Nineteen candidates are running for nine seats on the Cambridge City Council. With no one issue galvanizing voters, it helps to think of the contenders as belonging to loose slates.
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
CONSIDER, FOR A moment, a recent candidates’ forum at the Cambridge Senior Center in Central Square. As many as 50 residents turned out on a wet, brisk October night to listen to the current field of aspiring city councilors stump for votes. The residents were a refreshing mix of young and old, black and white, immigrant and native-born — in short, they embodied the diversity that typifies the People’s Republic. Too bad the candidates weren’t as interesting as the crowd.
Eleven of the 19 people vying for a seat on the Cambridge City Council were arrayed on stage. Three of them — the only women in the race — had already made the perfunctory grip-and-grin appearance and slipped out the back door. Those who remained, seated neatly in a row, were all men. All but two of them were dressed in dark suits, accented by brightly patterned ties. They stared straight ahead. They jotted down notes. They waited their turn to speak. When called upon, they smiled at the audience — their prospective backers — then ticked off their entire agendas in tightly packed, 120-second sound bites.
After an hour or so of this, close to half the audience had abandoned the forum and gone home. The other half, meanwhile, had resorted to a steady supply of pick-me-ups to stay awake: coffee, sugar cookies, the occasional hard candy. As the 11 candidates rattled off answers to various questions — what to do about incessant traffic, how to improve the public schools, how to ease the affordable-housing shortage — a bearded, bespectacled man leaned over and complained to an acquaintance in the crowd: "You know, I can’t tell any of these guys apart."
Part of the problem is that the September 11 terrorist attacks shifted voters’ attention away from electoral politics to public safety. The same dynamic is at work in Boston’s mayoral and city-council elections this year. Another problem has been pointed out so many times that it’s become a clichŽ: the demise of rent control in 1995 left the city without a clear, controversial issue capable of riling up both voters and candidates. The combination seems to be making this a yawner of a campaign season in Cambridge.
To be sure, Cambridge, like other cities in the Boston area, faces its fair share of problems. The most pressing? How to preserve and create more affordable housing. "We’re losing more and more people from the city’s middle ground," says Councilor Michael Sullivan. "We run the real risk of becoming a city of the very, very rich and the working poor."
And then there are the quality-of-life issues: many residents want their elected officials to enhance the city’s dwindling supply of open space by buying up undeveloped parcels or boosting the budget for public parks. Another concern is the rise in traffic: residents, frustrated with the volume of cars clogging city streets, are asking for more and better public transportation. Some are pushing a more environment-friendly agenda, with new bike paths and pedestrian walkways high on their wish lists. And, as usual, the fundamentals must be considered — the quality of public schools and city services. "A variety of questions will face us next term," notes Councilor Henrietta Davis, "and we should care about who will be making these decisions."
Maybe so. But none of these issues drive voters to the polls or compel candidates to run in the same impassioned way that rent control once did. Although 19 candidates are vying for the nine-seat city council — seven incumbents and 12 wanna-bes — that’s not as many as it sounds like, especially when you consider that two sitting councilors, Kathy Born (an eight-year veteran) and Jim Braude (who first won election to the council just two years ago), are hanging it up this year. When two incumbents stepped down in 1993, and rent control was still a fiery issue, 29 candidates ran for election and 48 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Two years ago, in 1999, the city again saw two incumbents retire; 24 candidates ran, but only 33 percent of registered voters bothered to turn out. (Of course, none of this compares to 1941, when 83 candidates duked it out for a spot on the council — a number that’s yet to be topped.)
As long-time observer Geneva Malenfant says, "This year, the election is in stealth mode." Or, as another Cambridge insider moans, "People are taking the tack of sounding like everyone else. It’s a feel-good strategy. Nobody wants to piss anybody off.... But what’s to get excited about when all the candidates seem the same?"
No doubt this is true. Still, there is one way to tell the candidates apart — and that involves grouping them together. If voters break down the pack this way, who knows? They might get excited after all.
The politico pool
Conventional wisdom has it that all seven incumbents seeking re-election will end up victors on November 6. Yes, all seven of them. Onetime city-council candidate Robert Winters, who also publishes the online newsletter the Cambridge Civic Journal (www.rwinters.com), has declared the 2001 election "a virtual lock" for the incumbents unless one of them "does something absolutely heinous before then." (That said, the last two times incumbents stepped down, it shook things up so much that additional incumbents lost seats in the election. But more on that later.)
The politico pool includes Anthony Galluccio, the councilor voted into the mayor’s seat by his peers — an aggressive campaigner who topped the council ticket in the 1997 and ’99 elections (and who remains the council stalwart on property rights: see "High Ambition," News and Features, February 8). There’s also Marjorie Decker, a progressive’s progressive who’s approaching re-election with the same vigor she brought to her first run two years ago, when she placed third to Galluccio and the now-retiring Born. Tim Toomey, the self-described "professional public servant" who also serves as a state representative (and is known for staving off development in East Cambridge), is seeking a seventh term. And don’t forget Henrietta Davis, who, with Born’s exit, becomes the senior candidate of the city’s enduring liberal political organization, the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA).
Other incumbents include Sullivan, scion of the city’s most famous political family (and king of constituent services). There’s David Maher, the city’s vice-mayor (and extoller of the "new day at City Hall"), who finished ninth out of nine winning candidates in ’99: he looks to be stepping up his campaign to secure another term. Same goes for Ken Reeves, the former mayor (and main man for Central Square), who’s placed eighth for the last two elections straight.
The remaining members of the politico pool are two newcomers who boast insider status. The first is Denise Simmons, a veteran school-committee member who fits the incumbent profile to a tee. After serving a full decade on the Cambridge School Committee, she has name recognition, a track record, and popular appeal — all of which put her second out of six school-committee candidates in 1999. True, her proposed switch from schoolhouse to City Hall isn’t a done deal. But Sue Hyde of the Cambridge Lavender Alliance, which endorsed Simmons for city council, says: "Denise is like ‘Been there, done that.’ She enters this race with a solid base."
So does the other designated front-runner for the vacant seats, Brian Murphy. The seasoned political consultant has formidable ties to the area’s big pols: he managed Lois Pines’s unsuccessful 1998 campaign for attorney general, and he also raised money for State Representatives Jarrett Barrios and Alice Wolf. In turn, the latter two bequeathed Murphy much of his well-oiled apparatus. He stands out as a natural-born politician, who lays on the charm and the elbow grease — handshakes, written notes, and baby-kissing. "I’ve tried to be the door-knocking candidate," admits Murphy, who declared his candidacy in April and has barreled down the campaign trail ever since.
Issue Date: October 25 - November 1, 2001