Ray Mariano, a Worcester conversation

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Ray Mariano is sure about many things. Except what’s next.

He understands you can’t plan for everything. Something will change, get in the way, go terribly wrong. It could be uninspiring leadership, or cross words from a skeptical father to a teenage boy from the wrong part of town. A sudden job opening. Or the spark of a candle in an abandoned warehouse on a cool December evening.

It could be a funny story from one of your two grandchildren. Or the look of a troublemaker standing back to revel in the mayhem he helped cause. Each ensuing moment has the potential to be a turning point, an opportunity.

Ray Mariano will leave the Worcester Housing Authority after 13 years June 30.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Ray Mariano will leave the Worcester Housing Authority after 13 years June 30.

Raymond V. Mariano, 65, the longtime mayor who will step down as executive director of Worcester Housing Authority Thursday, June 30, after 13 years at the helm, may not know what his tomorrow holds but he is certain to have an answer for whatever the next sunrise brings.

One thing’s for sure: He’ll be neither wallflower nor gadfly.

“When I left City Hall, I didn’t go back into the building for one year. And the only reason I went back at the end of a year, was to get a dog license,” Mariano said recently from behind his desk in the housing authority’s Belmont Street headquarters. “Other than that I wasn’t going back into the building. When the mayor leaves, he should leave. You won’t see my portrait, ever, at City Hall. Not gonna get it. Not interested, don’t care. I mean it’s nice — my kids don’t like the idea that I won’t get it.

“When you leave, you should just leave.”

It’s easy to believe him, too. At first. But Mariano, famously a product of the Great Brook Valley housing complex with degrees from Worcester State and Clark, is about as quintessential a public servant as this city has ever seen. He seems to have more he wants to accomplish.

His wife, Antonia, a Burncoat High psychology teacher, will be expecting him at their vacation home on Cape Cod this summer. And he’ll be there — if he’s not out on a bike ride or entertaining his grandkids. Soon after, though, business consulting and public housing advocacy could be keeping him busier than your average retiree.

Nobody would blame him for putting up his feet. He’s been at this for a while.

After four years on the School Committee, Mariano, then 31, was elected to City Council in 1981. He served as an at-large councilor for six terms before he defeated John B. Anderson, who was mayor in 1986, in the 1993 mayoral race by about 2,000 votes.

By the next election, Mariano had established himself as a political powerhouse in the city. The November 1995 vote tallies proved that. Mariano received 17,571 (75.9 percent) votes for mayor to Robert J. Hennigan Jr.’s 4,077 (17.6 percent) and William S. Coleman III’s 1,410 (6.1 percent).

[For sake of comparison, Mayor Joseph M. Petty and Councilor Michael T. Gaffney combined for 17,837 votes in the 2015 mayoral election.]

He comfortably won re-election again in 1997 and 1999, first over Coleman, then current Councilor at large Konstantina B. Lukes, who would be mayor from 2007 to 2009.

Mariano opted to not seek re-election in 2001, which opened the door for Timothy P. Murray to continue a political ascent that reached the lieutenant governor’s office.

“We didn’t agree all the time,” said Murray, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce president, over the phone Friday afternoon. “One thing I learned from him was hard work.”

Murray called his former City Council colleague “driven, high-energy … passionate about Worcester and his work,” and noted that his public and professional commitments notwithstanding, “he was always very much committed to his kids.”

For Mariano, it was time to watch his daughter Gina play college softball and be there more for his wife and two boys, Anthony and Ray Jr. Then in 2003 the WHA executive director position came available and he recognized another opportunity to help people.

His pet project and what will almost certainly become his legacy has been the housing authority’s A Better Life initiative, which requires eligible residents in state-subsidized units to work and/or go to school, not to mention participate in savings and counseling programs, or they could face eviction.

Murray gave high marks to Mariano and the A Better Life program for its focus on enabling adults to receive schooling or training to get back to work.

