By John Radosta, a Jamaica Plain resident
What do you do when your former student comes back and tells you he’s running for office? What do you do when he’s also your son’s baseball coach? If it’s Ramón Soto, who is a candidate for a Boston At-Large City Councilor’s seat, you want to ask him, “What can we do to help?” But my wife and I don’t support Ramón just for the sake of old connections. Too much is at stake in this election. So after attending some of his campaign events, interrogating him thoroughly and thinking carefully if we could back him, we decided we most certainly could, And that the way we can help is by introducing him to as many people as we can.
On Sunday, September 8, Ramón held a meet-and-greet at Roslindale’s Guira y Tambora restaurant. It was the latest of about a dozen appearances he had made that day, including four during the Patriots’ game – one for each quarter. In his speech, he told a packed house, in Spanish, “In a city where the majority of public school students are Latino, I am the only Latino in the race. It’s important to have that voice.”
And education has been a priority for his whole life. The son of two public school teachers (his father has taught for 40 years and is now a fifth-grade teacher at the John F. Kennedy School in Jamaica Plain. Ramon has focused his efforts on the youth of Boston. For example, he has coached baseball in Jamaica Plain’s Regan League for six years. As a team parent, I was able to watch Ramón teach the importance of teamwork before winning, to make sure that the players improved their skills but never forgot to have fun. He built a team among parents, as well, recruiting helpers to coach breakout groups, organize a system for snacks, and myriad other jobs to get everyone involved. At the end of the day, win or lose, he was proud of his players and the way they supported each other in the field and on the bench.
Often times, he was arriving at practice directly from his work with Mayor Menino as coordinator of the Circle of Promise, which according to the City of Boston website, is an initiative that “leverages public and private resources and partnerships to conduct targeted intervention and non-academic service delivery.” One of those partnerships was between the Orchard Gardens School and Goodwill. When the principal called him and said they had a number of students coming to school ill-dressed for the weather and unable to learn until they’d shaken off the cold, Ramon went to the school, and saw that Morgan Memorial was right across the street. “We called the Goodwill and said, ‘Can you help us out? … The guy said, ‘Just tell me what sizes you need.’ Now, there had never been a relationship between Orchard Gardens and Goodwill before, and the Circle of Promise.”
On the rancorous topic of raising the charter school cap, Soto weighs in, “I do not [support raising it]. When the state eased the cap in the 2010 education reform law, the legislature stopped fully funding the reimbursement that was promised to cities and towns. As a result, state education aid now only accounts for 13% of the BPS budget, down from 32% in previous years. As enrollment in charters goes up, state money for BPS goes down. We need a stem to stern review of the BPS budget before we siphon away even more resources for the schools that need them most.”
At City Hall, one of his roles was as City Liaison for the 2010 Federal Census. It was on the census that Ramón showcased his cleverness and problem solving ability. As he told the South End News: "Instead of doing commercials and billboards, we went directly to the folks in the community. We went to the bodegas, the barbershops and the laundromats to talk to folks there. … We convinced them of the importance and the security of the Census and how it brings $400 million back to our city. That helps to pay for school breakfasts, for childcare and hundreds of things. I am very proud of that effort."
Ramón also has some innovative ideas on bringing jobs into the city. For example, he calls for an overall plan for jobs that accounts for every sector that is seeing growth in our city, especially within the Innovation District and the non-profit sector. “We also need to match skills with jobs, even if it means re-tooling some of our job readiness programs,” he says.
One unique area that could be expanded upon, says Ramón, is Urban Farming. “Boston provides a wealth of opportunity for good, local jobs right in the neighborhoods. These for-profits businesses provide quality jobs to urban youth and adults, and are largely CORI-friendly positions, not to mention that it provides locally grown food, by local workers that is sold to local markets.” He continues, “We also have the capacity to provide a top rate culinary education in Boston… We currently house several industrial size kitchens at Madison Park High School that can serve as a pilot program. We have some of the world's best restaurants and chefs in our city, so why can't we have a world class culinary program in the Boston Public Schools?”
But Ramón’s vision encompasses more than just the schools. On public safety he says, “Whether it’s illegal guns or pills, we need to get them off our streets. We need to understand where they are coming from, and how we can stop them from coming here.”
During his time in City Hall, Ramón Soto has built many relationships that have benefited the City. Having lived in South Boston and now Mission Hill, he has forged friendships across neighborhood borders. He’s done it by remaining true to himself, instead of telling voters what he thinks they want to hear. “I'm solely focused on my own race,” he said at Guira y Tambora, telling a quick anecdote about how he gained a supporter by pushing back against the man’s assertion that jobs, not schools, were more important to the city. “I told him that it was my education that gave me the vision and the foresight to get to where I am today. Focusing on education is the way to bring more jobs into the city. The guy smiled, and said, ‘You’ve got my vote. I may not agree with you, but you’re not giving me any bs.’ ”
And it’s those friendships, contacts, and partnerships that have led Ramón to refuse to endorse any particular candidate for Mayor: “I have many personal friends running, and many of their supporters are also supporting me. I look forward to working with whoever the voters of Boston choose to be our next Mayor and City Council, and I know that I'm going to hit the ground running.”