The City's Political Puzzle

In a few weeks, you and 1500 others will troop into Memorial Hall to register for the "Harvard experience." At the same time and place, you can register to vote in Cambridge. Many students do, more last year than ever before, and they are slowly becoming a political force in a very political city. But before you sign on the dotted line, you probably need an introduction to Cambridge city government.

The City Council

Every Monday night, in an ancient room watched over by portraits of Irish pols with red-veined noses, the Cambridge city council meets. City councilors are elected at large across the city; they number nine. Theirs is the chief electoral power in Cambridge, and while they do not govern the city from day to day, they have the power to see that it is pretty much run as they wish. For years, ethnic politicians dominated the council chambers. Now, the council features four "Independents"--relatively conservative neighborhood politicians--four Cambridge Civic Association members--liberals who owe their election to a shaky coalition of tenants and the Brattle St. wealthy--and one Alfred E. Vellucci, a self-described "small independent." Vellucci is the swing vote on most important issues; of late the 30-year council veteran and former mayor has been leaning left.

The Mayor

Remember how you wanted to go far away to school? Well, you went so far away that local government will seem decidedly foreign. The mayoralty is largely a ceremonial position in Cambridge--duties include handing plaques to PeeWee hockey players, banging the gavel at council meetings, and chairing the school committee. And you don't vote for mayor--the city council does, electing one of their number to a two-year term. The current mayor is out to change the image of the job--Francis H. Duehay '55 this summer quit his job at Tufts University to become Cambridge's first full-time mayor, a commitment that may let him become the city's first real legislator, developing policies and programs in advance.


The City Manager

The weak mayor system of government leaves a vacuum--someone has to run the city day to day. For the last 40 years, that person has been the city manager. Under Cambridge's "Plan E" charter, the manager hires and fires--the city council can only appropriate and recommend. But the councilors can fire one person--the city manager. If you understand what that authority means, you can recognize a balance of power when you see one.

James L. Sullivan is the current occupant of the $50,000-a-year post; a tough but friendly bargainer, Sullivan is solidly entrenched in the manager's slot.

The School Committee

Like picayune detail? Forget registering to vote--you should run for school committee. This seven-member body discusses everything and anything that could possibly relate to the schools--they settle individual teacher grievances, they debate bus routes, they decide how many movie projectors the science department needs. Right now, liberals out-number Independents 5-2, but acrimony is still the general rule. Duehay chairs the committee, but its leading figure, who garnered more votes than any school committee candidate in history last election, is probably Alice Wolf.

Now that you've met the actors, look at their stage. Cambridge is beset with problems but in some ways the opportunities for growth and prosperity plague the city as badly. The biggest issues include:


Ten years ago, the city was in a housing crisis. That translated into evictions and rent strikes and piles of furniture out on the sidewalk. The response: Cambridge adopted a rent control ordinance that set strict rent hike and eviction guidelines.

Now, Cambridge is in a housing crisis of another sort. Angry at the loss in their earning power and justifiably upset with the bureaucratic inefficiencies of rent control, the city's landlords are looking for a way out. For a while it was condominiums, until the city adopted tough laws to stop the condo spread.

What will come next is unclear--a legislative majority, and a larger electoral majority, continue to back rent and condominium controls. Without strict guidelines, they reason, Cambridge--a city where dozens of people vie for every available housing opening--would be overrun by young professionals. Studies predict neighborhoods would be destroyed and the working class would disappear. But the other side argues that gentrification of the city would increase the tax base and not hurt the elderly or the poor but only "student transients."

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