“The single, biggest issue we hear about from employers, regardless of industry, is workforce development, that pipeline.”

Alex Corrales, himself a product of WHA having grown up in Plumley Village, was unanimously approved by the authority’s Board of Commissioners to replace Mariano July 1. He will be tasked with continuing the program’s progress.

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

“With Ray, I can tell you that he has been a tremendous influence on my life professionally and personally,” Corrales said last week. “I consider him to be the best executive director the WHA has ever had, and I have worked for four different E.D.s.

“He has improved this agency in every facet, and most importantly, has improved the lives of our residents, which I know is what Ray is most proud of,” he said. “I have been honored to work for him and with him and have learned a great deal in the 13 years I have known him.”

The Sun recently spent a sweaty Friday afternoon with Mariano exploring the new A Better Life Village, a two-unit cohort of program participants at Curtis Apartments, and cooling off in the basement headquarters of the WHA at the corner of Interstate 290 and the Belmont Street backhoe.

Worcester Housing Authority has many properties and initiatives, but it has always been synonymous with Great Brook Valley. Given your unique perspective — from growing up there to being mayor of Worcester and now WHA boss — describe GBV’s evolution.

The change was very slow — kind of like our hairlines, you know — it doesn’t happen on Monday. Or Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s over years and things change.

What was a bad neighborhood in some people’s minds became a worse neighborhood, then it became a neighborhood to drive past or around. … There were people who wouldn’t vote for me or talk to me, who were my friends, because we moved the voting precinct inside Great Brook Valley. And there was a police officer standing right on the steps, and they wouldn’t go and vote there.

When I became executive director I took the signs down that named the development and said, “Worcester Housing Authority.” So we have a big masonry sign that says, “Curtis Apartments.” I was here when we built that particular sign and they said, “We’re going to put ‘Worcester Housing Authority’ [across the bottom], I said, “No, you’re not.” So, we took the names off of our properties, so they could just be.

The words "Worcester Housing Authority" are de-emphasized on the sign welcoming visitors to Curtis Apartments in the complex collectively known by most as Great Brook Valley.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

The words “Worcester Housing Authority” are de-emphasized on the sign welcoming visitors to Curtis Apartments in the complex collectively known by most as Great Brook Valley.

About this time, Mariano said, the WHA had instituted a program called Neighborhood Best, the goal of which was to make each of the authority’s properties the most desirable in their given neighborhoods.

So the story is: We have a place called Mill Pond Apartments in Tatnuck. Lady sees the apartments and they’re beautiful, and she comes over and she sees a guy working on the grounds. She says, “Oh, these are quite lovely, how can I get an application?” He says, “Well, you go to 40 Belmont St., Worcester Housing Authority …” She says, “Look, I don’t want to live in public housing. I want to live here.”

When you can improve your property to the point where people don’t know it’s public housing, you give the people who live there a chance to be successful.

The problem with public housing is, it’s so obvious. It’s so big. So you’ve got this giant high-rise and it’s nine-million floors high and it’s got all these people in it, or it’s got 500 apartments this way or 200 apartments that way. So it becomes notorious. If you could stick it in a neighborhood — we’ve got in-fill units all over the place nobody knows about. That’s the beauty of the Section 8 program [low-income housing via private landlords]; people who live in Section 8 and people who live in public housing are exactly the same people.

On the current state and future of public housing.

My own view is, they shouldn’t have any public housing. They should only have Section 8 housing, because then you let the private market handle it.

Public housing is going to dramatically change. In the next five years, maybe sooner, one of several things will happen: They will dramatically limit people’s time in public housing; or they reduce the funding and the buildings will decay. They will not continue the current funding with no change. We have people that live with us that I remember from when I was a kid. Five generations of the same families. Five generations. All living in the same development.

Everyone who supports public housing had better come to the conclusion quickly that we need to change it. I think the [A Better Life] program is the change. If they don’t do that, they risk losing it.

