On January 7, Jesse Mermell ended the first chapter of her historic Brookline political career. Widely known as the youngest selectmen in Brookline history when she was elected 2 weeks past her 27th birthday, she is also one of the youngest people elected to the position in Massachusetts' history. In the last decade, Joseph Pacheco age 21 of Raynham, Ryan Fattman age 21 of Sutton, and Timothy Dodd age 26 of Westborough all became the youngest selectmen in their town's histories. What separates Jesse from Joseph, Ryan, Timothy and most likely every local politician elected at a young age to help run a community is that Jesse is not from the town she was elected to serve. Jesse isn't even from our state, or from a blue state for the matter.
Mermell grew up in Honesdale, PA, a small farming town of around 4,500 people, located in the state's most northeast point. Her home was across from a cornfield and next to a dairy farm, and her parents still live there. According to Jesse, "It was a great place to grow up. I never envisioned myself staying but it's a place I enjoy going back to a few times a year. It was a pretty typical rural childhood."
Jesse was not your typical Honesdale kid. She explains, "My dad is from Middletown, NY and my mom is from the Netherlands. She came here when she was 16. I came from a family that had a different world experience than any of my friends, neighbors, and classmates. It gave me a unique perspective on life and taught me how to get along with a whole bunch of different types of people. I came from a progressive family. My grandparents taught me their progressive values and why we cared about people we may have never even met. We were comfortable, but we were taught to care about people who may not be as comfortable as we were." She added, "Honesdale is in the reddest part of a purple state. The political views of my family were much different than the people around us. I learned to get along with people with different political opinions and respect that there will be disagreements. My father's side of the family is Jewish. Honesdale used to have the Guinness Book of Records world's smallest synagogue. They added a community room and lost that exulted status. My Jewish heritage was even more foreign to people than my actually having a foreign born mom."
Jesse's aunt on her father's side served in the Peace Corps, traveling the world, eventually settled in Cairo and taught English there at the American University. Jesse grew up hearing stories of what her Aunt Linda was doing on the other side of the world. Every summer the Mermell family would spend some time in the Netherlands at Jesse's Oma's house. This gave Jesse experiences unheard of where she grew up. As Mermell puts it, "It gave me a me a chance to see that there was truly an accessible and diverse world outside of the world I grew up in."
Serving the community is the Mermell way. While not political at the time, her parents were involved in civic life. Her mom volunteered with the Red Cross and her dad was involved in different charities as a local business owner. Jesse added, "We also watched the world news every night and discussed it so I latched on at an early age of the role of government in looking out for people and making their lives better." A defining moment in Jesse's life came at the age of 14. Just weeks before she was to start Honesdale High School, young Jesse realized she needed to change her trajectory in order to pursue her passions. She was interested in music and government and there was no place for that in Honesdale. So often when you profile the life of a successful person you find a hero who helped make it happen. In Jesse's case, her heroes were her parents, who trusted their daughter's instincts and cared enough about her happiness to make the changes happen. They found a boarding school about 90 minutes away that offered the programs Jesse needed to take the next step in her life. She was accepted to the school just weeks before the school year started and received the necessary scholarship enabling her to attend. There she found her two best friends to this day. One friend came from East Germany and actually crossed over the Berlin Wall and the other from upstate NY. At her boarding school, Wyoming Seminary, which is "neither a seminary nor in Wyoming" Jesse points out; she made friends from all over the world. Jesse continues, "I was the Government President my senior year which I think surprises precisely nobody".
Jesse spent one year at American University before transferring to BC. Transfer students don't receive housing at BC, so Jesse and her dad walked into a Washington Square realtor's office and took the first studio apartment they could find overlooking the Pierce School. At the time, she didn't know Brookline from any other town around here. Jesse lived in that studio for the next 4 years and has been a Brookline resident ever since.
You can't choose your family, the town you grow up in, or the kids you grow up near. You may end up loving them all, but you were placed there as part of somebody else's life decisions. When you're an adult, your friends and where you live is your choice. Jesse chose Brookline. For whatever reason, she knew right away this is where she wanted to be. Jesse remarks, "Three weeks after I moved here, I was on the phone with my parents and I said I was staying. I instantly felt at home. I was always a city girl living in a small town so it was the small time feel, I saw people I had seen the day before, there were neighbors, there was a park, none of the buildings were too tall, you weren't in the big scary city but you had access to every amenity you could ever want from a big city you could ever want either right here in Brookline or minutes away in Boston. It has the exact vibe I wanted then and now." We didn't choose Jesse Mermell. She chose us. It feels good when it happens that way doesn't it?
A common theme until that point in her life, Jesse was once again a fish out of water. She wasn't able to find a place for herself at BC. Without any friends in the area, she looked up the Mass Democratic Party and just started showing up to events, volunteering in her spare time. She stuffed envelopes, whatever they needed. It was at that time her political career started. She met former Brookline resident, Carolyn Devore Parks, who was a Democratic State Committee member. Jesse worked the precinct 7 polls helping Carolyn's run for library trustee. At the polls that day, she met Ponnie Katz and Phyllis Giller, two longtime Town Meeting members. Phyllis and Ponnie befriended Jessie, took her to meetings with them and from that point on it was off to the races. By next May, 18 months after coming here, a junior in college, Jesse got elected to Town Meeting.
She won her election to become Library Trustee in 2005; she lost her bid for selectman in 2006 and came right back and won a selectmen's seat in 2007. With no inside connections, arriving here as a college student, looking for something to do, applying herself, becoming part of the community, and by the age of 27, she was one of our leaders. If that's not a story to be emulated, I don't know what is.
