s work and hearing from constituents are among the most important duties of a mayor, though they opted for different strategies.

Narkewicz has embraced Facebook and Twitter, even sharing a photo of the panel with his followers while the broadcast was live.

“What social media allows mayors to do, and other public officials to do, is to really communicate in real time, to talk about what you’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis,” he said.

For Musante, staying connected to Northampton residents meant taking an hour-long walk through the city every morning on his way to work — now commemorated as the “Musante Mile.”

Peter Jones, 74, of Florence, who has lived in the area for about five decades, was sitting in the second row with Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge. He said the forum provided a comprehensive look at how the city has changed over the years, noting that to him it all feels fresh.

“I have a hard time adjusting to the fact that when these people’s names come up, we’re talking about history, because to me it’s still news,” he said.

A full recording of the conversation is available online at http://whmp.com/podcasts/northampton-mayors-summit/.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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