Local Government and Politics, News

McGee reflects on his term in the corner office

This article was published 1 year(s) and 9 month(s) ago.

Lynn Mayor Thomas M. McGee reflects on his 28 years of public service as he prepares to retire at the end of the year. (Spenser Hasak)

LYNN ― When Mayor Thomas M. McGee leaves City Hall at the end of the year, making way for the new administration, he will be taking with him not only decades of his public-service legacy, but dozens of memorabilia that currently cover the walls, shelves, tables and pretty much any wooden surface in his corner office.

Many of these pieces remind him of great Democrats of the past, his fellow Massachusetts legislators, work trips to Washington and his own election wins. But, perhaps, one of the most treasured pieces is a medium-sized drawing of his father in a blue suit, with a cigar in hand, which hangs to the right of McGee’s desk next to the American flag. In the right bottom corner of the drawing there is a quote that reads: “If you can say at the end of the day, that you’ve been able to help at least one person… you’ve done a good job… you’ve had a good day…”

It’s apparent that McGee inherited his knack for public service from his family. His grandmother, Mary McGee, was involved in the union movement ever since she started working at a shoemaking factory in Lynn as a teenager. She participated in the first annual United Shoe Workers convention in St. Louis, Mo. and worked in the Roosevelt administration.

McGee’s father, Thomas W. McGee, was a Lynn city councilor in his early 30s; was elected a state representative of the 11th Essex District in 1962, when his son Tom was about 7 years old; and eventually became the speaker of the Massachusetts House, a position he held for more than nine years.

Thomas M. McGee was the eldest of four siblings. He observed and absorbed the whirlwind of activities that were always going on in his father’s political life.

“In many ways he was my inspiration, and it was always about people where he was; it was always about helping people and trying to make a difference in the community,” the mayor said, adding that his mother had a similar influence on him.

As a child, McGee was interested in history and politics. He said that growing up in the 1960s and seeing on television the things happening with the U.S. government, such as the space program and the commitment to get to the moon in 1969, he got a sense of what was possible.

In 1976, at 20 years old, McGee ran for the Democratic committee in the state district and won. That same year, he went to the Democratic National Convention as a page and was inspired by seeing the leaders of the time like Jimmy Carter, Thomas P. O’Neill, Hubert Humphrey, Michael Dukakis, and Edward Kennedy.

In 1982, McGee graduated from the University ofMassachusetts – Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in political science. After graduating from the New England School of Law in 1987, he worked as an assistant district attorney in Essex County as implementation coordinator in the Trial Court Fiscal Affairs Department of the Office of the Chief Administrative Justice in Boston, and as general council at Quinn and Morris Law Firm before running for a seat in the House in 1994.

McGee said that policymaking at the state level has appealed to him ever since he visited the State House with his father. He was interested in impacting the city of Lynn in a positive way, working on policies that could impact and improve quality of life for everyone in the commonwealth.

McGee was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1994, and became a senator in 2002.

He said he couldn’t have had a successful career in public service without the unwavering support of his wife, Maria. They met in 1988 at a Democratic caucus for election to the Convention, and the two dated while he ran his father’s campaign in 1990, so she knew how intense politics and public service was, McGee said. They were married for six months when McGee made the decision to run for state representative and Maria knocked on doors with her sisters for him. Their twins, Kathrine and Tom, were born in 1998.

“We always tried to do it together,” said McGee. “She’s been an amazing partner.”

McGee went on to work in the Massachusetts Legislature for 23 years. Among the high-profile issues he worked on, McGee is most proud of his positions on death penalty and gay marriage, respectively.

“My first speech in the legislature was in opposition to the death penalty,” McGee said. “I strongly believe that it’s not the appropriate way we should address those kinds of crimes. It is the right thing for Massachusetts to continue to be a state without the death penalty.”

In the case of gay marriage, it was the first attempt in Massachusetts history to change the constitution, McGee said, and he felt strongly about making sure everyone in the state had equal rights, including the right to marry.

Some legislators become experts in specific issues. McGee said it was important for him to work on a broad range of issues to try and make a difference in people’s lives.

“I think that’s what the role of a legislator is,” said McGee.

Under McGee’s leadership as chair, the Children’s Caucus became the Committee on Children and Families. During his career in the State House, he took on issues such as teen parenting, sponsoring and working on legislation and budget proposals that gave teen parents the support necessary to be able to go to school and provide for their children, as well as working toward the establishment of after-school and out-of-school programs for all children.

McGee also chaired the Criminal Justice Committee, working on reforming sentencing guidelines, and the Transportation Committee, where he realized the importance of transportation not only for the districts he represented, but for the commonwealth as a whole, how important it was to make the right investments into all modes of transportation across the board.

“It really is the key piece for economic development and opportunity,” McGee said, explaining that it is impossible to make investments in places that people cannot travel to. “The private sector won’t make the investments to create the jobs. Everybody expects the right kind of transportation opportunities.”

For many years McGee focused on expanding rapid-transit options to the city of Lynn. Although the extension of the Blue Line has not materialized, McGee was able to bring Lynn a two-year, water-transportation pilot financed by the Deval Patrick administration. More than $7 million was invested into the infrastructure needed to get a ferry operation running.

“We worked hard and hopefully we’ll see it happen again,” said McGee.

He believes that water transportation is a key connecting point to and from the region, to the Harbor Islands, downtown Boston, East Boston, Quincy, and to other parts of the South Shore.

“The Blue Line was always the focal point, but there were other options that I think are now at the doorstep,” said McGee.

