BOSTON – His father is a well-known Holocaust survivor and his mother came out as gay before he started grade school, so Mike Ross knows how personal narratives can help shape politics.
Since his first election in 1999, Ross has brought his own narrative to Boston’s city council. The former youth soccer coach’s district includes some of the city’s most historic neighborhoods, such as Fenway, Beacon Hill and Back Bay – site of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15.
The district also includes what Ross calls “underserved” neighborhoods, places more likely to make the news for gun violence than tourism. College students, Boston Brahmins and new immigrants are just three of the councilor’s major constituencies in District 8, one of the city’s most diverse.
Having recently served two terms as the city’s council’s president, Ross is stepping up his game and campaigning to replace popular Boston mayor Thomas Menino, who served for two decades and declined to run again.
Before the Nov. 5 mayoral election, Ross — a Democrat — must compete with at least one-dozen candidates in a preliminary election set for Sept. 24. Half the city council and a bevy of Massachusetts politicians are on the ballot with Ross, so the journey won’t be smooth.
During a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Councilor Ross spoke about his vision for Boston and how he connects with Judaism and Israel.
“I am a first generation American who values the American dream,” said Ross, who at 41 hopes to be elected Boston’s first Jewish mayor. “I believe in our unlimited potential. For thirteen years I’ve served neighborhoods that have transformed themselves. I want to bring this experience to the rest of the city.”
Ross began his city council tenure by joining the fight to keep beloved Fenway Park – American’s oldest baseball stadium – from relocating outside the city. Not only did the ballpark stay, but Ross helped the Fenway neighborhood transform itself from parking garages and vacancies to an envied trove of new restaurants, apartment buildings and retail space.
Transforming neighborhoods is delicate business, and the Boston Globe credits Ross with deftly negotiating thorny deals between developers and community activists: The Mission Hill part of his district – where Ross lives – saw him work more closely with the PTA than real estate developers to save physical education for students and open schools in underserved areas.
“My vision for Boston is a city where children grow up knowing they will go to a good school here, and eventually live and work here,” Ross said. “My father is a Holocaust survivor who taught me we all have a duty to create a more just and equal world.”
Ross’ father, Stephan Ross, spent five years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After immigrating to the US, Ross became one of Boston’s most active Holocaust survivors and founded the New England Holocaust Memorial in 1995.
From his mother Susan, Ross said he learned “to not judge people by how they look or who they love.”
Having come out as a lesbian when he and his sister were children, Ross’ mother has been in a committed relationship for 35 years.
Ross credits his parents and a vibrant Jewish community for instilling a love of Judaism and Israel in him as a child.
“Before I learned to ride a bike, I was told I need to plant a tree in Israel,” Ross said. “The Judaism I received is about needing to be on the front lines erasing bigotry.”
‘The Judaism I received is about needing to be on the front lines erasing bigotry’
Since first visiting Israel at age 17 with his synagogue youth group, Ross has returned four times. Subsequent trips included touring Boston-Haifa Connection sites and representing young Diaspora leaders at an international conference.
“I love Israel and I identify with Israel,” Ross said.
Closer to home, Ross has participated in area synagogues of all denominations since childhood. As an adult he has been known to temple-shop with his father, whose relationship with religion is “complex,” Ross said.
Jewish leaders who’ve worked with Ross on communal and non-Jewish issues are quick to sing his praises, including his commitment to seniors and vulnerable citizens.
“Mike Ross is an authentic leader who will bring a sense of youth and energy to the job,” said Alan Ronkin, who worked with Ross as former deputy director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
“I watched Mike take care of the Holocaust survivor community and saw the devotion to his own family,” Ronkin said. “Mike is not someone who will show up only when it is good for him; he will be there when it’s important for the community.”
Ronkin is particularly excited about the alignment of Ross’s sense of innovation and high-tech savvy with the “start-up nation” of Israel. Partnerships between Boston-area and Israeli businesses already yield more than $2 billion in revenue for Massachusetts each year. Ross can help elevate trade and best practice-sharing in healthcare, security and immigrant absorption.
From allowing the public to pay parking tickets online to announcing his mayoral candidacy on Twitter, Ross uses technology to engage citizens. He holds an MBA from Boston University and a Law Degree from Suffolk University, but Ross is probably a computer geek at heart, having volunteered to help create the city’s first website in his early 20s.
That first taste of life at City Hall led Ross to join Mayor Menino’s advance team for two years, earning what Ross called a “Ph.D. in politics.” He polished this experience in recent years as city council president, passing two budgets during economic downtimes without hurting core services.
An early champion of authorizing “food trucks,” Ross has travelled throughout the US to explore opportunities for Boston to foster growth. He helped forge a partnership with neighboring Cambridge to retain talent and business in the region, pushing back against the so-called “brain drain.”
‘I had to ask myself how I could help rebuild and add value’
Ross has a strong record of enabling community activists to effect change, said Erica Mattison, a sustainability expert who worked with Ross through the Fenway Civic Association.
“Mike’s commitment to justice, innovative problem solving, and transparency help him serve as an effective leader,” Mattison said. “I have worked with him on a number of initiatives such as park improvements and community beautification. He is not afraid of change and is eager to work with residents to achieve progress.”
Ross’s solid relationships with community leaders and businesses were evident during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in April. Occurring in the heart of his district, the attack challenged Ross to leverage resources as quickly as possible for distraught citizens.
“I had to ask myself how I could help rebuild and add value,” Ross said of his initial reaction. “At first I was helping people get into or out of the attack area, recover their cars, and things like that. Then I worked with interfaith leaders to help people get what they needed spiritually. Now we’re working with businesses and community leaders to come back stronger than ever.”
On May 25, Ross joined 3,000 other runners to complete the symbolic last mile of the Boston Marathon. The “OneRun” event honored bombing victims and emergency workers, and Ross crossed the iconic finish line hoisting an American flag.
Since the April 15 bombing, more than 30 gun attacks have taken place in Boston, Ross pointed out. Street violence and economic recovery top voter concerns in a city where non-white minorities comprise 53 percent of the population, but hold just 30 percent of jobs.
Ross maintains a light touch with constituents, attending charity events of all sizes almost every day of the week. Through local media, he regularly invites residents to join him at gatherings like Boston’s annual Pride Parade on June 8.
Fanfare aside, Ross said he is most gratified by the support of Holocaust survivors in Boston and around the US, some of whom watched him grow up. They voice their support in hand-written notes and personal checks of $18 or $36, numbers with a connection to the Hebrew word for “life,” reminding Ross where he came from and of his vision for the future.