By Pierce O’Reilly
Many people hope to fulfill their childhood dreams. But the mayor of Somerville, Mass., Galway native Dorothy Kelly Gay, is different. She never dreamed about becoming mayor of one a truly multicultural city, but when the opportunity arose, she had the courage — and the background — to go for it.
Sitting in her prestigious position as mayor of New England’s most densely populated city, Kelly Gay still regards her success as a "fictional fantasy."
Somerville, which is surrounded by Boston, Cambridge, Medford, and Arlington, elected its first homegrown congressman in the fall of 1998. When former Mayor Michael Capuano won in the Eighth Congressional District, Kelly Gay jumped at the opportunity to run for mayor. She won the seat in a special election and then, last November, was reelected to a two-year term.
"I went for it full steam ahead and felt in my heart that the people would come out and back me," said Kelly Gay, 57, who is from Creagh, near Ballinsloe.
Before being elected, Kelly Gay was a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Despite being outspent by her opponent by hundreds of thousands of dollars, her message of progress and compassion resulted in one of the closest races for lieutenant governor in recent history. She failed but learned from her experience.
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"I did alot of things differently for the mayor’s race and they all worked in my favor," she said.
After working to elect the Democratic ticket, Kelly Gay, who has lived in Somerville for more than 30 years, was approached to seek the open mayoral seat,
At 17, Kelly Gay moved to London to study nursing. While there, she met her husband, Bertram Gay. When their second child was born, he needed surgery that was available only at Boston Children’s Hospital and the family moved with him to be at his bedside.
"It really must have being fate because we had no plans to stay in Boston right then," Kelly Gay said.
Kelly Gay and her husband arrived in Somerville in the summer of 1968. Bert, a machinist, immediately found work at a company in Cambridge. She started work at Heritage Hospital in Somerville. While her children were in the city’s public school system, she became a parent activist, while Bert became active in his trade union, the United Auto Workers, Local 2320.
Together they volunteered on many local political campaigns, and actively participated in the civic life of the city. So effective was Kelly Gay’s activism with the schools, she was unanimously appointed to fill a vacancy on the Somerville School Committee in 1986. The voters of Ward 3 overwhelmingly elected her to full terms in 1987, ’89 and ’91.
As a School Committee member, her first move was to set up a scholarship fund, financed by a voluntary check-off on tax forms. She worked tirelessly to make lasting changes to the vocational and special education programs at the high school, and she also instituted an AIDS curriculum and a condom availability program.
"This is a very liberal city and people aren’t afraid to address any issue," she said.
In 1992, Kelly Gay was approached by people who wanted an honest and hardworking voice on the Governor’s Council. Despite being a relative unknown, she campaigned vigorously throughout the Sixth District, comprising 20 cities and towns, and comfortably beat her better-financed and well-known opponents.
She wasted no time in putting her stamp on the Governor’s Council. Her pledge to open up the Council, which previously had conducted much of its business behind closed doors, was highlighted by the hearings she chaired on the nomination of Charles Fried to the state Supreme Judicial Court.
"Having lived in Somerville for over 30 years, I have seen it change in many ways for the better," Kelly Gay said. "One such change has been a real acknowledgement of the diversity that exists within the city. I came to Somerville as thousands before me did, as an immigrant. With waves of new immigrants, and an influx of people of all social strata and backgrounds, combined with families who have called Somerville their home for generations, our neighborhoods are rich with the diversity that many surrounding communities wish they had.
"This really is what makes our community so strong and vibrant, and I would like to see us build on this in the decades to come."
As Somerville moves into the next century, it faces both opportunity and challenge. One of the challenges is the inclusion of the gay and lesbian in municipal affairs. Kelly Gay is strong on a host of gay issues.
The city doesn’t have a gay and lesbian political organization and until Kelly Gay’s arrival there was no gay liaison or presence at City Hall.
"In the past gays and lesbians were pretty much ignored," she said. "That will never happen again."
Dorothy Kelly Gay rode into office on promises of unity and inclusion. So far she has being true to her promise. She also is well aware that the honeymoon period is now also ending.