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In Dubious Battle

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By Leo FJ. Wilking

THE LONE INCUMBENT not seeking reelection to the City Council in November, Robert P. Moncreiff perhaps typifies the liberal professional's venture into politics: A successful lawyer as well as a concerned citizen, Moncreiff, has become more familiar with frustration than achievement in his four years on the Council. Yet far from feeling bitter over past defeats, Moncreiff's chief regret is that he cannot continue to play a major role in the pitched battle that is government in Cambridge.

Moncreiff was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He remained there until 1942, when his father was called to diplomatic service in Washington. Young Moncreiff went to public high school in the capital and then on to Yale, where his political hero was Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, "Mr. Republican." "I was a political moron in college, a carbon copy of my father," he admits.

Moncreiff did well enough at Yale to win a Rhodes scholarship, an experience which he still regards as very important. It was during one of his frequent excursions to the Continent that he met his wife, Elisabeth, in Austria. In 1954, Moncreiff entered Harvard Law School and began to regard Cambridge as his home. Upon graduation from the Law School in 1957, he joined the Boston firm of Palmer and Doge, where he has been a partner since 1963.

The young lawyer became active in local politics, mainly through the liberal Cambridge Civic Association (CCA). Moncreiff participated in the CCA's School Affairs Committee and various campaign activities, and in 1963 he managed a successful campaign for Francis H. Duehay '55 for the School Committee. Duehay, dean of admissions and studies at the Graduate School of Education, is now one of Moncreiff's colleagues on the Council running for re-election.

SINCE 1966, the hiring and firing of city managers has dominated the political scene in Cambridge. Before that everything was kept in order by the city's boss figure, Edward A. Crane '35, and his hand-picked city manger, John J. Curry '19. But Crane's one-man rule resulted in mutiny. A coalition of liberal and independent councilors ousted Curry and hired Joseph A. DeGuglielmo '29 in February 1966. DeGuglielmo lasted only through the next election and was fired in January 1968. The Council embarked on an extensive search for a replacement and finally came up with James L. Sullivan in July of that year. But Sullivan's independence insured his downfall, and Crane collected the votes to dismiss him in May 1970, filling the vacant office with the present city manager, John H. Corcoran.

When Connie B. Wheeler, a veteran CCA councillor, announced that she would retire at the end of 1969, Moncreiff decided that he would attempt to take her place. "I'd like to say I was urged," Moncreiff says laughingly, "but I can't recall anyone asking me to run." He won with surprising ease and assumed his seat on the Council in January 1970.

Moncreiff describes his first term as "an exercise in frustration." After Crane dumped Sullivan he once again took control of the city, this time through Corcoran. "I didn't know anything more about what was going on than someone who read the Chronicle, except I heard it a few days earlier," Moncreiff remembers.

HOWEVER, CRANE CHOSE to end his career in 1971 and in that year's race five CCA candidates were elected on a joint platform of firing Corcoran and finding a more energetic and innovative city manager. Moncreiff won along with Duehay, Barbara Ackermann, Saundra Graham and Henry F. Owens III. But hopes of replacing Corcoran faded as the CCA majority failed to agree on his successor, and the bitter struggle culminated last September in a statement of support for Corcoran.

Although disappointed in the failure to remove Corcoran, Moncreiff says that the city manager has improved with time. Beyond that, he says that the Rent Control Board has done as well as it possibly could in administering a "crazy law which 40 per cent of the landlords ignore with the support of their tenants."

Moncreiff is probably most proud of the Council's efforts to normalize the collective bargaining process for public employees. For years, the firemen and police considered themselves exempt from the usual budget process, as they bypassed the city manager and went directly to the Council to have their wage increases set by ordinance. "Whatever we gave them," Moncreiff explains, "the city manager felt duty bound to give to everyone else."

Since the Council wasn't eager to alienate these two large unions by refusing their requests, and since the city's tax rate is primarily a function of municipal employee salaries, the Cambridge tax rate skyrocketed as those salaries jumped almost 70 per cent in six years. "This year," Moncreiff says, "we told the police and fireman that we wouldn't approve any increase unless it was first approved by the manager--we've set a precedent." It requires a two-thirds vote by the nine-member Council to establish salaries by ordinance, so Moncreiff is hopeful that there will continue to be a least four councilors "willing to leave wage settlements to the manger."

AS CHAIRMAN OF the Council's Finance Committee, Moncreiff had a major role in instituting the new system. While the firemen have accepted it, the police remain opposed, and Moncreiff is well aware of that. "I've had some police wives call up and call me a cheesy rat," he says with a smile.

Moncreiff decided over the summer, with encouragement from his wife, that he could no longer divide his time between the Council and his law practice and remain faithful to both. "I really kind of feel like a heel for not running again," he says. "One of the things the Independents count on is outlasting you, and I regret that."

Moncreiff lives with his wife and three children a few blocks above Radcliffe, off Garden St. When asked if he had any hobbies, he turned seriously to his wife and asked, "Do I have any hobbies, Liz?" They finally agreed that he enjoys opera and collecting books.

The councilor challenges the view of Gordon C. Strachan, who told the Watergate Committee this summer that young people should "stay away" from Washington. "I think politics is a potentially noble thing to do, and I don't agree that it's dangerous for decent people," Moncreiff says. "I do think it's worth getting involved."

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