Why register? Unfortunately, not to cast a vote against Ford for vice president. Off-off-year elections tend to create even less excitement than off-year congressional contests, and may even pass unnoticed by student populations who don't venture out into Cambridge's residential neighborhoods where occasional signs in front yards announce allegiances. And in an era of decreasing student activism, it is difficult to estimate student interest in old fashioned electoral politics. Dormitory-bound students are usually unaware of the real character of Cambridge life--the city extends over two miles in either direction from Harvard Square, while most of The Crimson's readership feels on alien turf if it ranges two blocks beyond Burr Hall to Rindge Tech High School. Harvard's consistent and unneighborly expansion policy has irrevocably altered neighborhood residence patterns and introduced student life into the areas below the Law School, around Radcliffe and in the direction of Peabody Terrace. But few of Cambridge's 80,000-plus residents (down from 110,000 a few decades ago) consider Harvard Square as a focus of their activities. They read the Cambridge Chronicle--not, The Crimson--to keep up with events that bear on their lives. And they communicate their grievances to their City Councilpersons and School Committeepersons. And every two years, they elect new ones.
During the post-war period, the period of Harvard's (and MIT's) growth and the generally increasing affluence for the middle and upper classes, if not for Cambridge's ethnic and black working class majority, the City Council has been the focus of local bush-league Spiro Agnews. The Council decides zoning changes, hence to a great extent, the scope and character of Harvard's growth. And, with speculators vying for land in the Harvard-MIT strip for commercial and apartment development, there has been a lot of loose money available for political influence. The interests of the working class family, still by far the greatest percentage of Cambridge residents, have not been met. As Harvard buys up more land, there is less property tax paid to the city. With the high student and student-fringe demand on apartment space, family housing is bought up by absentee landlords, subsidized, and rented to groups of students for two to ten times its former rental. In addition to leaving less available family units in Cambridge, it floats up "property values" and hence increases tax rates for owners of single or two-family dwellings. Rising property values and survival wage demands have forced traditional Cambridge employers (Simplex Wire, Lever Bros. etc.) to leave the city, eliminating most of the unskilled and semi-skilled job market, and commuting costs to the budget of local working people. Harvard has become by far Cambridge's largest employer, adding to the conflict of interest in local politics. The bulk of new jobs in the city are the MIT-generated white-collar employers of commuting suburbanites (NASA-Tech Square, Badget, A.D. Little). Partial exceptions with some assembly operations, like Polaroid and the hi-fi industries, began similarly as research units and only later generated jobs, and, like Polaroid, have a tendency to locate expansion facilities outside Cambridge. The City Council panders to these and other intensive profit, low job-generating (like new high-rise hotel and commercial) activities in its zoning and tax structures. The dollar votes of a few well-connected construction firms have been influential in a number of these zoning battles, including the recent Riverside, Kendall and Inman Square and Kennedy Library decisions. (Students wanting a real education in Government should attend the weekly Monday evening City Council meetings at City Hall, open to the public.)
Unfortunately, the money influence of special interest parties makes it unlikely that the ills of the Cambridge social scene can be addressed through the City Council. Upper middle-class and Harvard institutional interests were responsible for and profited from the election of "liberal" Barbara Ackermann as mayor and Duehay as councilman. The liberal response was shown up for what it was, class interest, when Larry Largey died after being beaten by Cambridge cops last fall. The first-ever mass mobilization of East Cambridge citizens in an angry march to the Council had no effect--the two cops are still on the beat. Simply stated, the interests of "the people" are no better served by local politicians than they are by the Washington variety.
One of the clearest examples of this is to be found in Cambridge's school system. The only book on Nixon, Helen Olds's Richard M. Nixon, in the King School library, glorifies "an honest lawyer who doesn't cheat people but helps them." And the Harrington School library's only book on Vietnam, Vietnam and the Countries of the Mekong, by Larry Henderson, openly justifies American imperialism in Asia.
And the school committee is the place where the individual's vote can have the greatest effect on the system. Money is a smaller part of the race, as political favors aren't there to be bought. Most of the candidates have less than $500 to spend. And it is here that slate voting has the biggest leverage on traditional party structures.
John Brode's hard work at forging a left coalition, the Grass Roots Organization (GRO), will probably not net him the votes he so richly deserves. (Except for incumbent City Councilwoman Saundra Graham, the GRO slate candidates for Council stand slim chances against the money of the old-line politicians.) The same is true of the guiding hand behind the formation of the Common Slate, which ran five candidates two years ago. David Wylie stands perhaps the best chance of the outsiders, and a strong youth/left vote could conceivably bring real new blood to the Council, but odds are long.
In the school committee races the effects of slate voting will be stronger. There is always a plethora of candidates for the seven available positions (over 20 in 1971), but three stand out both for their views and their community support: Timothy Callahan, Eric Davin and Mary Ellen Preusser. (Republican Koocher is the only "young Agnew" who might take one of the seats--he has $7000 to spend on his campaign, an outrageous sum in the school race, only justified because he sees it as a stepping-stone to bigger things.)
Callahan is one of the first of a potentially really new breed in American city politics. He is 19, a life-long resident of Cambridge and a 1971 graduate of Cambridge High and Latin School. He has experienced the totality of the school system's degradation and has focused and articulated his sentiments against that system. He advocates citizen review of teacher candidates, with review of tenure, student participation in curriculum development, further development of alternative schools, and new work-study programs. In 1971 Callahan founded Students United through Politics for Educational Reform (SUPER). SUPER is credited with the creation of the Student Concerns subcommittee of the School Committee. Now a student at UMass, he is a member of the advisory board of the Cambridge Civic Association. He seems headed for a career as a genuinely radical reformer in Cambridge. He ran for State Representative last year, and has the backing of the CCA, Cambridge People's Party. The Common Slate, and the Cambridge Women's Political Caucus.
Eric Davin, 25, comes from a similar working class background--he is the only one of six children to finish high school. He came to Cambridge with only a junior college certificate, became involved in education, and became a candidate for degree at Harvard School of Education without a college diploma. He has taught at the alternative Cambridge Community High School and now edits Centerpeace, New England's only free school periodical. He is unique in drawing the personal endorsement of Jonathan Kozol, author of Death at an Early Age and Free Schools. He aims at radical reform of the school system, particularly in libraries and history departments, and support of alternative schools. He advocates an educational census to determine the number of bilingual and crippled children and illiterate adults of non-English speaking origin to establish programs suited to their needs.
Eric ran a strong but unsuccessful race in the 1971 election with The Common Slate, which was instrumental in bringing in a new reformist superintendent of schools, Cheatham. He now has the added backing of Cambridge People's Party, the CCA, Cambridge Women's Political Caucus and CPPAX. His long term interest is in education, not political maneuvering, made explicit by his work at Centerpeace.
Mary Ellen Preusser was another unsuccessful candidate with The Common Slate two years ago. If not as radical as Eric or Tim, she has a vested interest: a child in the Cambridge public schools. She has expressed support for movements to increase citizen participation in the school system, but has not articulated her position as clearly as Davin or Callahan. Married and not working, she has had more time and money to give herself voter exposure, and may have a strong bid at one of the vacant seats.
So why vote? Because it may be crucial to maintain a popular School Committee at a time when the City Council is dominated by elitists and political opportunists. Why register? Not only in order to vote but to begin a process of involvement with the level of politics that can eventually enable all of us to control the institutions that control us, beginning with the board of elections.
Chris Hagert '66 is a community activist in Cambridge.