Ray Mariano has been making a difference as a public servant in Worcester for nearly four decades.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Ray Mariano has been making a difference as a public servant in Worcester for nearly four decades.

What was your perspective and/or involvement in the rioting that broke out in the summer of 1979 at Great Brook Valley? Did it have an influence on your political career?

I was in office at the time [second-term School Committee member]. I remember — the day of the riots, when they started, I remember driving to the front of Curtis Apartments where that sign is now and parking my car. Couldn’t get in; police had it blocked off. And there was a guy there who was one of the main instigators in the trouble. He was a troublemaker from the very beginning and I saw him standing there just watching it, kind of enjoying all of it. And I was very resentful.

Folks that were there were treated poorly. Not by the police, but by the people who were supposed to be serving them, and they weren’t doing them justice. It was a traumatic time for me because that was my neighborhood.

Was there one particular factor that motivated you to run for City Council after four years on the School Committee?

All the stuff that I’ve done, it’s an opportunity to help, an opportunity to serve people. You’ve seen some things on the School Committee and you say, “Well, I can do more if I went over there.” So, I went over there.

I’m one of those guys; I don’t do well with “jobs.” I like to have a mission.

When I took this job at the housing authority, I told everyone here, “I didn’t come here to fix the windows and the doors — I’ll do that, but … I came to change people’s lives.” That’s my mission, and so public service because you’re not dealing with widgets — you’re not making this [desktop stapler]; when you make this you can get excited about making it efficiently and making more money. As a business consultant, which I did for 20 years, you have to make money, but it’s not very gratifying.

But when your raw material is not [a widget], it’s a person, whether it’s on the School Committee when you’re dealing with kids, or mayor and you’ve got the city, or head of the housing authority where you’ve got the poorest of the poor, that’s a pretty exciting and exhilarating opportunity.

You get to help people that most people would rather forget.

I’m a 1960s-1970s hippie. You can’t tell from the hairline, but that’s what I am. I’m one of those guys who believe that when you die and they look at your tombstone, it should say, “He did something to help somebody else.” That’s my generation: help, and all that other good stuff.

So, what got me to run for City Council? An opportunity to do more than the people I saw there. That’s what made me run for mayor.

The Worcester Cold Storage fire in December 1999 -- for which this memorial was built at the Franklin Street Station -- was a harrowing event for all involved, including then-Mayor Mariano.

Wikimedia Commons

The Worcester Cold Storage fire in December 1999 — for which this memorial was built at the Franklin Street Station — was a harrowing event for all involved, including then-Mayor Mariano.

Many significant events occurred in the city while you were mayor, but none more impactful than the Cold Storage warehouse fire of December 1999. Most who lived or worked in the city then have similar thoughts and memories of that night and the days that followed. Is there a recollection or feeling from that time you’re surprised stuck with you?

What surprised me … I couldn’t get, months and months and months later, I couldn’t get the smell of smoke out of my nose.

I was at the site all day every day, for all of those days. And I remember [later], I was working here [WHA headquarters on Belmont Street] and there was a fire up on one of the middle floors. For us, when there’s a fire, it doesn’t last 10 seconds; our problem is water. We’re so heavily sprinkled … our guys come out with squeegees to get rid of the water. But I ran up the back hallway and I smelled the smoke, and I was back at that Cold Storage site.

It was incredibly powerful. I didn’t realize when I was doing all that, that years later I was still going to be going back [to that night] from time to time without realizing it. Because my job was, I had a job …

I remember, there’s a town called Keokuk, Iowa. It was after the fire, and I got a call from the office: the mayor of Keokuk, Iowa, wanted to talk to me, and I said, “Look, I’m going to a thing. I’m late, I don’t really have time. Get his number and I’ll call him back.” My assistant said, “Mayor, they just had a fire, they lost a firefighter.”

