City Politics: Personalities Matter

Perhaps the only undisputed statement made by a city councilor during the past year was Walter J. Sullivan's, "Cambridge politics are heavy with personalities."

Students voting in Cambridge last fall were confronted with the usual accusations, with the usual slate of 300 candidates, the usual hassles trying to register, and the usual issues: the city manager, rent control, University expansion, and redevelopment.

The city manager issue held the limelight this year, as well it might in any year--the city manager, who is appointed by the city council, is the city's chief executive and, as such, controls most of the city's bureaucracy.

As the the sides began to form--primarily between the liberal Cambridge Civic Association and the conservative Independent slate, with some noise from the radical Grass Roots Organization--it became apparent that the CCA slate was being hurt as much by the incumbent CCA majority council's failure to appoint a new city manager and the inordinate amount of time it took to reach any decision at all on the matter, as by the internal political splits which resulted in the formation of the GRO with Saundra Graham at the head of its slate.

Amidst the usual discussions about the viability of proportional representation as a voting procedure, Independent Sullivan won an overwhelming victory. He was followed by four more Independents and three liberals plus radical Saundra Graham, which added up to a 5-4 majority for the Independent contingent.


What power the Independent coalition might have had was swiftly subverted by the subsequent battle between two Independents, Sullivan and Thomas W. Danehy, for the mayoralty. The conservative majority split in half, while the liberals voted for each other in rotation in a series of 30 votes.

The agreement that broke the deadlock was liberal support of Sullivan for mayor and Independent Leonard J. Russell for vice mayor in return for Independent support of a new city manager and continued support of Alflorence Cheatham, the controversial school superintendent.

All promises were kept, and James Leo Sullivan, city manager of Lowell and former Cambridge chief executive, returned to Cambridge to replace retiring John H. Corcoran--but not without more accusations. The Independent-liberal coalition had agreed to up Corcoran's salary to increase his pension--a move that the wronged Danehy termed "the most brazenly political act ever taken in this city," implying that it was a political move to get Corcoran to leave office without putting up a fight. The coalition maintained that it was simply bringing the salary up to the equivalent of other city managers in Massachusetts.

Danehy had previously tried to break up the Independent-liberal coalition by proposing abolition of rent control. Sullivan and Russell were known to oppose controls, while the liberals supported them. The swing vote was cast by Vellucci, who voted with the liberals.

Personality politics did not end there. Sullivan fired Budget Director Robert J. LeBlanc on the grounds that he was too close to Danehy, who has been accused of abusing patronage.

In the past few months the influence of personalities in city council politics has been less evident in the color of accusations and more evident in the unpredictability of its decisions. In March the council voted unanimously to prevent the construction of a McDonald's Restaurant on the site of a 125-year-old landmark in Central Square. In April it even endorsed the United Farm Workers, requesting the city manager suspend all city purchases of boycotted lettuce and grapes and proclaiming a UFW Week in Cambridge. However, as summer approached, the council voted to prohibit concerts on Cambridge Common.

The irony of the past year's politics is that the liberals have seen many of their goals reached within a conservative council--goals that eluded them when they held the majority, tenuous though it was.

But the big controversies still continue--the Kennedy Library and Kendall Square redevelopment. The fundamental problems remain--deteriorating housing, a shrinking tax base as the universities expand, police-community relations. Meanwhile, City Manager Sullivan assails the budget policies of his predecessor. For the city council, its politics as usual.