An Old-Fashioned Operator


Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci is the king of street smarts. A seventh grade dropout who speaks four languages, he has parlayed his flair for dramatics into a 22-year city council career, with a unique combination of New Deal-type liberalism and old-fashioned, neighborhood politics. Though he has not lost a race since he was first elected to the school committee in 1951 (when he says he "beat the pants off of Professor Raubough of Harvard"), Vellucci's fortunes, unbuffered by formal alliances or organizations, have never been secure. In 1975 he finished eighth in a nine-seat race and now, following published allegations that he had a no-show state job and that certain independent city council candidates are actively opposing him, the pundits say tomorrow may be Vellucci's last hurrah.

He has never approached the power or political skill of James Michael Curley, but it is obvious the former Boston mayor is Vellucci's role model. Curley perfected the urban ethnic style of politics that some call "urban populism," and Vellucci has been an apt pupil and improviser.

Almost a throwback to earlier times, Vellucci entertains as much as he campaigns, and by playing the self-effacing buffoon, manipulates his audiences. When he appeared on a radio show several years ago with several Harvard medical students, he walked in after the show had started, pointed a finger at the students and said, "Are you a big-shot? It's because of people like you that we don't have national health insurance." He spoke virtually uninterrupted for an hour.

City Councilor Francis H. Duehay '55 says Vellucci has taken more and more liberal positions since 1968. Not surprisingly it was the four liberal votes on the council that elected Vellucci mayor. Vellucci claims he did not have to make any deals for the job because "What were they going to do, vote for [City Councilor Thomas W.] Danehy?" He is the swing vote for the liberal coalition on practically every significant issue, including rent control, approval of a civilian police commissioner and combining Cambridge's two high schools (the mayor also serves as the seventh member of the school committee, which is split, 3-3, liberal-independent). Vellucci still plays by his own rules, however, often holding out his vote until the final moment for the sake of political and dramatic effect. School Committeeman Glenn S. Koocher '71 says Vellucci waited six months before agreeing to extend the superintendent's contract, and thus forced three committee liberals to refrain from publicly criticizing him.

As much as his voting record is liberal, Vellucci's style is old-fashioned. Favors and--before the city manager tightened things up--jobs are important, and issues play a secondary role for most voters in East Cambridge, Vellucci's stronghold. "There's another playground I helped put into the neighborhood. Isn't that what a city councilor should do?" he says. On a less benign level, there probably have been as many Velluccis working for the city, state and county as Cabots and Saltonstalls have gone to Harvard.

Like all textbook populists, Vellucci portrays himself as fighting a slew of institutions. He says, "There's an organized effort by the condominium converters to defeat me." Harvard has been his most popular nemesis. "You go to Harvard on scholarship? You know it's all blood money from the oil companies." He never resists the opportunity to tease Harvard, but with the exception of his somewhat demagogic stop-recombinant-DNA research campaign, he has not frustrated the University on any specific issues such as expansion or increased in-lieu of tax payments.

It would be naive to blame Vellucci too much for not tackling Harvard, as neither he nor the city have the power or expertise to do so. He says, "Those bastards would never call you up for a favor. They come in with their con artists to the city council and trick us." Under the "Plan E" system of government, being mayor of Cambridge is not like holding the same office in most U.S. cities.

The council-appointed city manager controls all of the city's administrative powers and the title of mayor just serves as an elevated podium for one of the nine city councilors. He chairs meetings, cuts opening ribbons and serves as a figurehead.

But with his love of rhetoric, many Cambridge community leaders argue, Vellucci has helped to create an atmosphere where Cambridge can demand more from Harvard, whether it is a building for an experimental school or athletic facilities for high school teams.

Liberals would obviously prefer a more reliable fifth vote on the council, but with their limited popular base, they will be lucky if Vellucci and four Cambridge Convention '77 candidates win tomorrow. A gregarious character but a political loner, Vellucci has served a unique function in Cambridge politics for liberals and the conservative Italian and Portuguese voters from whom he draws most of his strength. He has been the only neighborhood candidate so far who can embrace informally the Cambridge Convention '77 platform and still maintain his power base.

The Cambridge Convention and the many groups which comprise it have never been able to penetrate Cambridge's neighborhoods--neighborhoods of which Vellucci is a product.

Puerto Rican community leaders say he is the most popular of the councilors in their neighborhood, because, while all the liberals vote in their interest, only he (and to a lesser extent David Clem), actually come to their homes to see how they live.

To see Vellucci "campaigning" in the neighborhoods, out of both his political interest and his own pride, is like viewing a lost art. He strolls into Angelo's Butcher Shop, slices his own meat and chops his own pigs knuckles. He visits all of the spas and coffeeshops, speaking Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. He courts the elderly women in the housing projects, reassuring them they always have a friend in city hall.

He is the shrewdest of operators on his homeground; when he leaves it, his footing becomes less secure. He has a genuine antipathy towards many of the wealthy good-government types that shows strains of insecurity and naivete and goes beyond any posturing for local voters. "They call themselves liberals. They got more goddam money than the Bank of England. You don't see any coupon clippers in this neighborhood." It's not surprising that Councilor Saundra Graham, a black community activist, is his favorite colleague.

Most of the Cambridge Convention candidates say they hope Vellucci wins tomorrow for personal and practical reasons, but as one said, "Everyone's probably voting for him as ninth choice." He has a strong challenge in his own neighborhood from Lawrence Frisoli, a conservative with a strong family political organization backing him up.

Still, Vellucci says he has weathered two previous crises in his life, and he claims tomorrow will be no different. He's spent the past months throwing parties and sitting at his kitchen table with a magic marker and ruler to draw his own campaign posters. If Vellucci loses, it will be only to a much more conservative, pro-landlord independent, and, as one liberal councilor explained the difference between them and Vellucci, "Those people made it and they are concerned about being with people who made it. Al Vellucci always stayed in the same home in East Cambridge."