Less than three weeks after six Worcester firefighters died in a labyrinthine Franklin Street warehouse blaze accidently set by squatters, three Keokuk firefighters and three children died in a house fire, Dec. 22, 1999.

So, I pulled the car over, called him on the phone. They said, “Well, he can’t talk to you, he’s too busy.” I said, “This is the mayor of Worcester,” and they said, “Just a minute.” They got him, and he said to me, “Tell me what to do.”

There’s no book for this. I had to make it up as I went. So, I said, “OK, here’s what you do.” And I told him. Turned my car around, drove straight back to the office, typed up a memo that repeated what I said: First, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth — do these things in this order, and he was very grateful. I was sorry that they had that problem, but I was so happy that I had the opportunity to share and make it that much easier for him.

For me, I didn’t know what to do.

Firefighters were running around, and I’m walking around and I had in my hand a baseball cap that says Worcester Fire Department, and I’m too embarrassed to put it on. I’m not worthy enough, I’m not a firefighter. I don’t want someone to think, “He’s mugging it for the camera.” So I’m walking around with the hat — I’m on the site, talking to people, telling them what to do, this and that — and a firefighter whom I didn’t know, he said, “Hey mayor, nice hat. It’d look better on your head.” And I thought OK. I put that hat on, and it made a difference in how I handled myself. It was very powerful because I didn’t feel worthy and I did not want to be one of those guys.

So many things stand out, but the flashbacks that you get, months and years later, wasn’t expected. … It was completely unexpected. I talked to someone in the fire service who specializes in talking to trauma victims. He said, “Ray, that’s a flashback. That’s what happens. You went through all this trauma, there were deaths, there was hugging and kissing and crying, and it was very emotional for you — that’s just a flashback.”

Through all this, the one constant is that smell. The smoldering, which went on for days and days. It got inside your body, and you couldn’t get rid of it.

What was the first thing you attempted and failed at after you became WHA executive director in 2003?

Oh my god, just about everything. The ABL program is the thing people identify most with me and that I’m most proud of. And I failed at that every step of the way.

We started to do it on a voluntary basis, and I assumed more people would sign up than did. We designed a beautiful program and it was very successful, we just couldn’t get people to join it. People who joined did very well, but we couldn’t get enough people to join. So I was wrong.

Ray Mariano, with a participant in the A Better Life program, center, and Jan Yost, president of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, during an announcement for the new ABL Village.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Ray Mariano, with a participant in the A Better Life program, center, and Jan Yost, president of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, during an announcement for the new ABL Village.

I was wrong when we went to the next phase of the program, which is the admissions phase. We said OK, we’re going to send out letters to people on our (housing) waiting list. Now you’ve been on the waiting list for four years and you’re homeless and you’ve got three kids. So we’re going to send you a letter and we’re going to say, “We’ll put you at the top of the list, but you’ve got to agree to go to school or go to work, and we’ll help you.”

And we knew, I knew, everyone would say, “Yeah, I’m still years away, I want to get to the top of the list.” Six-point-seven percent of the people said I want the option and 93 percent of the people said, “No thanks.” I was stunned. How could that be?

So, the point is, I got that wrong as well. The difference is — here’s what government does wrong: What government says is, we’re going to design this program, and we’re going to design it from here all the way to its conclusion 10 or 15 years from now. And they never get started, because they can’t figure out all those things.

All the federal government people, the state government people, want us to have it all done. I’m figuring this out as we go forward, and we’re adjusting it because flexibility makes us better.

Lots of mistakes, but the goal doesn’t change. Here it is, this is what we’re going to do. We’re changing, we’re adapting, and we’re making it better. Government doesn’t do that. Government designs a rock-solid program, they chisel it in, and then when they realize that it’s not perfect they’re stuck with it, and they won’t change it.

Nah, nah — No! I can’t get from Monday to Tuesday without making a mistake. I mean look, I’m a pretty pigheaded guy when it comes to most things. In terms of the ultimate goal: This is what I’m going to accomplish and get out of the way.

