The City Council Election – The Final Few Weeks

The City Council Election – The Final Few Weeks

A Look at Some of the Last Minute Actions in the City Council Campaign

As November 3 approaches, the Cambridge election cycle will wind up for the year – although there are still two or three more days for last-minute surprises. Local politics continues in the shadow of national events, and in particular the Republican primary. The shame of four months of Donald Trump as front runner has diminished the prestige of the Presidency, while adding to the sharp level of insults across the nation. Many political commentators are horrified by the trumpification of the political realm : a conservative Globe commentator likened Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

In Cambridge, we have 23 candidates running for 9 City Council seats. The only thing we can be certain of is that there will be 9 winners and 14 losers. The best web site for candidate information and policy issues is http://cambridgecivic.com/vote/ .

For quite a while the campaign seemed traditional and uneventful. Typical was a lack of clear issues. Most policy proposals were mushy at best. It looked like a normal Cambridge election.

Suddenly in mid-September a group of seven incumbent Councillors announced the formation of a Unity Slate. It included five generally pro-development members plus two swing votes : Craig Kelley and Denise Simmons. The immediate reaction was predictably partisan – ranging from applauding the Magnificent Seven to condemnations of the Gang of Seven. Meanwhile, two other slates had been formed, and one former Councillor, Minka van Beuzekom, is running to rejoin the Council.

Council candidate Ilan Levy filed a legal complaint with the state Attorney General's office, claiming that the seven incumbents had violated the open meeting law through illegal collusion. The issue will probably not be decided before the election.

The next shoe to drop was an Op-Ed column in the Cambridge Chronicle by the youngest member of the Council, Leland Cheung, entitled “'Trumpocracy' has spread to Cambridge.” He claimed that "This trumpification of politics has been fueled by the interplay between two parties: the Angry, who insatiably demand increasing hyperbole, vitriol, and bombastic rhetoric; and the Apathetic, who change the channel, tune out, and resign themselves to assurances that demagogues like Trump could never win. .... It’s easy to miss, but by debasing the tone of public discourse, Trump has already won. Worse yet, it’s spreading not just on national TV, but also here in Cambridge.”

Cheung continued his criticism : "It feels distressing when some councilors act like people are iPhones - obsolete if they don’t connect to the latest technology ... It’s deeply disturbing when political organizations pass themselves off as 'resident alliances,' trumpet outcomes in theory then vehemently oppose them in practice, and deliberately deceive the very people they claim to help but in reality would hurt. It’s devastating to hear regular residents repeat that divisive virulence of the disruptive.”

The allusion to Trump and resident alliances continued :"We worry about the state of our country when we hear Trump’s simplistic, irrational ideas echoed by other Americans; I worry about the future of our Cambridge when I hear similarly unworkable, despondent vagaries echoed by our neighbors."

The harsh tone of Cheung's posting generated much unhappiness among citizen activists. In Cambridge there are two community groups that identify themselves as a “resident alliance” : the Cambridge Residents Alliance and the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance. Both had reason to feel targeted by Councillor Cheung. The key response was delivered by Jackie King of Essex Street, wife of Jonathan King (one of the founders of the Cambridge Residents Alliance). She concurred that ".... the majority of us would agree that Donald Trump’s ideology is despicable,” but she rejected Cheung's effort to “link your local opponents to this generally deplored entity. No matter that the connection doesn’t make any sense! "

“We’ve worked hard for rent control, affordable housing, civil rights, women’s rights, sustainability, and the defense of public education. We’ve engaged in civic matters as unpaid volunteers or the heads of city agencies,” she explained. She defended such actions, while “Overdevelopment proceeds along its rapid, unplanned course, driving housing prices up and pushing thousands of longtime families out of the city.”

  King linked Cheung's Op-Ed to a larger effort. "It seems to us, in the neighborhood organizations, that the Unity Slate majority is rushing headlong to approve every major proposal concerning big development that comes its way. They seem to believe their job, as public servants, is simply to smooth the path for those international developers who hope to make the maximum possible profit from Cambridge’s hot real estate market, while claiming that current residents will experience some trickle-down benefits."

Other resident alliance members raised the concern that “Councilor Cheung has been the recipient of thousands of dollars in donations from Normandy/Twining interests” at Central Square, as did other members of the Unity Slate : “but does he have any concern with the fact that the roads and transit systems are already clogged and overtaxed ...?”

