Cambridge Faces Return to Political Dark Ages

If Voters Axe PR, Corrupt Machines May Roar Again

PR-How It Works

Proportional Representation in Cambridge is aimed at giving minorities scattered throughout the city representation based on their collective numerical strength. Citizens can vote for as many candidates as they wish, indicating precise preference by marking 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. after the names of favorites.

All ballots are initially distributed according to first choices marked on them. When a candidate has received more first place votes than he needs for his electing quota, his surplus is redistributed according to the second choices marked on the ballots.

The candidate with the lowest number of votes is then eliminated and his ballots are redistributed according to second choices. This redistribution process is repeated as the least popular candidates are successively eliminated.

As the ballots are redistributed, where the second choice is for a candidate already elected or for one already eliminated, the third choice is automatically honored. If the third choice cannot use the ballot, it goes to the fourth, and so on.

There is no primary under PR as there would be under a city-wide plurality system.

After a decade of clean calm government, Cambridge now stirs restlessly and may soon welcome back the color and thunder of plurality election along with its usual bedfellows: controlled primaries and greedy machines. Board with the lackluster of businesslike management, and desiring "more American, majority control" voters may kill proportional representation at the citywide election next Tuesday. As one shrewd local observer notes:

"The present campaign seems only a contest of personalities--a popularity contest where every minority group can participate. Proportional representation, of course, is the main issue in this campaign. But the real issue, now and for the last 12 years, is a moot one that goes beyond PR. This is the question of local political control. The politicians are tired of lifeless, colorless, paper schemes of government. They're tired of putting a rubber stamp on a housing development plan drawn up by some federal expert. They're even tired of the non-partisan efficiency of a city manager.

"All of the pols will admit the increased honesty and efficiency of Plan E, but many long for a return to the days of machine politics. For whatever the defects of the machine, it was a swinging, humming organization. It took care of its people, and the people loved it."

But though partisan spirit may be the madness of many for the gain of the few, the political memory of the typical voter is notoriously short.

As recently as 1941 the Cambridge Police chief declared: "I've been harassed by cheap politicians every day in the week and I've had political interference in my department for years. I don't mind doing favors for people, but I do mind being asked to obstruct justice."

Overmanned Garbage Trucks

Election battles in Cambridge saw the expenditure of private as well as public funds in the old days. Between primary and election day the public payroll would suddenly boom with a legion of part-time laborers. Garbage trucks with 12-man crews were common, and innumerable street cleaners handed out campaign literature at strategic corners.

The Boston Transcript commented: "Payrolls in Cambridge show a curious increase at election time, particularly in the street department. During the week of August 5, the street department payroll was $16,100. It was gradually built up until, during the week of November 11, it had jumped to $41,500. A week later, indicating the extent to which the taxpayers money had been used for political purposes, the payrolls in the department dropped to $21,500--half that of the preceding week."

There were many abuses in the days before reform. Some Cambridge mayors who controlled municipal trucking used this power to pressure Councillors most of whom held trucking contracts with the city for snow removal or refuse collection. One mayor was known to call up a majority of the 15 Councillors before a Council session and warn them that unless they voted for a specific measure, they would lose their lucrative contracts. They generally agreed with his point of view.

Cambridge did not hold a monopoly on corruption. Other Massachusetts cities enjoyed similarly foul reputations. In 1938 the state legislature tried a remedy. It is not surprising that strongest support came from Cambridge reformers. The would-be panacea was Plan E, which provides for a city manager to run the city's affairs and a nine-man council, including a mayor, to legislate.

The course of municipal affairs increasingly worsened for many years. The tax rate jumped several dollars annually until it became very nearly the highest in Massachusetts. Its financial woes multiplied as industries left Cambridge seeking more favorable conditions.

Representatives from the Cambridge Taxpayers' Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the League of Women Voters banded together in 1938 to fight for Plan E in Cambridge. Nationally noted for his New Deal leadership, James M. Landis, Dean of the Law School, was enlisted as chairman of the group.

In three months they set up an active organization and promoted a highly effective publicity campaign, gaining enough supporters to petition for a referendum on Plan E. But stubborn Councillors refused even to consider the petition. With balloting day imminent the Plan E Committee resorted to the courts.

Saturday was the crucial day. The 15 Councillors headed for Harvard Stadium to enjoy a football game, courtesy of the University. Fifteen deputies greeted them at their seats, with a warrant for each. Election day found the referendum on the ballot.

In the ensuing campaign Plan E was the object of charge and counter-charge. "Communistic," cried the politicians, "dictatorial." When the local Communist party came out against this new plan the politicians were forced to change their line of attack. It was the deceitful and covert means, they said, whereby the "Harvard-Brattle Street-Money-Taxpayer-Republican" forces hoped to regain control of the city. The battle even featured a resolution by the City Council that Harvard be expelled from Cambridge and incorporated as a university city.

