DeBergalis Runs for City Council on Student Platform

MIT grad looks to students to support ideas of later restaurant, bus hours in elections

David E. Stein

City Council candidate Matt DeBergalis.

Matt DeBergalis trudges through Mather low rise, a clipboard in one hand and a fistful of pamphlets in the other.

A so-called “dark horse” in tomorrow’s city council election, DeBergalis has been no stranger this election season to Mather House—or to the Yard or MIT frats, for that matter—in pursuit of student voters, a typically-neglected segment of the electorate that he targets as his core constituency.

Sporting cargo pants and carrying a bike messenger bag across his shoulder, the young software writer turned candidate knocks on every door to remind voters of the impending election in a low-key spiel punctuated with the words “cool” and “sweet.”

His platform is unconventional. He promises to push for better late-night transportation hours, for the preservation of beloved local nightclubs and for licenses to allow eateries to stay open later.

“Why is there nowhere to eat around here at 2 a.m.?” reads a typical DeBergalis campaign poster. “It’s because the city of Cambridge chooses not to grant licenses. You think this is absurd. We think it is absurd. DeBerg thinks Cambridge’s 15,000 students should have a voice where it matters.”

At 26, DeBergalis is the youngest of this year’s 20 candidates and is not so far removed from his own undergraduate years at MIT.

A software engineer by training, DeBergalis lacks the natural politician’s ability to effortlessly schmooze and casually construct sound bites.

But the earnest young candidate has recruited students and friends to his campaign, which he says has registered 800 students across Harvard and MIT—400 of whom, he says, have pledged their votes to him.

Even though DeBergalis has a niche, he is still a long shot.

In order to make “quota” and win a council seat under Cambridge’s proportional representation voting system—a system in which voters rank their top nine choices—a candidate typically must receive about 1,700 votes.

And this year’s race is competitive by any standard.

Once elected, city councillors usually enjoy a good deal of job security, and all nine of the incumbent city councillors are seeking reelection. DeBergalis is one of 11 challenger candidates this year.

Before he leaves Mather to cap off his night with some campaigning in the Yard, DeBergalis reflects on his effort to energize students.

Win or lose, DeBergalis says he hopes to stay involved in local politics.

“I love that for the last three months, I’ve been out meeting people, having a direct effect on things. I really enjoy that,” he says. “It’s hard to change the world writing software.”

Mr. DeBergalis Goes to City Hall?

DeBergalis’s campaign strategy flies in the face of Cambridge political convention. Students have long been ignored by local pols who know how low voter turnout is among the college crowd.

Only a small number of Harvard and MIT students are registered to vote in Cambridge, and of this group, a fraction actually goes to the polls on Election Day.

In the 2001 City Council race, 18 out of 226 registered students—8 percent—voted at the polling center on 29 Garden Street, which serves students living in the Yard.

The problem wasn’t limited to first-years. In the same year, 26 out of 423 students—6 percent—voted at Quincy House, which serves most of the River Houses.

But DeBergalis hopes to stem the tide of student apathy.

Volunteers in each of the Harvard Houses and MIT dormitories have also helped spread the word about his campaign.

Zachary B. Stone ’04, who met DeBergalis as a high schooler at an MIT summer program, is his representative in Quincy House.

“I’ve never been involved in a campaign,” Stone says. “I mean, I study physics and math, I’m not a politician, and I didn’t really know anything about how these things work.”

According to Stone, the DeBergalis campaign has registered 53 Quincy voters.

In addition to the voting base that he has identified and registered, DeBergalis also has at least one incumbent councillor pulling for him.

Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87 says he urges students to vote “me number one, and Matt number two” on the ballot.

The last City Council candidate to run on a student-oriented platform was Erik Snowberg, who ran in the 1999 City Council race while still a senior at MIT. Snowberg received 429 first-place votes, well below the necessary quota. DeBergalis, who says he asked Snowberg for campaign advice, is hoping for a better showing.

According to Robert Winters, a longtime Cambridge political observer, getting out the vote will be key to DeBergalis’s shot.

“Matt needs to bring his vote out. That’s what’s he needs to do if he’s going to make some inroads here,” Winters says.

Murphy says he has been impressed with DeBergalis’s emphasis on civic responsibility.

“I think Matt is bringing a lot to this campaign,” Murphy says. “Anything that’s done to try to engage more people in the political process is an outstanding benefit. The sooner we can get them to be engaged in the community, the better.”

The Platform

While DeBergalis offers a vision of pizza joints open at 3 a.m. and better late-night transportation options, he has few concrete proposals as to how the council can make it happen—and neither issue falls under traditional council purview.

But he does have the personal experience to back up his arguments about what young people in Cambridge need.

He studied for five years at MIT, graduating in 2000 with a Master’s degree in computer science. Earlier this year, he started a software company, North Annex, Inc., in the city, and now resides in Cambridgeport.

“I never would have called myself an activist,” DeBergalis says.

He did, however, hold leadership roles at Zeta Beta Tau, his fraternity at MIT, and was a co-founder of Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts.

But he says it was the frustration he sensed in his fellow students that led him to consider a run for City Council.

“City councillors know damn well they can prioritize anything above any interest of a student,” DeBergalis says. “It was obvious that no one was really addressing me.”

And DeBergalis says he thinks that just one student advocate on the council could make a difference.

“The problem is not that they would shoot me down,” he says. “It is that no one is standing up to ask for this. It’s a question of having someone at the table. All the councillors are in favor of having student representation.”

He admits, though, that some changes will happen quicker than others.

“You want people to know that their vote made a difference in Cambridge while they were there,” he says, adding that the expansion of restaurant hours is an issue he hopes to address quickly.

While DeBergalis says one of his long-term goals is to bridge the gap between students and residents, some points of his platform may only exacerbate already existing tensions between town and gown.

His plans to keep eateries open, for example, may lead to more problems with Cambridge residents, who already often complain about drunk and loud students traipsing through their neighborhoods.

Rachel E.E. Garwin ’07 heard DeBergalis speak in her freshman seminar, “Activism, Bargaining, and Conflict: Democratic Decision Making in the United States.”

“I’m sympathetic to the neighbors, more than he is,” she says. “I don’t think we really have a right to be bothering them. He seemed sort of looking for trouble.”

Still, DeBergalis sees a chance for Cantabrigians of all ages to get along.

“I really believe that when you treat students more as adults, you’ll start to see more adult-like behavior,” he says. Eventually, “I think you’ll see a general across the board willingness of people to be part of that spiral of interaction.”