Cambridge: A Long History Of Divisiveness

POLITICAL LIFE in Cambridge reflects the fierce competition among the diverse nationalities and social strata of the City for attention, power and privilege.

Cambridge has a long history of divisiveness. In 1846, for example, 40 per cent of the citizens in the area opposed the amalgamation and incorporation of the four original villages into one City of Cambridge.

Shortly before the Second World War a controversial Irish mayor was convicted and imprisoned for illegal kickbacks from architects. The outraged citizens searched for a system of local government that would be less corruptable and more representative of the City's Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish immigrants. The state legislature proposed an innovative but unproved scheme of proportional representation: Plan E. The Plan also included a strong City manager and a weak City Council; each was to have a specifically defined purpose.

Proportional representation was heralded in the forties as an effective means of ensuring minority representation with majority control. Any group of voters that numbers more than one-tenth of the population can be sure of electing at least one member of a nine-man council, but a majority group of voters can be sure of electing a majority of the council.

P.R. prevents election landslides by a bare majority. It avoids the need for primary elections, in which voting nearly always tends to be lighter.

Across the Charles, for example, there are no black members of the City Council or the School Committee even though Boston's black population is several times as large as Cambridge's black population. In Cambridge two blacks are on the City Council. One is vice mayor.

The voting system is as complex as the City's ethnic pockets are colorful. Voters must number the names on the ballot in their order of preference instead of making a single "x". An average of 2000 of 30,000 ballots are declared invalid in every election.

Once a candidate reaches one-tenth of the vote, the remainder of his ballots are transferred to the marked second choices and so on. Sometimes there are 30 candidates and a voter has the option of marking his preference all the way of the last name on the ballot. Understanda bly, the counting of votes takes up the better part of a week or longer.

Cambridge's second distinct political feature is the strong City manager-weak City Council scheme. Nine councillors are elected at large by P.R. every two years. The Council elects one of the members as mayor and appoints a City manager. A separate School Committee is composed of six members elected by voters, though.

THE MAYOR chairs the City Council, is chairwoman ex-officio of the School Committee and is the ceremonial head of the City. The Council is the policy making body, deciding only upon three appointments: the City Manager, City Clerk and the City Auditor. The Council meets every Monday night.

The City Manager is the administrative head of the City and legally holds most of the municipal power--except for the School Committee which is independently operated but budgeted through the City manager's office.

Though there are two specific means for taking care of citizens' grievances--the initiative petition and the referendum petition--they have been rarely invoked or enforced by the courts.

In 1972 the School Committee voted 4-3 to oust School Superintendent Frank Frisoli '35 who had served in the system for 33 years. The action touched off a protest that was especially intense in the City's ethnic neighborhoods.

Almost 17,000 residents signed petitions asking for a public referendum on Frisoli's firing. Although nearly 50 per cent of the voters who put the School Board in office were against the firing, the board voted to deny the referendum. Citizens for Frisoli filed suit against the mayor, but a country judge ruled that the ultimate power lay with the School Board and dismissed the case.

The amended City Charter makes it clear that the City manager and his staff is to handle municipal affairs and authorize civil servants to do specific jobs. The City councillors, by law, are forbidden to tamper with this process at the risk of a $500 fine or a six month prison sentence. Violators also are forbidden to serve the City in any future capacity, elective or otherwise.

During the past twenty years, however, nearly all councillors at one time or another have interfered with the City manager's business, Vice Mayor Henry F. Owens III said last week. "There is a very fine line between the Council's policy-making decisions and the City manager's business."

Owens said, "Plan E's primary advantage is the strong independent City manager when the manager is good. If the Manager is not good, not professional, you have the Council getting involved all the time." He added that a Charter Commission to investigate other options open to the City's government would be "a very good idea, especially at this time."

Cambridge is overwhelmingly Democratic although technically City politics are non-partisan. In reality, Cambridge politics is fiercely competitive even though most of the City councillors are in agreement on several basic issues. It is hard, for example, to name a councillor who does not view Harvard University as one of the primary sources of the City's housing, unemployment, and tax-base problems.

There is only one established local political group, the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), which originally represented the wealthy neighborhoods in west Cambridge, mainly along fashionable Brattle Street.

TODAY IT IS a shaky liberal coalition mainly of moderate professionals and working poor devoted to "good government." There are no longer any clear definitions of CCA policy or membership. The CCA will hold a convention in late September to decide which candidates they will endorse in the fall elections.

Three City councillors identify themselves as "Independent" even though they are strong Democrats. They do not affiliate themselves with any other candidate.

Councillor Saundra Graham ran on the CCA platform in her first campaign two years ago. She is now helping establish the Grass Roots Organization (GRO), which seems to be to the CCA's left.

The GRO initial platform focuses on ten areas of municipal activity including city-wide down-zoning, takeover of local privately-owned power and gas companies, opening a city-owned public bank, prohibition of evictions and neighborhood control of police and public housing.

Its goal, according to the draft, is to make Cambridge a city where everyone "enjoys the highest standard of living that human knowledge and technology can provide." GRO meets weekly in private homes, but Graham says the group will soon have a central office. "GRO is very unstructured at this point and there is still a lot of argument within the group," Graham said last month.

In Cambridge politics established groups find it as easy to have fallings-out as do Independents. Although the voters elected a CCA majority to the City Council in 1971 the slate fell apart shortly after it took office in January 1972.

The group reneged on its campaign pledge to fire City Manager John Corcoran, who one CCA councillor had described as a "political hack." The CCA councillors were divided over their choice for a new City manager for nine months. They could not come to a compromise.

Vice-Mayor Henry Owens preferred another candidate and refused to bend. All CCA had personally pledged to "consult together earnestly and in good faith" and "to vote together" on the new City manager, but Corcoran is still in City Hall.

The present City Council is a fascinating crew which includes a welfare mother, a Harvard dean, a black millionaire's son, a mailman-turned-engineer, and a Rhodes scholar from Yale.

The mayor of Cambridge is CCA-endorsed Barbara Ackerman, a Smith alumna and housewife with ten years of elective municipal posts behind her. She chaired the City's Committee on Transportation which successfully battled the State Department of Public Works over several unsightly gargantuan expressways that would have exacerbated the city's housing crisis.

Despite her often lonely liberal stance, many left-wingers dislike what they describe as her willingness to compromise and her lack of militancy and long-range vision. Her term as mayor ends December 31.

Vice-Mayor Owens is young, fairly liberal and enjoys middle-class black and professional white support. He is the son of a trucking magnate and served four years as assistant district attorney of the Middlesex County Court. He will run for re-election this fall stressing three issues: Kendall Square development and blue-collar jobs, the University's "irrelevant" tax exempt status and, most importantly, getting a new City's manager.