Contemptuons of Do-gooders

Plan E lost out in the November election, but by the surprisingly small margin of four percent of the total vote. Thinking, however, that this reform move had spent itself in the losing fight, the old politicians went back to 'their self-seeking ways. They were, in fact, contemptuous of the part-time efforts of amateur do-gooders.

In the next two years the boodle boys became so blatantly crooked that not even the most apathetic voters could stomache it. In 1940 the voters of Cambridge decisively adopted Plan E and proportional representation.

The 1941 non-partisan election, however, was terribly disappointing to the Plan E group; only four of its endorsees were successful, leaving Council control with the five ostensibly hostile "independents." Since Cambridge was the first city in the state to try Plan E government, there were no procedents to point to in the event of early setbacks.

Informal meetings of the Council-elect resulted in the selection of Colonel John B. Atkinson: "born and raised" in Cambridge, "long prominent in the shoe business," "war hero," and totally unfamiliar with professional city managing. Atkinson's office gave him broad powers. Most important was his power to initiate budgetary matters for Council consideration.

The new city manager was green, but he was a fighter and an organizer. He repeatedly defeated blocking efforts of opposition Councilmen; he pulled down the tax rate and attracted more industry to Cambridge; he replaced who-you-know with what-you-know as criterion for city employee advancement as he streamlined municipal administration generally.

Birth of CCA

In 1945 reform government in Cambridge nearly failed because the Cambridge Committee for Plan E began to lose prestige and power by taking a virtual "holier-than-thou" attitude. The Cambridge Civic Association was founded then and since that time the City Council has been CCA dominated.

As his success and popular prestige mounted Atkinson is said to have become dictatorial in his relations with the City Council. Resentful Councilmen chaffed but it wasn't until the spring of 1952 when two CCA men, Mayor Joseph A. DeGuglielmo '29 and Edward A. Crane '35, bolted from support to lead the fight against him, that Atkinson was fired. John J. Curry '19, a former educator, was appointed in his place.

In order to understand the Cambridge political climate a little social biography is necessary. With a population of 125,000 Cambridge is the fourth largest city in the Commonwealth. Founded in 1630 it grew slowly for 200 years, then mushroomed with the great influx of Irish immigrants in 1840. In this period the still evident "town vs. gown" feeling was especially bitter. It wasn't long before Irish leaders organized under the Democratic banner and machine politics subverted local government for its own ends.

Today the Irish are still the dominating ethnic group with 60 percent of the city's population. Other large groups are the English and Scotch, French Canadians, and Italians. Negroes comprise only 4 percent of the inhabitants.

One of the nation's most crowded urban areas, highly industrial Cambridge suffers from very poor housing conditions. A WPA survey made in 1941-43 of some of the more crowded areas of the city found that about 86 percent of those surveyed were living in substandard buildings. Conditions have improved only slightly since that time.

Sharp social differences in Cambridge are drawn primarily between wealthy Brattle Street citizens and the laboring groups who make up the bulk of voters.

Popularity Contests

But politicians under PR cannot generally appeal to only one local interest group; they must try to attract support from all sections of the city. This helps explain why candidates now campaign on their personalities rather than on issues. Each must appear "all things to all men."

A number of politicians have never been satisfied with either Plan E or PR. They tried first to sabotage the city manager's program through the independents in Council. When this failed they switched their guns to PR. A confusingly-worded referendum against PR appeared on the ballot in 1952 but was voted down. The same confusing referendum appears this year--with brighter prospects.

Although most PR detractors say they favor Plan E itself, it is believed that many mean to attack the manager-council form of government once PR goes.

John W. Lyons, last mayor of Cambridge prior to Plan E, and presently publisher of the weekly Courier, says, "I have never been in favor of PR. The people just don't got a fair shake nowadays. PR is too confusing." In 1940, at a time when he was under indictment on 64 counts of requesting and accepting bribes, Lyons appeared before the old Plan B Council to argue against buying new snow plows of which the city owned not even one. He observed that as "the Almighty sends the snow, . . . He will in time remove it." For in those days it was politically wise to remove snow with the hand-shovel power of unemployed friends. Lyons was later convicted on 42 counts of bribery.

In 1949 Lyons led the independents in their only attempt to band solidly against CCA. They failed when the CCA learned of their secret plans for consolidation.

"PR is the machine politician's dream," claims incumbent Thomas M. McNamara, an independent. "You have CCA which is a machine, isn't it?" McNamara admits that he has always "been opposed to the whole process"--Plan E and PR. "I'd rather have it under the old mayor and the old system," he says.

Continuing he explains, "The city manager never has to respond to the people. He's a tough guy to get rid of. It took 11 years to get rid of Atkinson, and then it took a shotgun wedding to do it."

'Well-Organized Politics'

Incumbent Edward J. Sullivan, also an independent, doubts that plurality elections will bring machines back to Cambridge. "Let's say we'll have well-organized politics."