Jesse broke the perception of who our selectmen were at the time. She didn't have a law practice that could benefit from the connections people perceive one gets as a selectmen. In fact, being a selectmen is often a thankless job. You have to actually run to get elected to a position that only pays a token salary and requires many hours of work on often some pretty dry subjects. I don't care how dedicated you are to the community, try sitting through an entire Selectmen's Meeting. Try imagining doing it twice a week, 50 weeks a year, while showing up to daily town events in between. I honestly don't know how they do it.
So why would a vibrant young woman who isn't even from the area want to do it? What can happen with hard working people is that sometimes others question their motivations. She must be using Brookline as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, some thought. Some thought she was too ambitious. Some people can't just accept a good thing, or a good person.
It didn't take long during Jesse's first run for selectmen before she learned that exposing yourself by running for office could be humbling experience. Jesse comments, "The first year I ran, I'm on the phone calling TM members, trustees, school committee members looking for support. Most people are great. You know them. They commit to you, they are committed to someone else, or they haven't made up their mind. I made calls to people I knew first. I called this person I had worked with in the past and he/she had this awful perception of me I couldn't change no matter what I said. I literally got off the phone and burst into tears." Keep in mind, Jesse was 25 at the time and she was running for election to public office. It didn't take long before she realized that having a thick skin goes with the territory. As Mermell puts it, "You are asking people to form an opinion about you and cast judgment of you when they show up to vote. I decided then there is a very small group of people who I care about whose opinion of me truly matters. I'm not talking about how I voted on something, but me as a human being. My parents, my brother, my best friends, if they say those things to me, that matters, that will turn my life on it's ear. Anyone outside of that group.... I'm not saying that it won't bother me. I'm not saying I've developed what Hillary Clinton calls the Rhinoceros hide, but at the end of the day... It doesn't mean you don't take their opinions into account or that their opinions don't get due consideration in your decision making process. But in terms of how I feel about myself as a person when I go to bed at night, it's a small group, and that's it."
Wow. Wouldn't you want your kid to respond in that way? To have the courage and fortitude to take on public opinion, good or bad, to do what they think is right? How healthy is that? It takes a person of character and courage to put themselves out there and do what they think is right despite the potential consequences.
Ms. Mermell sees many challenges ahead for Brookline, "The biggest challenge is the budget and the ever-exploding health care costs even though we joined the GIC. Increasing energy costs and the need to make smart investments now. The overcrowding in the schools, it's a blessing and a curse to have such a great education system. There is study underway to look at how we are going to deal with this situation. This is a citing, budget, and political challenge. It's going to be massive and essential. The way we are going to deal with climate change is also going to be very important. With investing in things like green infrastructure and Hubway, we've made huge strides but there is still a long way to go. How are we going to work with private property owners to reduce their carbon footprint? Brookline like every other local community is going to have to have this micro conversation that goes with the national macro conversation about how we are going to make tough decisions now so we can insure that what we have now can be sustained for generations to follow. Will the future generations look back at us the way we look at the Greatest Generation? That's going to be our challenge.
Two experiences defined Jesse's role as selectmen. She explains, "When you run, you run on these big town issues, but when you become a selectmen that's not always what you are voting on. You're voting on can we pay this bill, can we close this street for NStar. People call you asking for help and at the beginning you have to learn who to go to in each situation to get the them the help they need. A couple of months in, I get this call from an older gentleman; no idea why he picked me. He had a Peddler's License to sell stuff at events around town. His license was up for renewal and the renewal had been rejected for outstanding parking tickets, he was on a fixed income and he couldn't afford to pay them off in one fell swoop. But if he didn't get his license that one extra little bit of money that gave him the quality of life he enjoyed was gone. I called the Police Chief I barely knew at the time and asked if he was as good a guy, as he seemed to be, could work out a payment plan, which was what we worked out. It took 5 minutes of my day. A few weeks later this man came to my house with a plant he had bought from Stop & Shop for me. He was so grateful that I had cleared up this red tape for him. It was a phenomenal lesson for me that all these items on my to-do list made an impact on the people I was doing them for."
"Last winter the Girl Scouts were under attack by extreme conservatives who were against them selling Girl Scout cookies. They felt the Girl Scouts were a feminist training ground that existed to teach young girls to be left wing radicals. Possibly the most absurd thing anyone has ever heard. So when I saw some scouts outside of my bank selling cookies, I was inclined to buy some even more than usual. I knew some of the mothers with them. The moms told the kids what I did for a living and one of the girls said, "You're a girl!" and all the other girls jumped up and down, excited that someone they could relate too had an important position in town. I literally welled up inside. To be introduced as a role model to these girls was an unbelievable moment. It blows my mind that I have an opportunity to do that."
This says all you need to know about Jesse's time in Brookline public office. With all the big political wins, loses, and accomplishments, it's the memory of how her position affected everyday people and kids that stands out most for her.
The Thursday before Christmas, the Governor's office knocked on Jesse's door with an offer that was hard for her to refuse. She knew the Communication's Director position was open but she had not planned on applying. Her plan for running for a third selectmen term was in place. It was a tough decision. Jesse explains, "Ultimately, I decided this was a great opportunity to work with a Governor I hold in such high esteem and to help craft his message for the last two years of his term."
As Communications Director, Jesse Mermell runs the entire communications and press operation. She oversees the Press Secretary, the Deputy Press Secretary, Photographer, Videographer, and the Governor's website. Jesse, "It's the thinking position, the 90 days out position, how do we shape the message and what tools do we have to push it out?"
My opinion and the opinion of those who have worked with Jesse over the last decade is she going to do the Governor and us proud.
By R. Harvey Bravman, Publisher