City powerbrokers

The year that was

While the rest of the country focused its attention on choosing a new national leader, residents of Cambridge faced an important election of their own this year--the it large elections for the nine seats on the City Council.

After a decidedly lackluster campaign, the council emerged almost unchanged on the survive. Eight of the nine incumbents won re-election, and the balance of power between the four liberal. Cambridge Civic Association (CCA)-backed councilors, the four conservative Independents and the self-proclaimed swing vote Alfred F. Vellucci remained intact.

But some behind-the-scenes politicking has left the de facto power on the council securely in the camp of the liberals. Independent Councilor Leonard J. Russell beat out his colleagues for the position of council chairman--otherwise known as mayor. To win the five-vote majority he needed, however. Russell had to engage in some wheeling and dealing with the liberals, notably Councilor David E. Sullivan.

In theory, the city council selects a chairman at the first meeting of each new term. In practice, the process takes longer, usually about a month but even as long as 43 weeks in one case during the 1940s.

This year, the council took four weeks to reach its decision, and the backstage bargains that Russell made are gradually becoming apparent. The former staunch conservative voted to support a regulation requiring local restaurants to set aside 25 percent of their seating area for non-smokers, a CCA-supported move. Even more distressing to his comrades on the right was Russell's approval of two "liberal" commissions. One is currently investigating the policy of linkage, which would force commercial developers to build a certain amount of housing for each office complex they erect. The second committee will keep an eye on the actions of the Cambridge police, who faced several allegations of racial discrimination this spring. Both votes betray the traditional conservative support of business and the autonomy of city institutions.

Sullivan says he is pleased with the liberal direction the council is taking. "Things are happening this term, while last term was lackluster in terms of substantive policies," he says. Vellucci, however, is less enthusiastic. Although in age and in style of politics, as well as in general ideological leaning. Vellucci is closer to the conservative bloc than the liberal one, his strong and vocal support of rent control and other housing-related issues caused him to align himself with the liberal camp on many controversial decisions in the past, enabling him to wield considerable power as the council's swing vote.

But at recent meetings, Vellucci has been noticeably irritated as he watches the council power slip from his grasp. He continually reminds Sullivan that certain controversial legislation requires six votes in council rather than five.

One controversy that has attracted much public attention is what to do with the old Simplex Wire and Cable factory site, a 27-acre parcel of land in Cambridgeport. Because the site is the last large, undeveloped area in the city, many people from both the public and private sectors are concerned with what will be built there.

The problem is that the land is currently zoned "industrial B", a classification that allows a developer to build almost anything, from two-story houses to multi-story commercial buildings, with very little city regulation. The CCA bloc on the council wants to change the zoning to force developers to use at least some of that land for housing to relieve Cambridge's notoriously tight market. Ordinarily, a zoning change requires five council votes--which on the current council means that four CCA councilors and Russell. Yet MIT owns almost all of the land in question, and an obscure by-law forces the council to find six votes if an owner of more than 20 percent of the land objects to the zoning change. MIT, understandably, wants to contend with as few city regulations as possible.

And that sixth vote is Vellucci. If, that is, the liberals include a large number of houses. "They [the liberals] thought they had Al Vellucci in the bag, but now they see that they don't, and Senor David Sullivan will have to bargain with me," Vellucci says.

In addition to the Simplex site, other areas of Cambridge are also undergoing development. The city filled in the old East Cambridge canal, a place ripe for development, and the MBTA will soon finish its development in Harvard Square. The future aesthetics of both sites are of great concern to the city council.

Other, less divisive issues also emerged this term for the council. One is the school committee's vote to fire the current superintendent of schools when his contract expires in August. Filling that vacancy, along with five others in major administrative positions in the school system, will be of major concern to the council in the next several months.

In addition to these one-time issues, the council faces many perennial problems involved with running the city, such as its decaying roads and the difficulties with the increasing gentrification of a formerly blue-collar industrial city.