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.