He is referring to the regional rail electrification that was strongly recommended by the Fiscal Management Control Board. McGee believes that he and other North Shore legislators have worked hard over the years to identify the needs of the region, which puts Lynn on the forefront of this opportunity.

“And that would mean a 20-minute ride to North Station on state-of-the-art, 21st-century equipment,” said McGee. “It would be an electrified, subway-style car that would be able to bring people in and out of Lynn more frequently and connect to Revere, Everett and into Boston.”

McGee said that State Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) and the state delegation continue to push for this transportation opportunity as does the city, and that the Lynn train station is currently being redesigned to fit this vision. Lynn could be connected to the Silver Line in Chelsea and the Orange Line in Everett. McGee is hoping that with federal dollars from the infrastructure bill coming in, Lynn could become a multimodal transportation center for the region in the next five to 10 years, with easy access to Logan Airport, water transportation, direct bus access and the regional, electrified Commuter Rail.

In 2017, McGee decided to leave the State House and announced his bid for the office of mayor of Lynn.

“The city had substantial challenges,” said McGee. “I believed that I could bring some of the experience and hard work and dedication that I had done in the Senate, and focus on the challenges that we faced as a city. I really felt I could bring the necessary skills and work to try and turn the city around.”

Looking back at the last four years, McGee admitted that being a mayor was a challenging job that only other mayors and former mayors could really understand. A mayor is up close and personal with the decisions that impact people’s lives, said McGee, while in the Legislature you are one of a group.

“There are issues that arise that weren’t on your radar screen yesterday, but showed up today,” he said. “And a perfect example is a (once-in-a)-100-years pandemic arriving on the doorstep of everyone in this country, in the world, but really on the doorstep of local leaders that had to make decisions for safety and also to balance the need of the people that were trying to work every day.”

McGee believes that, as mayor, he came in at the right time and was able to accomplish everything he had planned for his administration, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working with the city council and the state delegation, McGee was able to make the case to the administration and borrow money to operate the city’s daily expenses in 2018, despite the downgraded bond ratings and general disapproval of such practice. His administration addressed the ongoing issues with health insurance among the city’s unions, self-insuring the city, preserving the benefits, increasing the contribution rate and solidifying health-insurance reserves.

The city was able to hire Chief Financial Officer Michael Bertino and build a bigger financial team. As a result of all of this work, the city’s bond ratings have substantially improved.

“Making some tough decisions, we were able to ride the ship and start to move the city forward,” McGee said. “We, I think, really proved to a lot of people (the) ability as a city to get our hands around a financial crisis and move it in the right direction.”

During McGee’s term, the city focused on getting state dollars to invest into some major infrastructure projects like the reconstruction of lower Washington Street, Western Avenue and Essex Street. There are also public meetings scheduled in the near future for reconstruction, reconfiguration and safety improvements on Broadway, Euclid Avenue and Jenness Street. In early spring, the bidding will go out for a four-way interchange at Blossom Street and the Lynnway, which will lead directly to a ferry location.

“Those are the kind of investments that lead to the private investments and the ongoing interest in Lynn to put development dollars in here and help us continue to meet our vision of what we want to see in the downtown, the waterfront and throughout the community,” McGee said.

Some other work that McGee is proud of as a mayor is bringing more diversity into the city’s operations and government, including opening up the hiring process and application process for boards and commissions, working with the Racial Justice Coalition and holding listening sessions that led to hiring the city’s diversity and inclusion officer, introducing body cameras at the police department and creating an unarmed crisis-response team that could work collaboratively with the police to address mental-health issues and substance-abuse issues in the community. McGee’s administration has put $500,000 into the fiscal year 2022 budget for the All Lynn Emergency Response Team (ALERT).

His administration also secured funding and worked with the city council to re-establish the City Planning Department by hiring three city planners, and invested into building the public-safety workforce and public-safety vehicle infrastructure backup, which had not happened in about a decade, the mayor’s office said.

Reflecting on how Lynn has changed over the course of his life, McGee said that people are now coming to Lynn from different places in the world, but the essence of Lynn has not changed.

“It’s a change that always has happened in our community,” McGee said. “People come here and build a life and raise their families from other parts of the world. And that continues.”

The accepting, melting-pot qualities of Lynn and its residents are what makes this community a great place and are what he loves about Lynn, McGee said. The people of the city always come together to try and help the neighbors out.

“(It is an) honor of a lifetime to be able to be mayor of the city and to take on many challenges,” said McGee.

As for his “retirement,” McGee is looking forward to spending time with his wife and family, skiing this winter and watching sports, but he is not thinking about it too much yet.

“I don’t have any plans. I mean, my focus now is to really finish the job,” McGee said.

He has been working closely with the Mayor-elect Jared Nicolson and his team to create a transition that sets the incoming administration up to be successful. Besides, McGee doesn’t know how to slow down, he said, because he has been involved in the community and in public service essentially since he was a kid. Still, he is looking forward to another chapter of his life.

“I really envision myself taking a step back, but looking at what opportunities will be there for me to continue to try and make a difference in the community and, probably, beyond the city of Lynn, and to take some of my experience and passion and hopefully be able to use it in a way that can make a difference,” said McGee.

Meanwhile, McGee is very proud to show off his daughter’s new business cards. After majoring in political science and graduating from Villanova University in 2020, Katherine McGee chose to start a career in public service as well. She now works as a legislative aide under  Massachusetts State House State Rep. Sally Kerans (D-Danvers). McGee’s son Tom, who inherited a passion for sports from his grandfather, specializes in sports management.

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