Former Mayor Brune publishes memoir
By Elizabeth Sheeran
Former Mayor Gene Brune was born on the corner of Cedar Street and Highland Avenue in 1929 and has lived his entire life in Somerville. He had a long career in structural engineering, served six years as Ward Six alderman and was elected mayor in 1979, all while raising two daughters as a single parent. Leaving city hall after five terms in 1990, he served as Middlesex County Register of Deeds until his retirement earlier this year.
His decade-long tenure as mayor saw the arrival of the Red Line in Davis Square, the opening of the first Assembly Square Mall, the launch of events like ArtBeat, and the construction of the new gym and trade school wing at the high school. But he also found himself presiding over the worst chemical spill in state history and the fiscal crisis that was the fall-out from Proposition 2 1/2 and a doubling of city health insurance costs.
He oversaw reforms in city management, and successfully pushed legislation to end the election of assessors, believing the elected Board of Assessors to be prone to political cronyism. But his political career had its own brushes with corruption. As alderman, he was exonerated in a pinball machine scandal involving the Winter Hill gang, and as mayor he was cleared in an FBI investigation into bribes paid to the Assembly Square developers.
Now he’s written and published a memoir, The Spirit of Somerville, that will be available online, by mail order and at a limited number of bookstores. But readers can stop in and get a personally autographed copy at one of Brune’s upcoming book signings: at the Armory on September 4, at Mount Vernon Restaurant on September 10, or at the Ball Square Book Shop on September 18, all from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Gene sat down recently at The Somerville News office to talk about the book, and about his time as mayor.
How did you decide become an author?
I never dreamed of writing a book. The person who really pushed me was Susan Callahan, my second assistant at the Registry of Deeds. She kept telling me to just sit down some time and just start writing, because I had lots of stories. Finally she wore me out and I did. And I found out that she was right, that I did have lots of stories to tell. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, some were sad, some were happy. I sat at my computer and it came so easy. All I did was sit at my computer and type away.
You wrote it all yourself?
I had four people edit it, but I gave them all the same instructions: If you’re going to read my book, and you want to edit it, you cannot change my voice. That book is written by me, every word of it, and every word is going to stay that way. It’s in my voice. I have never attempted to be something that I’m not, and I want people to know that this book is written by me and not a ghost writer.
So is this more of a personal memoir or a political memoir?
I would say it’s one part personal and two parts political. It comes from the heart. It explains a lot of things about my family life that people will be surprised to hear, things that happened when I was aldermen, things that happened when I was mayor. The old-timers in the city will remember all those things. The newbies will say, “Oh my God, I never knew that even happened in Somerville.”
Why did you call it The Spirit of Somerville?
During the FBI investigation into Assembly Square, people were down. They were tired of hearing Somerville getting dragged through the mud. That kind of PR is not good for business. So I sat down with business leaders and the president of Tufts and said let’s do something to celebrate the true spirit of Somerville. We had a big event with maybe 900 people at Caruso’s Diplomat on Route One. We called it the Spirit of Somerville. Tufts made a film about the true spirit of Somerville, all the positive things. And that’s what I’m talking about in the book.
You’re known as one of the first Reform mayors. What does that mean to you?
Growing up in Somerville, everybody always thought there was some sort of corruption or mishandling going on. In 1969, there was even a Boston Globe Spotlight on the level of corruption in Somerville. People in Somerville were fed up with politics as usual. I campaigned on the premise that I would change the image of the city and the face of the city, and that’s what I attempted to do during the 10 years I was mayor.
How did you do that?
I cleaned up all the parks and playgrounds. I planted 5,000 trees. I got rid of a lot of the billboards. I brought in voting machines because there was corruption in the voting. I brought in a professional purchasing agent and personnel director. I brought in the computer system, the Commission for the handicapped, for women’s rights, for fair housing. I did over the high school. I brought the Red Line into Davis Square. I brought all the artists into the city, because I thought having the artists in the city would give it a different kind of tone.
And I got rid of five elected officials who were the Board of Assessors, which was major. I needed to have professional, appointed assessors. It was a war that nobody wanted to take on, for years. And I took it on and I won. Some people called me a dictator. I almost lost that battle. And I explain how I won it in the book.
But in hindsight, are there things you would have done differently?
I don’t know. I think that all the things we had on my list, most of them we accomplished. Some of the things I didn’t get to are things Joe Curtatone still wants to do, like getting more parking in Davis Square and Union Square. And I wanted to put an inn in Davis Square. But I don’t really have too many regrets of what I did in that 10 years as mayor.
I loved being mayor, even on the bad days. When I was mayor only 13 weeks, I had to evacuate 14,000 people because of the chemical spill. And I had to close a lot of schools. The 1980s were extremely bad years financially. But I asked the people to bear with me. And they did.
What about the investigations? Does it bother you that corruption still touched your political legacy?
When the FBI told me I was under investigation (related to bribes paid to Assembly Square developers), I said, “I have no qualms about that, because I know what you’re going to find out at the end.” And they came back at the end and said to me, “You were right. We wouldn’t be here if it was just you.”
But I have no way of knowing if a certain alderman who’s elected by the people in their ward is going to be corrupt until they get into office and do something like that. Of course, there’s always corruption someplace. But it depends where it stems from, and it never stemmed from my administration. I got 10 years as mayor, and people are not stupid.
So why should people read your book?
I want them to know that Gene Brune is tired of reading books about the bad guys, about the hit men, and crime and “Slummerville” and all of the things that are really not true. And that there are lots of good things that happen in this city. We have all the things that you would want in a city, and maybe if they read my book they’ll see some of that. If they had a poor image of the city maybe they’ll think differently, and that it’s not all just the Winter Hill gang.