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Barbara Ackermann: Not Your Typical Boss

Cambridge's first woman mayor seems to have entered politics with the motto "carpe diem."

By Patti B. Saris

BARBARA ACKERMANN is not your typical city "boss".

When she graduated Smith in 1945, she had no intention of going into politics. "I wanted to write and be famous," the 47-year-old mayor of Cambridge explained. "I didn't expect to go into politics until the day I went." When she finally did take the initial step of running for School Committee in 1961, the world of politics grabbed hold of her; it has not yet let her go. The first woman mayor of Cambridge, Barbara Ackermann has been in politics for 12 years and is now thinking in terms of higher office.

As the mother of two young children, Ackermann spent her first years out of college writing. She published articles in the Cambridge Chronicle about her visits to the Cambridge public school classrooms, but on the whole she describes her writing efforts as largely "unsuccessful": "By the time I finally wrote a short story that was accepted by the Atlantic monthly, I was already involved in politics."

Ackermann's interest in the school system led her to run for School Committee, she was then the secretary of the Russell School PTA where her two children went to school. "I decided to run because I was interested in the schools and I aim for the top," she said. Running for School Committee in Cambridge is no easy task. Under the system of proportional representation, a candidate must run from the city at large and persuade at least ten per cent of the voters to make him or her their number one vote.

To make running even more difficult, there are usually at least 15 candidates for six jobs, a phenomenon which seems particularly incredible since a School Committeeman is unpaid. "The first time you run you have to spend at least six months with four or five full-time volunteers, not to mention 100 to 200 part-time volunteers. That year it was a helpful thing for me to be a woman," Ackermann explained.

Ackermann's election to the School Committee not only altered her whole lifestyle as housewife, mother and part-time writer, but also caused major changes in her personality. "When I was younger I was a very introverted person," she said. "I would not even go out of the house to interview someone for a story. I remember trying to write an article about the School Committee: I sat in the back of the room taking notes and was too afraid to interview anyone."

Now Barbara Ackermann gives the appearance of being a tough, self-assured political personality. As school committeewoman and even more noticeably as city counsellor she does not seem afraid to fight for what she wants on issues ranging from rent control and opposition to the city manager, to drug treatment centers, to the ousting of Frisoli, the former school superintendent. Part of this change in personality comes from a different view of politics, Ackermann explained: "When I first ran for School Committee I saw politics as a means to an end. I thought the City Council must be dull--that all they talked about on the council was problems with garbage and traffic. Now I find politics fascinating, politics as politics."

Yet Ackermann says no politician, man or woman, is as assured as he seems: "When someone is in power, he is bound to make mistakes; then criticism is good but everyone fears it. We are tougher on the outside than inside. If you are in power, people will hate you. As chairman of the School Committee hearing on Frisoli. I felt like a worm when people booed and hissed me as I walked out. What else can you do to someone's ego? To stop thinking about your ego is the key thing. If you can't get over it, you can't do anything else."

In her first post as school committeewoman, Barbara Ackermann found herself in the minority as a member of the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), a liberal reform civic group which has a party status in Cambridge city politics and now controls five out of the nine city councillor spots. The superintendent was an "independent" and was difficult to work with. "It was frustrating being in the minority and not in the same party as my superintendent Ackermann said so I established goals people couldn't be against--libraries, which at that time weren't in any of the schools. That's where I spent most of my time."

Ackermann became frustrated with her job on the School Committee because it didn't allow her to make major policy changes, especially regarding one of her primary goals building new schools. "Schools need the proper space to teach in," she said. "Children need clean space to learn in and we needed new schools; all the school building is done from city hall. When my daughter graduated Cambridge High and Latin. I decided to run for City Council."

ONCE ELECTED to the Council, Ackermann always seemed willing to speak her mind, even when it meant confronting powerful City Manager William Corcoran, and especially on her pet issue of rent control. When Corcoran chose the rent control commissioners without consulting with the city councillors, Ackermann was first to attack him: "(He) showed contempt for the four councillors and members of the library board and the blue-ribbon panel on a rent control administrator by not consulting with them," she said at the time.

In April she received unanimous approval of her order to have the rent control administrator grant no increases above the March 1970 rent level "except in exact amounts to meet increased costs." And in the final effort to thwart Corcoran's activities on rent control, she sought in June 1971 to deny a salary increase to Corcoran, to express the Council's discontent with the manager's handling of rent control, which the termed "irresponsible."