How do you answer critics who believe the work/school and other lifestyle requirements in the ABL program are at best unreasonable or at worst infringing upon individual rights?

I don’t care what anyone else thinks. With all due respect, I don’t care what they think. It’s a fair question. I don’t feel the need to answer them. There’s a great quote, and I won’t get it right, from Abraham Lincoln, and essentially what he says is, “It doesn’t make any difference if 1,000 angels say I’m doing a good job, I’m going to do the best that I can right up to the last day.”

[Editor’s note: Honest Abe had 10 angels on his side per several Internet sources, but otherwise Mariano had the gist.]

What matters is that I’m doing the best that I can. I know what these families need. I was one of them. In the end if [critics] don’t have an alternative, I stop listening. Woman says — I’m at a big conference, couple hundred people, homeless advocates; and I tell them, “You’ve got to require work, and this and that.” She says — “You have to wait until they’re ready.” I said, “Well, five generations should be long enough to wait.”

We start with the premise that we believe in our residents, this is not to hurt someone. Our residents are just as capable as anyone else, and if someone else says, “Well, you know, you’re discriminating” — no. Because I treat everyone exactly the same way. I don’t care about their religion, their sexual orientation or anything else. Makes no difference to me. Everyone’s gotta go to work or go to school and we’ll help them.

If the results were not as good, I would still be convinced that we had to do something like this.

Alex Corrales has for years been your right-hand man and is poised to succeed you as executive director. He is one of many former WHA residents employed from the top to the bottom of the authority. Tell us why that’s important.

At some point along the way, I said, “We’re not giving jobs to outsiders.” If we can give a job to someone inside the housing authority [we should] and if they’re not ready, let’s make them an apprentice.

There are times when I still think like a kid from the project. And so when you think that way, it’s easier to understand why someone would react a certain way. So it’s helpful from that perspective. It’s incredibly helpful to blunt criticism: So when someone says, “Oh, you don’t understand” — stop right there! I’m a 20-year veteran. How many stripes do you have on your sleeve? I lived there for 20 years. So, it’s a great way to end a conversation when someone’s giving you a hard time.

When I was mayor, I helped as many neighbors as I could, as many people as I could. You don’t have to be from that neighborhood, you just have to take the time to listen.

Ray Mariano, on the lookout for his next mission.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Ray Mariano, on the lookout for his next mission.

Are you satisfied with how you’re leaving the housing authority, particularly the neighborhood you grew up in?

Yeah, it’s in good hands. Everyone, they understand the mission. They’re all good people. It’s going in a good direction.

When I got here, I didn’t have a day of transition. When I came here the seat was empty, sat down and went to work. Alex has had a year, he’s come to meetings with me. He has all the agendas I have, he’s got my assistant here, he’s got a really good support staff. Everyone knows what they’re doing. And he’s a really smart kid. He’ll do a good job.

What’s the next mission for Ray Mariano?

Well, a lot of exercise. I’ve got a pretty good workout regimen I’ve got going that’ll have to change. I run up 19 flights of stairs every Tuesday four times; climb Mount Wachusett on Thursday; I ride the bike 20 miles Saturday and Sunday. So I’m going to do more of that just to really — I’ve got to cleanse my body, get the tension out. I’m an old guy now, so it’s just harder.

I’ve already got some consulting irons in the fire for the fall, and I’ll probably teach. I’d like to write if I can. I don’t know. I’ve never had a problem finding something to do, but I’ve never been a guy, ever, from the time I started working, to ever plan what was next. I at one time said there’s no chance I’d run for City Council. Never. And then I ran for City Council, and I said there’s never a chance I’ll run for mayor, they’ll never elect me mayor, I’m not the kind of guy. … I was offered this job more than once, said I didn’t want to be executive director, and here I am.

So, who knows? I am probably the worst predictor of what I’m going to do next, because I have not gotten it right once.

This article was originally published in the June 26, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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