Mary Clare Higgins
Mary Clare Higgins
Elected City Councilor at large 1993
Re-elected 1995, 1997
Elected City Council Pres by council in 1997
Elected Mayor 1999
Re-elected 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007
Northampton has had a reputation of being a liberal mecca due in part to the five colleges in the area and, since the early 1990s, being an especially gay friendly city.
Interview with Mary Clare Higgins for Out and Elected in the USA
Q: Tell me about Northampton.
A: It’s a great city! There’s about 29,000 folks, Smith College is here, so it’s a college town, actually five colleges in the area. But it’s more than a college town. It’s a really great town that’s filled with a really amazing cross-section of folks. There’s lots of artists, lots of craftspeople, there is a strong base of people who’ve been born and raised here and are really committed to the community – generations who’ve lived here – worked in various factories and other industries in town, so there’s a real mix of folks here. It’s got a beautiful downtown, which is certainly gone through some revitalization, gentrification, over the last decade and a half or so. Which has actually put pressures on the town in terms of housing affordability and those kind of issues that it can bring. So, we’re working to broaden the tax base, bring in jobs to town that are well-paying jobs, we’re working to provide housing opportunities to people and struggling with a very tight budget that doesn’t allow us to do as much as maybe we’d like to do.
Q: How did you get involved with all this?
A: I actually was a child care teacher and administrator for many years. I worked in child care starting in 1974 initially in New York City, which is where I spent my adolescent years and then when I moved here when I was 21 or 22 I worked I child care. And I got very involved in politics through my work in child care – lobbying for child care dollars, lobbying for child care workers – I was a union organizer organizing day care workers, then I worked with adolescent parents and their kids – ran a day care center for parents and babies of adolescents and got involved in housing advocacy at that point because the housing issue is so critical, and that led to an appointment on the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners by the mayor then. And from there I continued to be active and we had a city council that wasn’t very open on the housing issues, among other things, and decided that I should probably stop complaining and just do something about it.
I chose to run, and I ran. It was an interesting race. I ran in a field of, initially five, that was winnowed down to four, and the top two vote-getters are the ones that came in. I was not the top, but was the second, so, that was great. That was enough. Then I continued my activity. I got very involved in all kinds of aspects of city government. I continued my interest in housing and also got involved in city government issues.
Q: You still work with and speak a lot to student groups, kids – are there any general themes in your role-model capacity as an elected official that you like to get across?
A: Well, you know, it’s interesting I guess. I would say that my sexuality per se doesn’t come up and I think that’s probably appropriate. I think the concerns I’ve had with kids really have been around – and I’ve spent time visiting class rooms with small kids – for them to understand what the role of government is in their life. It’s pretty funny to talk to a group of kindergarteners and ask them what they think the Mayor does and then have a conversation about “What does the Mayor do?” I think the best description that a five year old gave me was that I’m kind of like the Principal of the whole city. And I think that that’s probably about right.
But I think I’ve really been pushing with kids the idea that there’s a whole community of people out here to help them and that they are not alone. They can ask for help. And that’s all kids. You know, there’s this way that we stress “rugged individualism” of the United States were the kids and grown-ups don’t necessarily know how to ask people for help in any circumstance. The sum of my little speech that I gave to the high school students at graduation the other day was don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and to ask somebody for help. And to realize that, as Mick Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want – but you may very well get what you need. That’s the focus, I would say. Northampton is a city that is struggling economically; we have a budget that is squeezed pretty tightly. We’re doing more with less all the time, so I have to do some of that too. I have to ask for help. I have to ask for state government’s help or local citizens, or whoever it is to help the city out.
Q: As a City Councilor, did you also need to have an outside job?
A: Yes, I was concurrently a director of a child care center, and then I was the director of a child care program that served over two hundred kids throughout the county. And then when I chose to run for Mayor, that’s when I had to leave that work. I had worked for that agency on and off since 1978.
Q: Any surprises in this new job?
A: I think the thing that is most surprising is the absolute lack of anonymity that you end up having after a couple of months in office. I was known, I think, around town, but the visibility has ratcheted up. So, If I’m at the grocery store or if I’m walking down the street, you know… It’s been interesting. It’s been alright. But it is striking.
Q: Any other reflections you want to share?
A: You know, I was thinking about that first election and the fact that I was neither in nor out. I was just who I was and I think the newspaper didn’t quite know what to do with that. They knew I was a lesbian, but they didn’t quite know how to get that into any story because it was not within the context of anything. I don’t think it was a secrete in the community – I’m not sure actually who knew. But its not really that huge an issue. I think its an issue for some folks, but, you know, I won my mayor election with over 65 percent of the vote. I think 57 percent of the people voted. I had the largest plurality in the election for a mayor in quite some time. It helped that I ran against a guy who was… had some credibility problems. It had something to do with the opponent, but I think I had build a reservoir of trust that was helpful. And I think that there’s a sense in people’s lives that they know this lesbian and she’s not so scary after all. I think that’s been important for people.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at firstname.lastname@example.org.