Cash Is King in Council Elections

Hand-shaking alone isn’t enough if you’re trying to earn a seat in Cambridge city government—fund raising figures for the 2007 election show that successful candidates need lots of cold, hard cash.

There was wide variation in the amount that candidates spent during the race, although with few exceptions those who spent the most money won.

The figures were published in an issue of the Cambridge Civic Journal, authored by local political commentator Robert Winters, who is also an Extension School professor.

Additionally, Cambridge City Council candidates consistently spent several thousand dollars more than those elected to the Cambridge School Committee.

Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 both raised and spent the most money for his campaign, with $70,120 in receipts and $63,218 in expenditures.

Reeves could not be reached for comment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Councillor Craig A. Kelley’s $ 26,295 in expenditures were the lowest among elected councillors.

“What I am good at is keeping up with people during the year,” said Kelley.

School Committee member Marc C. McGovern, who spent $23,637—more than any other member to secure his seat—said the discrepancy between council and School Committee campaign spending does not reflect their relative importance.

“People have this idea, ‘oh, school committee, it’s just well-meaning parents, they can hold bake sales to raise money,’ ” McGovern said. “But the School Committee has more influence over their jurisdiction than the City Council.”

McGovern spent about $5,000 less than the lowest-spending successful council candidate, and close to a third of the budget of the highest-spending.

Kelley hypothesized that the lower expenditures by school committee candidates reflect a relatively small, passionate constituency of parents, compared to the larger number of Cantabrigians, who participate in council elections.

Councillors said their high costs were due to the difficulty of informing voters of their candidacy, and spent much of their money on flyers, yard signs and stickers.

For example, Councillor Henrietta C. Davis, who graduated from the Kennedy School in 1997, said she prints her own newsletter, which she distributes to 6,000 residents at an annual cost of about $15,000 a year.

Kelley noted that the cost may deter some candidates from entering the race.

“If you can’t raise $30,000, you can’t become a city councillor,” he said. “We don’t do ourselves a favor by having that kind of political system.”

Often, candidates who spend less may be able to do so because they can rely on long-term loyal constituencies.

For example, seven-term School Committee incumbent Joseph G. Grassi had the lowest expenditure of any candidate, which McGovern said was because Grassi relied heavily on the votes of few faithful wards. Grassi did not reply to requests for comment.

But Councillor Sam Seidel still believes money or incumbency are not the only things that matter.

“A lot of it is hard work and shoe leather,” he said.

—Staff writer Sarah J. Howland can be reached at showland@fas.harvard.edu