Another "cause celebre" that Ackermann supported was the "People's Peace Trenty" in April 1971, which she sponsored before the City Council, and which called for America to agree to immediate and total withdrawal from Vietnam. Because of her constant pressing of the problem of drug treatment, Corcoran finally approved a $67,000 outside grant for a community-based drug treatment program. One of her major fights has been against the highway that Governor Sargent wants to put through Cambridge; as chairman of the T Committee she gathered support for the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR). "It's fun to work against highways here," she said. "Cambridge is pretty together on transportation."

Running for her third term on the City Council in November 1971 on the platform of rent control, Ackermann, along with four other CCA candidates, won and became the senior councillor of the majority party. In Cambridge the mayor is elected by the city councillors rather than by an at large election. As the member of her party with the most votes, Ackermann was elected mayor by a five to four vote in January. "I didn't really worry about running for mayor at all until it happened. I first thought of it when someone accused me of politicking for the spot," she said.

One of Ackermann's reasons for accepting the job was the fact that she was a woman. "At first I wanted to say no," she said "but then I thought as a woman I ought to Here I am a token woman on the City Council--no not a token a symbols woman--I won with the biggest vote I'm the senior councillor my team is in-clearly I should push for it Ackermann does not believe women as women bring any special talent for government any more than men do

In fact," she said, men have more executive ability nowadays since men have more experience. But that is not inbred, women I know today are just as talented as young men I don't know if a woman mayor could have been elected at an election. People are suspicious of a woman's ability to be an executive. I was elected as City Councillor, and that is not an executive position."

Many people have speculated on what the mayor of Cambridge does Some have described the job as that of the city's "official greeter," since all the hiring and firing and budget considerations are given to the city manager, who is selected by the Council. On the books the job is called "part-time," but Barbara Ackermann finds herself making it a full-time task. As chairman of the School Committee and of the City Council, she is responsible for two sets of meetings. Very concerned about the problems of the city, she considers working with the state--on behalf of the young and the elderly as one of her major tasks: "City government does not have that much to do in the lives of the well-to-do," she says, "just things like snow and trash removal. But in the lives of the elderly and young, the city provides more than just a caretaker. For example, I spend a lot of time trying to get the state to provide food for the elderly."

Last summer Ackermann was a delegate for Shirley Chisholm at the Democratic National Convention, not because Shirley was a woman but because she was concerned with the problems of the city. "At first I was for Lindasy and the Chisholm, because-she was the only city person," Said Ackermann. "Two-thirds of the people are in cities-that's where the problem are."

BARBARA ACKERMANN was born in Sweden, where her father was an American Council. She went to school for five years each in Dublin and France, and had to leave Europe at the start of World War II. "My family were refugees when I was 14 and my father escaped Frances just as the Germans were entering," she explained. "I guess travelling around so much gave me a broad experience in schools. In Dublin I went to a school with an open classroom which first gave me my love of progressive education. In my French Iycee, on the other hand, I learned how not to teach kids. "The Ackermanns moved to Connecticut, and Barbara went to school at Smith where she majored in Latin and Greek. Her husband is Paul Kurt Ackermann, professor of German Literature at Boston University and editor of The Boston University Journal. She has two children who went to B.U. and are presently in Switzerland.

When Ackermann first ran for School Committee her children were 10 and 13 years old. "Being on the School Committee took less time than if I went to work," she said. "When I got on the Council and was at least paid I could afford a housekeeper. You have to make sure you budget the time to spend with your children. Although she is presently trying to push a day-care proposal through the City Council, Ackermann is not sure whether she personally would use day-care.

Women ought to go to work and they to have options," she said. However I am also very concerned about children's rights. But it isn't any better for children if they have to stay home with sour and angry, intellectual women who don't have the chance to work. There should be the option, but I don't think day care would have been my route."

Barbara Ackermann may have entered politics in the typical way a woman is usually elected to office--through the school system, which is considered a woman's natural domain--but she has successfully managed to debunk the preconceptions and stereotypes a woman in politics is likely to be faced with. Not a tough feminist, she has enjoyed being a wife and mother. But once she jumped into politics, it was total immersion: She is now as tough a political fighter for what she believes in as anyone who grew up in the party machine.

Ackermann seems to have entered politics with the motto "carpe diem". When a political opportunity comes along, she grabs it. As she said, "I didn't think of going into politics until it happened." In this way she has progressed from member of the PTA, to School Committee, to City Council to mayor. Will she go on for higher office? "Of course I'm interested in something on the statewide level," she says. "It just depends what opens up."

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