Counting Change in Cambridge 1981

News Analysis

At 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, the liberals still had a shot. After months of campaigning with the aim of gaining a city council majority, the members of the progressive Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) pinned their hopes on Alice Wolf. She was down by but 172 votes to veteran conservative Thomas W. Danehy, and, under Cambridge's arcane proportional representation voting system, there were 1562 votes left to be counted. They were votes that originally had been cast for Mary Allen Wilkes.

Mary Allen Wilkes called herself the condo candidate; she ran a single-issue campaign, attacking the city's two-year-old ordinance restricting condominiums, a position shared by the old-line Independent councilors, of whom Danehy was one. But Wilkes is a corporate lawyer, a resident of fashionable West Cambridge--in background and style much closer to Wolf. So the liberals were almost sure they could pick up some ballots, when Wilkes was ellminated and her votes transferred; the only question, they thought, was would they get enough?

Two hundred people were crowded into the gymnasium of the Longfellow School where the votes were being counted; the audience included nearly every politico in the city, and normally they are a talkative bunch. But when it came time to start distributing the votes, they grew absolutely silent, waiting to hear the calls of the elderly women who would examine the ballots and announce where they were going. "Duehay...Russell...Danehy...Dane hy...Wolf...Danehy."

By 10:35, it was over.

Condominium voters, despite their economic status (or perhaps because of it) voted overwhelmingly for the Independents in the number two, three, four and five places on their ballots. "The question was how mad they were," one local politician said, reasoning that if they were only fairly angry they would vote for Wilkes number one and then return to the liberal fold. But it turned out that they were really, really mad, furious in fact. And it turned out that they robbed the CCA of its best chance for a majority in years.

The strongest CCA slate in many an election was taking on an Independent ticket depleted by the retirement of one member, Kevin P. Crane '73; the city's demographics had been getting better for liberals year after year; in short, it appeared an ideal election to pick up the fifth seat and end the long reliance on Alfred E. Vellucci for the vote that keeps rent control and the condo ordinance intact.

But along about springtime, the condo issue heated up. Skillfully brought to a boil by a variety of city developers, notably attorney William Walsh, many tenants turned prospective condo owners began to show up before the city council pleading for exemptions. And, faced with the prospect of the condo ban melting away beneath a flood of special cases, the CCA councilors did what they had to do and upheld the law, most recently about two weeks before the election.

That decision to uphold the law provided the fuel for Wilkes' fire; a stream of leaflets, all printed on legal size white paper, and all anonymous, circulated throughout the city, accusing the CCA candidates, and in particular tenant activist David Sullivan, of conducting a "reign of terror" through their vigorous attempts at enforcing the statute. Wilkes denied responsibility for the leaflets, and they certainly did not match the slick tone of the rest of her campaign; whoever put them out, though, helped her efforts. And the Independents wooed her supporters--a group calling itself the Cambridge Condominium Network endorsed Wilkes number one, but urged her supporters to back Danehy, Leonard R. Russell, Walter J. Sullivan, and Donald Fantini--all Independents--on the rest of the ballot.

The question, though, is whether the CCA could have done any better by doing anything differently, and the answer is probably no. They would have been forced to face the condo issue in any event, if not by prospective purchasers angry at the restrictions than by tenants upset at eroding protections. And the indication from Tuesday's vote is that politically they would have been worse off to ignore the tenants. David Sullivan--who draws the vast bulk of his support from tenants--was for the second election in a row the city's most popular progressive politician. All five candidates who backed the condo law--Sullivan, Saundra Graham, Francis H. Duehay '55, David Wylie, and Vellucci--were reelected, and the CCA candidate seen as most ambivalent about the statute--Wendy Abt--fared very, very poorly, racking up fewer votes per dollar spent campaigning than anyone in the race. All these are arguments that will be hashed out in the months ahead, as the CCA decides what direction it will take on housing issues.

In some ways, then, it was a small minority of condo owners that was able to beat the CCA's hopes for a fifth seat; they did it more by supporting Independents number two and three on their ballot than by backing Wilkes number one. Skillful organization by many paid off; Walsh, watching the vote count Friday, said "I'm very, very pleased with how it's going."

The furor over the condo issue tended to overshadow a few other interesting trends in last week's voting, trends that could be ascertained by watching the ballots pile up one after another in the pigeonholes reserved for each candidate. The most interesting developments included:

* The high transfer rate among Independent candidates. In past years, Independent voters have often backed the neighborhood candidate and not voted for similar policians from other parts of town. In Cambridge's proportional representation voting system, that hurts, for it means the Independent candidates must "win on number ones" instead of counting on transfer votes as weaker members of their slates are eliminated. And Independent number ones were down almost 2000 from 1979.

Breaking the Chain

This year, though, a high-visibility campaign around the theme "Don't Break the Chain" encouraged voters to list all the Independents on their ballots. And it seemed to pay off. Only one Independent council candidate, Donald Fantini, was eliminated. His votes went to other Independents--Vellucci, Leonard J. Russell, Danehy, Daniel F. Clinton and Walter J. Sullivan. Only about ten per cent ended up in the "exhausted" pile (votes reserved for bullet) which has usually been the burying ground for Independent candidates. The same trend seemed evident in early school committee transfers.

* Students voted in somewhat smaller numbers than two years ago, but still in enough force to have a significant effect on the outcome of the election. Some city pols called the 1979 student turnout a fluke, pointing to a referendum question on investments in companies doing business in South Africa as the reason for the heavy voting; this year again, however, Ward 6, Precinct 3, where most Harvard students vote, was among the busiest polling places in the city.

David Sullivan again won the majority of student votes, picking up more than 150 in 6-3 alone. But many of those voting were freshmen or sophomores not even in the city during the last election; Sullivan won them almost by default, mounting the only serious campaign effort in the dorms.

* Except for the Wilkes vote, political patterns again proved hard to break in the city. John St. George '70, who supported the CCA's platform but denounced its style, fared badly in the areas where such a stance was supposed to have helped him. And Robert White, despite a long history of tenant activism, found it next to impossible to break into the solid support of Cambridge apartment-dwellers for David Sullivan. Abt's candidacy may have proved this lesson most of all--despite high name visibility, enormous amounts of money, and an issue-oriented campaign, she was unable to switch many of the voters who normally give their support to one of the other CCA candidates. Wolf, considered a sheo-in by some, because of her strong school committee showing in 1979, ran headfirst into the same phenomenon.