As Sokhary Chau made history in Lowell Monday by becoming the country’s first Cambodian American mayor, a different mayoral milestone occurred in Leominster.
There, the state’s longest-serving mayor, Dean Mazzarella, with Gov. Charlie Baker presiding, took the oath of office, which marked the beginning of his 29th year in that municipal leadership position.
While the two cities are separated by about 30 miles and 65,000 in population, as Gateway Cities, they share several of the same socioeconomic challenges.
The significance of the City Hall ceremony touched Mazzarella, the undisputed dean of the state’s mayors.
“Who knew that a kid from Sixth Street could be mayor,” said Mazzarella, voice breaking with emotion, in a nod to his French Hill neighborhood upbringing.
Baker praised Mazzarella, who first took office in 1994, for his service to the city that spans nearly three decades.
“That’s an enormous tribute to you, mayor,” Baker said. “They continue to believe in you.”
Baker, a former Swampscott selectman, said he was “honored to be here on this, your 15th swearing-in.” He spoke about meeting Mazzarella for the first time in the 1990s, recalling the passion he brought.
The compliments were mutual.
Mazzarella, in praising the governor, could have been speaking for any Lowell mayor or city manager who’s dealt with the Baker administration over the last seven years.
“I have worked with many governors and I’m not just saying it because he is here,” Mazzarella said of Baker. “There has been no other governor that’s been better to our city … and showed compassion … and tackled issues. No other administration has tried harder to deal with all the issues.”
State Sen. John Cronin and state Rep. Natalie Higgins presented Mazzarella with a citation in recognition of his status as the longest running mayor.
The best line of the night went to Cronin. The Lunenburg Democrat likened the mayor to Forest Gump — “just another guy who kept running and running and running.”
On a sincere note, Cronin said of Mazzarella: “He’s taught us all about what public leadership looks like.”
During his address, the mayor said he doesn’t keep track of things like becoming the state’s longest-running mayor, but instead chooses to focus on bettering the city through partnerships with his staff, department heads, city and local officials, and local clergy.
He disclosed that his interest in local politics started with AIDS activism, “back when no one wanted to say the word.”
“Really tonight, it’s to thank you,” Mazzarella said to the City Hall audience and those watching live on Leominster Access Television.
“These are not easy jobs anymore. You stuck with me and gave me this rare opportunity.”
He thanked Leominster Public Schools Superintendent Paula Deacon for her hard work, especially when facing pandemic challenges.
He also discussed the government’s responsibility to those it serves.
“We have an obligation to take care of each other and the generations to come,” Mazzarella said, noting all the different cultures and people of various backgrounds that call Leominster home.
“We welcome all, and we work shoulder to shoulder here.”
While these two mayors share precedent-setting events, their municipal government roles differ dramatically.
Leominster’s strong mayor system puts Mazzarella in charge of the city’s daily operation, while Chau’s duties, aside from presiding over Council meetings and chairing the School Committee, are mainly ceremonial.
But for one homegrown mayor and another who fled tyranny a half a world away, it’s a fiduciary role they’ll do their utmost to uphold.