Knocking on registered Cambridge voters’ doors while dressed neatly in a gray button-down shirt and black slacks, 31-year-old Leland Cheung looks every bit the earnest young politician.
But the Cambridge City Council aspirant is also a graduate student dual-enrolled at the Harvard Kennedy School and the MIT Sloan School of Management. And aside from the daily tasks of running his campaign—flyering, fundraising, and canvassing—he also has to attend classes.
On this particular day, he has squeezed an afternoon lecture at HKS in between meeting with his staff and calling potential donors. He began going door-to-door in the late afternoon and has now been at it for more than two hours.
A few blocks away from the MIT campus, Cheung rings the doorbell of local mother and Harvard lab technician Sara Amaral. As Amaral’s young son darts between her legs, she explains her biggest concern about local governance: the lack of decent parks and other resources for children. Cheung listens intently and occasionally adds thoughts of his own.
When their conversation ends, Amaral says she is impressed by Cheung’s attitude.
“If you’re doing it for the kids, you’ll get my vote,” she says.
And if Cheung does secure enough votes in November, he will be the youngest member of the Council, the first Asian-American elected, and the only student within the body in recent years.
He says his student identity is what motivates him to run, and he intends to mobilize student support to aid him on what may well be an uphill battle for a seat.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
The child of immigrants, Cheung spent much of his childhood moving from state to state, never staying in any one place long enough to develop roots.
He says he initially hoped to leave his mark through scientific innovation, earning a B.S. in physics and a masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford in 2000 and 2001, respectively. He was one of the first employees of Space Adventures, a Virginia-based firm that is the world’s only space tourism company to have actually sent private citizens into space.
But during this time, he met a woman in his community whose grandson had recently been killed by a driver speeding through a red light—and beyond her loss, she was despairing of the fact that the local legislature had voted down a proposal to install red-light cameras.
“That made me realize that who you elect on a local level really matters,” Cheung says.
In 2005, Cheung moved to Cambridge to work for a venture capital firm and became involved with a number of local philanthropic organizations, immersing himself in Cambridge life.
This summer, Cheung decided to run for City Council after reading about the incumbents and deciding that the students of Cambridge—who comprise one fourth of the total population—did not have a voice in local government.