RIP Rosemarie Sansone, former Boston City Councilor and trailblazing political figure who shaped city governance and nonprofit leadership

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Former Boston City Councilor Rosemarie Sansone who reshaped city government and promoted the city’s downtown district has died at the age of 77. Sansone died of cancer at home in Lexington, Mass., on February, 21, 2022.

Whether it was her role as city councilor, an official for the city’s Business and Cultural development office, a public relations professional at Suffolk University or the CEO of a trade association, Sansone brought endless energy and enthusiasm to her decades-long work. In all her roles, she was able to work across the aisle to achieve common goals. The city greatly benefited from her work.

The establishment of a district-based city council was one of her crowning achievements moving the city away from a nine-member at-large city council and school committee to a more inclusive and responsive hybrid of 9 neighborhood districts and four at-large seats.

“Rosemarie was a dear friend, mentor and colleague whose friendship, advice and loyalty were a lifelong blessing,” said former District 1 City Councilor Diane Modica of East Boston. “Her leadership at the helm of the Committee for Change established Boston District City Council seats and subsequently gave me the wonderful opportunity to serve on the Council.” Modica, an attorney who served as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs and Licensing in the Flynn administration, also worked with Sansone to bring the acclaimed Concerts on the Common to Boston in the 1980s.

Rosemarie E. Sansone had a warm and winning way with people, and she put that gift to work for the benefit of the City of Boston during a career that encompassed public service, community affairs and business. Each step along her progression from roles in political organization, advertising, city politics, cultural affairs and university administration was brought to bear as she led the successful transformation of downtown Boston into one of the city’s most vibrant districts.

Sansone was president and CEO of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, or BID, until her retirement on February 15, 2022, her 77th birthday. She had served on the board and later led the Downtown Crossing Partnership, the BID’s predecessor organization. In that role she steered the successful campaign to establish Boston’s first business improvement district, which runs from the Financial District through Downtown Crossing and into the Theater District. The BID celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020, and, under Sansone’s leadership, it has transformed downtown Boston. Perhaps the most obvious visual cue for the BID’s success would be the contrast between the gaping hole at the former Filene’s site when the 2008 recession halted a development project there and the vibrant scene at Summer and Winter streets today.

Rosemarie Sansone Campaigning
Photo courtesy: Downtown Boston BID

Sansone’s vivacious spirit—evident in her voice and eyes as she connected with family, friends and colleagues—served her well as she worked on behalf of the city and its people. She was able to convene and unify people in pursuit of the common good.

“Whether in her role as Boston city councilor at large or her nearly 12 years as president at Downtown Boston BID, Rosemarie was a trailblazer who never let anything stand in the way of bringing people together,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh, former mayor of Boston. “Her steadfast leadership paved the way for an innovative and vibrant downtown Boston that generations to come will be able to explore and enjoy. It was a privilege to call Rosemarie a friend.”

Sansone went straight into politics after graduating from Lexington High School, working first with then-Lt. Gov. Francis X. Bellotti in 1964 and later getting involved in Kevin H. White’s 1970 gubernatorial campaign. In 1976, after working for several years in advertising, Sansone became director of the successful campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Massachusetts.

At a time when few women held elective office, Sansone was elected in 1977 to the Boston City Council, which at the time was a nine-member citywide body. She was the third woman elected to the Council and the only woman councilor for much of her two terms in office.

“She was definitely a path breaker in terms of women in Boston politics,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston. “We have recently become a bit blasé about women on Boston City Council—including the accomplishments of Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu—but let’s not forget women like Rosemarie Sansone, who ran and won a seat twice on the City Council in the late 1970s when there was even less support for women in what was definitely a ‘man’s world.’”

Courtesy Downtown BID

Then-Councilor Sansone, who wanted to expand opportunities for people interested in municipal service, formed the Committee for Change, which led to an expanded City Council with nine district representatives and four at-large members. She felt that the new configuration would give Boston’s neighborhoods a stronger voice in City Hall and make it easier and less expensive for neighborhood-based candidates to seek office. Sansone did not run for a third term.

Mayor Ray Flynn invited Sansone to join his administration as director of the Mayor’s Office of Business and Cultural Development, where she played a pivotal role in attracting businesses, tourism and conventions to the city.

“Rosemarie leaves her mark in every Boston neighborhood,” said Flynn, who later served as ambassador to the Vatican. “She worked closely with community activists to offer family-friendly neighborhood events, and she expanded the international Sister Cities Program, encouraging residents of paired cities to visit and learn from one another. Her vision for revitalizing Boston’s downtown business district—initially during her time at City Hall and later as the BID’s leader—led to the area’s transformation into a national model. And through her efforts the once-notorious Combat Zone was made over into a thriving center for commerce and culture.”

In 1994, she joined Suffolk University as director of public affairs, with responsibilities that included collaborating with public- and private-sector partners on downtown’s ongoing revitalization. Sansone saw value in every aspect and corner of Suffolk University, working with diverse organizations to promote the institution by showcasing its connection to the city and state.

“Rosemarie brought both professionalism and fun to her role at Suffolk,” said Professor Robert J. Allison, chair, of the University’s Department of History, Language, & Global Culture, who noted that Sansone was the driving force behind the yearlong celebration of Suffolk’s 2006 centennial. “I was fortunate to have met her early in my career and have had her example of honesty, integrity, candor and good humor as virtues to emulate. Rosemarie was one of those rare people who told you what she thought, but also asked you what you thought.”

Sansone transitioned from Suffolk University to the Downtown Crossing Partnership in 2007.

“The city of Boston was her life, and Rosemarie was constantly making it better from her time as a city councilor to that of a downtown leader,” said BID board member Margaret Ings, vice president for Government and Community Relations at Emerson College. “She had a unique ability to bring people together. She was empathetic and committed, not only to the BID and its members, but to everything going on downtown. She got up each day to serve this city, and, because of her personality and infectious energy, Rosemarie more than deserves the title of ‘the Heart of Boston.’”

Sansone studied liberal arts at Suffolk University and earned a master’s degree in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Boston. For her significant contributions to Boston’s built environment, Sansone was honored with a Norman B. Leventhal Excellence in City Building award in 2019.

She has served on many boards, including Revolution 250, which commemorates the anniversaries of significant events that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution; the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau; and the Economic Development Industrial Board. In 2013-14 she served on Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s transition team, and in 2016 she co-chaired the commission that oversaw the creation of the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in Boston’s Seaport.

Rosemarie Sansone
Summer 2016 Members Meeting at 100 High Street Rosemarie Sansone at podium

While she was dedicated to her professional activities, Sansone also was an artist who worked in watercolor and printmaking. In recent years she realized her artistic calling was in fabric arts and quilt-making, and many friends’ and colleagues’ homes are graced with her vibrant pieces.

She also enjoyed travel and visited Italy, where her mother was born, dozens of times on her own and as a representative of Boston. New York City was another favorite and frequent destination.

Sansone was the daughter of the late Stephen J. and Rose M. (Picciarelli) Sansone and the sister of the late Michael S. Sansone. In addition to her life partner, David Lancaster of Lexington, Sansone leaves a circle of very close friends.

Her death resulted from a rare clear cell endometrial carcinoma.

Funeral services were private. Arrangements were made by the Douglass Funeral Home in Lexington.

In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory may be made to the Kaji Aso Studio, 40 St. Stephen St, Boston, MA 02115.

Compiled and edited from Rosemarie’s obituary by Frank Conte 2/28/2022.