Councillor Cheung had some defenders. Jennifer Austin Wadsworth said : “My friend Leland Cheung is a brilliant leader and an unquestionably witty satirist who is running for re-election to the Cambridge City Council. He gets it! We need intuitive, forward-looking, reasonable people who understand the character and history of our communities but who aren't blinded by political rhetoric and partisan ideology when it comes to charting a course for progress.”

“As a fellow young elected official,” she said “We do things differently, and I would think at a time when our nation has become so polarized and so divided that this would be a welcomed breath of fresh air. We're returning government to the people.”

A more unpleasant defense came from Patrick Barrett on Oct 21, as he sought to deflect the focus to another Councillor. "So far the only councilor I've openly see give favors to anyone one particular interest is Mazen. I'd love to know how much he paid for the bus parking spot, and why he really stopped the council from passing an order to shutter the owner's illegal parking spot. Given that he is leading the nasty and mean spirited accusation tour of the Unity Slate it just seems slightly hypocritical."

With such a heavy load of invective flying through the political winds, the City Council met on October 26 for a Round Table discussion of the proposed City Master Plan. The meeting by its rules allowed no public comment or broadcast of the event. Any initial concerns over Councillor Cheung's role were left waiting for over an hour, because he was late in arriving at the meeting. When he did arrive he did not sit at the round table, and instead sat as his normal desk with his laptop computer on at all times. He did not participate in the Council discussion and indeed was the only City Councillor not to say a word during the entire meeting.

The next day Planning Board held a public hearing on a zoning petition filed by Patrick Barrett, dealing with relaxed regulations on Accessory Housing. It was the same Patrick Barrett who was so harshly critical of Councillors Mazen and Carlone. The petition was signed by numerous Cambridge residents, including at least three members of Residents Alliances : Nancy Ryan as well as City Council candidate Jan Devereux and her campaign treasurer, Doug Brown. As it happened, the Planning Board did not adopt the zoning petition, considering it “not ready for prime time.” One observer noted that Mr. Barrett did not even bother to tuck his shirt in.

The next day produced another bombshell. The incident was unnerving generally because of its obvious lesson about the permanent record created by the web, and that a lifetime of recorded public comment can come back in a very haunting fashion. On October 27, Council candidate John Sansone withdrew from the race because one of his very youthful e-mails had been discovered and exposed.

Sansone explained : “I have ended my campaign for Cambridge City Council. Recently, horrible things I said and posted online from my younger days have come into the spotlight and there is simply no political way forward for me as a candidate. I am not a racist, nor homophobic, and am in fact firmly progressive and take these issues very personally and aim for a city government that takes them very politically. However, the revelations of these confused, misguided, nonsensical writings from my past---which I wholeheartedly own up to, and condemn---have made me untouchable."

He concluded : “I am withdrawing completely from Cambridge public life, with a great deal of regret, because I truly feel I could have been a respectable public servant long into the future and helped create a truly special Cambridge. This is painful. There is much in my life that I wish I could undo, but alas even the pointless, terrible, and obscure can come back and wrench your very purpose of being. Over the last few years, I made Cambridge my everything, and whatever I was in my younger days has nothing to do with who I am today. I'm sorry I was not a better person.”

Notable among Sansone's past activities were leadership on the Grand Junction path and one of two detailed proposals for improved MBTA service offered by Council candidates. It seems that such activity will cease with his decision to withdraw from public life. I recall the story of John Profumo, a member of the British cabinet in the 1960s who was forced to resign due to a sex scandal, yet his wife, actress Valerie Hobson, stuck by him. He spent the remainder of his life working in settlement houses and achieving his public contribution that way.

Cheung's attack on resident alliances may also result in permanent damage. By nature, he has never appeared to be a combative or nasty City Councillor. He was the top vote-getter in the 2013 election. His Op-Ed seemed strangely out of character, as if someone else had written it, and arranged for him to release the document under his name. His totally silent performance of last Monday certainly did not show evidence of the accusatory spirit prevalent in the Op-Ed. It is possible that, like Sansone, he too realized he had made a mistake.

There are much better things going on in Cambridge today. Unlike the cities of Boston and Somerville, Cambridge is making great strides is seeking Red Line improvements to handle the larger passenger loads generated by new development. Several organizations have been loosely allied in this effort, with a focus on Kendall Square : the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, Boston Properties, MIT and recently the Cambridge Planning Board. Any improvement in Red Line service will benefit everyone -- existing riders, residents, businesses, universities, and visitors. It should be possible for all City Council candidates to support working for the common good in this manner, because whoever would support bad transit? Yet without good political leadership we could indeed end up with bad transit.

Tuesday's voting for City Council may indicate the future direction Cambridge will take.

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