Who she is: A member of the Cambridge, Mass., City Council who in 2008 became the first African-American lesbian mayor in the U.S.
What she’s accomplished: Becoming the nation’s first African-American lesbian mayor is quite a milestone, even in a liberal college town like Cambridge, home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was also the first black woman mayor in Massachusetts. In Cambridge, the City Council chooses the mayor from among its members; Simmons has been a council member since 2002, and her colleagues selected her to serve as mayor for the 2008-2009 term. “Cambridge is incredibly affirming,” she told Passport Magazine in 2008. “I just have to be careful to remember the whole world isn’t like Cambridge.” The diverse, progressive city has also had a gay male black mayor, Ken Reeves.
During her mayoral term there was an incident that tarnished that image of the city a bit, with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates being arrested while trying to get into his home in Cambridge upon returning from a trip to China in the summer of 2009. He said his front door was stuck and he was trying to pry it open, but a police officer suspected him of a break-in attempt, not realizing the house was Gates’s own. An argument ensued, and Gates was charged with disorderly conduct. As Gates is black and the officer white, the incident had some racial overtones, and there were allegations of racism on the part of the police. Eventually the charge was dropped, and Gates and the officer famously had a “beer summit” with President Obama. Simmons saw the situation as an opportunity for dialogue. “Is there a problem with race issues in the country? Yes,” she told The New York Times. “Is there a problem with it in Massachusetts? Yes, there is. In Cambridge, we are a small part of society, and we’re trying to be proactive. I am looking at this situation as opportunity to have open and candid conversations around our city. How do we make this a place where everyone can feel safe?”
That has continued to be one of Simmons’s priorities, along with openness to her constituents. As mayor she had regular drop-in hours at her office, and she held regular town hall meetings. “It is inexcusable for an elected official to not return phone calls or to be impossible to reach; we are here to serve the public, to help them remove whatever obstacles they’re facing,” Simmons said on her campaign website while running successfully for another term on the council last fall.
Simmons, a lifelong Cambridge resident, has a master’s degree in psychotherapy; she’s never practiced in that field, but she told Passport that the training “absolutely comes in handy” in her role as an officeholder. She has experience as executive director of Cambridge Civic Unity Committee, a citizens’ rights organization, and owner-operator of an insurance agency. Before being elected to the City Council, she spent a decade on the School Committee, Cambridge’s board of education. While she was on the School Committee, she worked on measures designed to improve the academic performance of minority students. Education remains one of her priorities as a City Council member, along with increasing the city’s supply of affordable housing and promoting environmentally friendly jobs.
Simmons, a mother of four who is raising three granddaughters with her wife, Mattie Hayes, says she brings all of her identities into her political work. “By being a member of a diverse number of communities, I am them and they are me,” she told Passport. “I am serving as a woman, as a lesbian, as a parent, as a business woman. I remember being a young mother applying for housing, and watching the owner walk by me when he realized who I was. I’ve been through all that, and I know what it was like.”
For more information: Read the Passport article here and find a bio on Simmons’s campaign website here.
Choice quote: “People coming into my office come for housing or some other issue. They don’t care if I have polka dots and a pointed head, they care about services.” – Simmons to Passport in 2008