, Salem, MA

November 7, 2013

New councilors for a new Salem

3 first-time candidates, all women, knocked off 3 incumbents


---- — SALEM — Tuesday’s City Council election was a shocker.

Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy, running an emotionally charged campaign against a neighbor and former council colleague, not only survived but romped.

Council President Jerry Ryan, who appeared to be on the rise politically, finished out of the running in the at-large race — pending a possible recount.

But the story of this election is the tale of three women: Beth Gerard, Elaine Milo and Heather Famico.

Gerard, 38, the recording clerk for the Planning Board, knocked off Paul Prevey, who has held the Ward 6 seat since 2006.

Milo, 57, an administrator at Salem State University, not only won an at-large seat but topped the ticket in her first run for office.

And Famico, a 27-year-old teacher, captured 56 percent of the vote to roll over veteran Ward 2 Councilor Mike Sosnowski, often rumored as a mayoral hopeful.

They ran from different corners of the city but with similar messages: change, positive change, common sense and collaboration.

Although rumored to have been recruited by Mayor Kim Driscoll, all deny it.

“It came from the gut,” Milo said of her motivation for running.

“I told Kim right before I was going to pull papers,” Famico said. “She had no idea.”

These were campaigns born of frustration, maybe even exasperation, at what they perceived to be dysfunction and disagreement on the current council.

Milo recalled sitting in front of her TV set last winter watching a bitterly deadlocked City Council take more than 300 ballots to fill a vacancy. It was a circus.

“I was talking to the TV,” she said.

Judging from the vote, she was not alone.

“A lot of people were saying it was time for a change,” Gerard said. “We have to come up with solutions together. We can’t fight each other. Whenever you fight with anybody in your life, you’re angry and neither of you can see each other’s side. You’re just focused on your anger.”

These women worked hard, really hard. They walked days, nights and weekends. They knocked on doors, even though they may not have been natural-born campaigners.

“My husband literally had his hand on my back pushing me out the door,” Gerard said.

But meeting voters face-to-face made the difference.

“For me personally, (the election) was a real validation of what I heard at the doors — this whole change theme and positive energy and positive change on the City Council,” Gerard said. “Everything that I heard through the summer came out in that vote.”

Famico used the soles of her feet, but also social media. “I attacked from all angles,” she said.

She announced her candidacy on Twitter and Facebook because that’s how a new generation communicates. In fact, she saw herself as part of the vanguard for a new and under-represented generation.

“I noticed a lot of people using Twitter to get their news during the Boston Marathon bombing,” she said. “I found out more from Twitter than from Boston news stations.”

Famico used Facebook to post meeting agendas and photos and to comment on issues. Last week, she put a promotional video on Facebook that was seen by 4,446 people.

Milo used political cyber-science. More specifically, she used a software program called “Vote Builder” and worked on it in the early-morning hours before heading to work. It allowed her to identify the people who actually vote and to target those houses.

“You can slice and dice the Salem electorate any way you want,” she said.

Tuesday’s election put women, another under-represented group, back on the all-male City Council.

These three women not only are city councilors, but new councilors for a new Salem. Just like the downtown of sprouting museums, restaurants and residential buildings, the demographics are changing, and the election likely reflected that.

“Things are changing,” Gerard said. “People are changing. I’ve met a lot of fantastic families that just moved to Salem, and they’re so excited to be in Salem.”

“One night (at a campaign event), I asked people in the room, ‘Who was not born in Salem?’” Famico said. “With the exception of three or four people, everyone was new to the city.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at