"Atkinson was the shrewdest politician that ever hit the town," Sullivan says. "He kidded the public for 11 years with phony tax reductions. The people of Cambridge are gradually catching up to the CCA as they caught up to Atkinson. The CCA is made up of a lot of carpet-baggers anyway," he concludes.

A referendum on fluoridation of city drinking water appears on the ballot with the awkwardly-worded PR referendum. To save PR voters must vote "no"; to okay fluoridation, "yes"--confusion is expected.

Mayor Joseph A. DeGuglielmo, CAA endorsed, isn't worried about the "threat" to PR. "I don't think PR makes that much difference to Cambridge," he opines. "Under a plurality system I'll get my bulk vote and combine with other strong candidates and we'll have what constitutes a machine. If that's what the voters want--hooray!"

DeGuglielmo has long been a close personal friend of Lyons, whose newspaper office is right next door in Harvard Square. He is said to own a considerable financial interest in the Courier, but this has never been proven.

Although DeGuglielmo has promised the CCA he will not campaign against PR, he will not actively campaign for it either.

Having run unsuccessfully twice before the City Council, Charles A. Watson, independent, says "PR makes it very difficult for a newcomer. In 12 years under PR only 16 men have held Council office, of which four died, three while in office." He believes, however, that PR will be retained.

"I don't think there'd he too much change in Council under a plurality system," declares incumbent Edward A. Crane, CCA-endorsed. "We would still have coalition government in Cambridge. Unfortunately people will go back to bullet-voting which is un-American. It entices people to restrict their franchise." Crane does favor retention of PR.

'Predatory Candidates'

CCA-endorsed incumbent Chester A. Higley thinks there would be a change in Council personnel if PR is thrown out. "I don't think there would be as much say for minority groups; things would be very much one-sided. Primaries make for machine politics. We'd have the same moss as they have in Boston." Higley is a good bet for mayor if the CCA maintains its Council majority--and it should.

Alan Steinert, President of CCA, paints a somber picture of Cambridge without PR. "Primaries will produce disinterest on the part of voters. This is true of all primaries I've heard of People will just not vote twice.

"Only the most predatory candiates will prevail. It will make the task of electing a solid Council much more difficult for CCA, and correspondingly easier for those who want personal advantage from office."

Steinert believes Plan E government would be "emasculated" as "only the politically-minded candidates will go through the torture of two campaigns; only those who have personal gain in mind.

"CCA is solidly behind Plan E, and PR is a fundamental facet," he states. "As to endorsed candidates, we asked them to campaign for PR. Our only request is that no candidate speak against PR."

Former city manager John B. Atkinson sees "defeat of PR as a great setback to council-manager form of government in Cambridge." He does not think that PR will be defeated, however.

Not His Own Man

Atkinson believes that the city is beginning to run down. More especially, he blames city manager John J. Curry for poor management on the sale of certain water department property for $60,000 which had been appraised for $90,000.

"I don't think Curry's his own man. He has to do what Crane tells him to do," Atkinson asserts.

It is true that under Atkinson's success-full administration the city manager had most of the initiative and the Council was much less powerful. With the present city manager closely allied to certain Councilmen the Council has asumed more control. And they generally applaud Curry.

A sampling of Cambridge voters produced varied comments:

Cab driver Joe Baker favors plurality voting. "I'd rather vote that way. Lots of guys make it now who people don't want. We should have some new faces for a change. I always voted for Sulley but I'm undecided about him this time. He makes a big noise but doesn't do much."

Chinese laundryman Richard Wong is against PR. "I like it the other way. That way each vote counts for a different man. All votes count."

A woman running a spa in the negro section who prefers anonymity says, "I never did approve of Plan E. Don't think a city managed by a city manager is any good. Do you mean to tell me people backed by CCI up there should stay in? I'd like to vote for nine men under plurality."

Between sodas she indicated approval of one candidate, "There's no straighter man than Tommy McNamara. If he promises to go to bat for you, he will."

Another storekeeper in a slum neighborhood differs on this last point. "I don't think much of McNamara. He's always hung around politics looking for graft. I don't like the CCA either. Let people use their own ideas. Beat PR and you beat CCA too. I think we should bring back the old kind of government. I'd like to so people in there who don't take orders from a group."

The old storekeeper continues, "I liked Atkinson more than Curry. Seemed he knew what he was doing and wouldn't let other fellows shove things through for friends."

Asked what his customers think about the election, he remarked, "Half the people around here say, 'Oh nuts, election day . . . better get my beer, today, they'll be closed tomorrow.'"Dennis Sintiris, Cambridge barber for 36 years, likes PR and adds, "I gotta vote people I know. If I start vote everyone, won't do any good. Just gonna vote Santoro and Sullivan. No others." This is commonly known as bullet-voting.