Lack of Issues Marks Council Race

With Rent Control Off the Table, Nine Incumbents Focus on Quality-of-Life Concerns

Cantabrigians tend to vote their pocket-books, but no economic plan is on the ballot. And people like contested elections, but this year's race is a shoo-in.

So it appears the main question in this fall's City Council race is whether voter turnout will continue to slip.

For years Cambridge politics revolved around a single issue--rent control--but a 1994 state referendum abolished tenant subsidies.

And there won't be a horse race either. All nine incumbents on the council have declared their intention to run again, and no new candidates have entered the election.

The only intriguing question remaining is: How many people will show up at the polling stations in November?

The lack of interest in the election could accelerate an already significant decline in voter turnout. In 1995, just over 19,000 city residents voted in the council elections, compared with more than 30,000 votes cast in 1989.

More than 95,000 people live in Cambridge.

With rent control no longer the polarizing issue that riveted generations of councillors, some council members fear that the election could be met with apathy.

"I predict that there could be as few as 17,000 people showing up," said Timothy J. Toomey, a council member and a Democratic state representative.

A local political analyst agreed. There seems to be a vacuum of compelling issues, said Glenn S. Koocher '71, who hosts a local public-television show focusing on Cambridge politics.

"In the old days, there were three issues--rent control, rent control and rent control," said Koocher. "It used to be that anyone who lived in a protected apartment would go out and vote for a slate of pro-rent-control candidates, but that isn't going to happen anymore."

Implemented in the 1970s, rent control helped provide low-cost housing to residents in Cambridge, Boston and Brookline. Detractors, including many area landlords, claimed the program was rife with abuse, even citing then-Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 as an example of a rent-control tenant who did not need any protection.

But rent control's defenders asserted that the program, by placing caps on how much landlords could raise rents, helped thousands of low-income families who otherwise would not be able to live in the area.

Authored by a Cambridge landlord, Question 9--the statewide referendum that ended rent control--squeaked by with a 51-percent majority. But voters in the three affected communities overwhelmingly opposed the initiative.

In 1994, after Question 9's passage, the City Council passed, 8-1, a resolution asking the state legislature to extend rent-control protections.

William H. Walsh, the only council member to dissent, no longer sits on the council, following his conviction and sentencing on state fraud charges.

As of Jan. 1 this year, the last rent-control apartments in Cambridge lost their protected status. Since some rents have tripled since then, council members have focused on developing affordable housing for low-income families as an alternative.

But liberal advocates in the city are trying hard to keep the issue alive.

"There will probably be enough housing for the elderly, but that is not the case for single-parent families," said Geneva T. Malenfant, a leader of the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA). "There is no question in my mind that there is a lack of adequate housing for tenants in rent-protected apartments."

Harvard helped the state to alleviate the problem recently by selling 100 apartments below market value so that they may be used for permanently affordable housing, said Malenfant.

But the council this spring defeated a transfer-tax petition that would have raised money from the sale of property to subsidize low-income tenants.

Although Cambridge is almost entirely Democratic, the debate over rent control allowed city politics to be viewed along "party" lines, with the CCA considered the more liberal group and the Independents a more moderate faction.

But Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio contested this widely held depiction of city political lines.

"Just because an individual was critical of rent control does not mean that he has to be conservative," said Galluccio. "It was important for us to be able to use means-testing to determine that the housing was being distributed properly."

Traditionally, the CCA has included many intellectuals and middle-class social progressives, while the Independents have drawn support from the city's blue-collar and immigrant families.

"Here is the classic difference between the two groups: If you have a problem, the Independents want to fix that particular problem today, while the CCA wants to change the underlying cause of the problem," said Koocher.

The council is currently evenly split between two factions. Henrietta E. Davis, Vice Mayor Kathleen L. Born, Francis H. Duehay '55, and Katherine Triantafillou are affiliated with the CCA. The Independents include Toomey, Galluccio, Michael A. Sullivan and Mayor Sheila Doyle Russell.

The ninth member of the council is Kenneth E. Reeves '72, who is currently unaffiliated. The city's first black and first openly gay mayor, Reeves split with the CCA in 1993 when he ran successfully for a second term as mayor. The mayor is elected by the City Council.

The mechanics behind the election favors the two-party system. The voting system, called "proportional representation," allows voters to rank their candidates from one to nine according to their preference. After one candidate is elected, his or her ballots are transferred to the next candidate listed on the ballot.

The CCA and the Alliance for Change, the Independents' umbrella group, both put together a "slate," and voters are called to vote for a particular slate in order to insure that each party's candidate gets the trickle-down votes.

A slate creates a foundation of common ideas from which the council members can begin to tackle important problems facing the city, Malenfant said.

"We interview [potential candidates], and if they more or less agree with our positions, then we can give them our backing," said Malenfant. "We don't want to impose dictatorial control."

This election season is important because it will indicate the direction that the council will take in the wake of rent control, but it is impossible to predict what new issues may emerge, said Koocher.

"I have been watching Cambridge elections for 35 years, and I wouldn't call it," said Koocher. "The council is going to be concerned with some real fine-line esoteric issues."

The candidates have offered an indication of what issues are going to concern them in their next term.

The end of rent control combined with a decrease in federal housing aid is going to have a major impact on the city, said Duehay.

"Cambridge has historically been open to people of all incomes and backgrounds," said Duehay. "We have always been an immigrant city, and now we have to try to prevent people from lower to middle-class backgrounds from being squeezed out."

One method of providing affordable housing is through a citizen-generated down-zoning proposal that would tighten restrictions on the height of new buildings, said Davis. Many liberal councillors have warned against the "gentrification" of the city and of the forcing out of lower-income Cantabrigians by more affluent residents.

"It is important to note that the council has been working on a bi-partisan basis to create this housing, and the election will simply be about choosing one vision over another," said Davis.

It is important to realize that there are some problems within the community despite its appearance of economic health, said Galluccio.

"Thirty percent of Cambridge residents have some form of a graduate degree and 16 percent did not graduate from high school, said Galluccio. "There is a huge disparity between the city's wealthy population and its poor. We need to build a business base to support people of all educational backgrounds."

Galluccio also pointed out that Cambridge spends more per student than any other school district in the state, but it does not perform as well as some of the neighboring districts.

"Even though we probably spend $4,000 more per student, Borckton has higher SAT scores," said Gallucio. "The high school has an 18 percent out-of-school suspension rate. There is the stereotype that we have one of the better school districts in the state, but we obviously have to do something."

The most important concern of voters, is their wallets, and they are going to vote with an eye toward fiscal responsibility, said Toomey.

"An official in Watertown said to me that there has already been a large number of Cambridge residents moving there," said Toomey. "People are going to have a closer view on what the city is spending, and we are the ones with control over the budget."