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Change Is a Certainty in a Wide Open Race

City Council Elections

By Matthew M. Hoffman

Two years ago, Cambridge was the site of a City Council race that, while often bitter, was hardly revolutionary.

All nine members of the council ran for reelection. All nine won.

Such results are commonplace in Cambridge, which uses a system of proportional representation PR) that virtually assures re-election for incumbents. In fact, many city residents joke about the real meaning of PR--perpetual representation, they dub it.

This November's election, however, is destined to be different. For the first time in more than 25 years, three city councillors will not seek reelection, paving the way for one of the most dramatic council races in the nearly 50-year history of PR.

The three vacancies leave the race wide open. The good-government Cambridge Civic Association (CCA)--which has commanded a four-member minority on the council since the early 1970s--and other liberal groups could make up a progressive majority on the council come next November. But given the edge PR seems to give incumbents, the CCA is facing an uphill battle.

Two outgoing councillors--Saundra Graham and David E. Sullivan--are longtime members of the CCA, and the third--Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci--is a fierce Independent who is often the council's swing vote. Although CCA members have made up a minority on the council, cooperation with the mayor on rent control and affordable housing issues has allowed them to push through their program in several areas. Vellucci's departure could threaten this balance.

And a fledgling progressive group--the "grassroots" Working Committee for a Cambridge Rainbow--is adding a new dimension to this year's race.

"We're trying to reach those constituencies that have not been reached by the various other political groups," says Rainbow spokesperson Janet Murray.

The Rainbow sports a political platform that in some ways echoes the CCA's but in other ways goes beyond it. In particular, its platform calls for reform in the basic structure of Cambridge government, which gives nearly all executive power to a council-appointed city manager.

The two groups agree on many of the issues facing the city. Both favor maintaining the city's current rent control system and oppose Proposition 1-2-3, a ballot referendum that would allow tenants in some rent-controlled housing to buy their apartments. Both also support strict limits on development.

In fact, voters are likely to find the difference between the Coalition and CCA largely rhetorical--especially since all Rainbow candidates are also CCA-endorsed candidates.

Imitation or the Real Thing?

Voters may also recognize some unusual similarities between candidates and current council members because many council hopefuls are modeling themselves after one or more of the departing progressives.

Others frown on this technique.

"I have great respect for the people who are leaving, but I ran in the last race--unlike a lot of other candidates who are billing themselves as successors or whatever," says CCA-candidate Jonathan S. Myers, who came within 200 votes of winning a council seat in the last race. "I didn't bill myself as replications of any of those people then, nor am I doing that now."

'An Elusive Quality'

And, says candidate Edward N. Cyr, "Leadership is an elusive quality. It's not transferable--you can't just assume that there's a Vellucci role out there."

At the other end of the spectrum is an array of Independent candidates, including four incumbents and former councillor Alfred W. LaRosa.

Some, like Vellucci, see themselves as progressives but do not want to ally themselves to a slate. Others are more conservative--they oppose placing limits on development and favor rent control revisions.

Unlike the CCA and Rainbow--which are waging citywide campaigns--Independent councillors tend to rely on strong support from neighborhood constituencies. But in recent years, Independent Councillors Thomas W. Danehy and Sheila T. Russell are campaigning farther afield.

Meanwhile, Councillor William H. Walsh is an independent of a different sort. A real estate lawyer who is the council's most vocal critic of rent control, Walsh has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for business transactions with several city officials. And while he is not being accused of illegal activity, liberal groups like the CCA have been quick to question the propriety of his business dealings.

Walsh, for his part, has barraged the local media with letters that are often as intent on levelling blasts at rivals in the council race as in defending his actions.

"I'm being aggressive because I'm being treated aggressively," says Walsh. "If anyone is going to attack me and try to smear me. I'm going to respond."

Walsh's opponents charge that his aggressive style is simply headline-grabbing that evades substantive issues like rent control and overdevelopment.

"The traditional Independents try to avoid those issues by focusing on constituent services," says CCA Executive Director Noah M. Berger '89. "Walsh seems to try to avoid those issues by CCA bashing."

But headline-grabbing has always been part of Walsh's style. In 1987, he offered to debate the entire CCA slate at once--a challenge he says stands in this election, as well.

"That offer is open to them anytime, anyplace and anywhere," he says.

Courting the Silent Majority

Meanwhile, one candidate says he is not concerned by the unusual nature of this year's election. For Councillor Walter J. Sullivan, the longest serving member after Vellucci, the 1989 council race is just like any other. And he's been the city's top vote-getter in nearly every election.

At first glance, Sullivan seems a strange choice for Cambridge's most popular political figure. He hates making speeches and has been known to go to council meetings for weeks on end without ever opening his mouth.

"The least said is the best off," he says. "If you know the way the vote is going to come out, why bother talking?"

Sullivan says his secret is simple--he pays close attention to his constituents.

"I wouldn't be the top vote getter if the people didn't know me," Sullivan says. "I'm out there every day meeting people. Every day is a campaign day for me."

Perhaps the strangest entry in the 1989 council race will not even be on the ballot. Known as "Egg," the would-be candidate says he will wage a semi-humorous campaign aimed at disrupting the city's regular political process.

The former publisher of a Cambridge underground magazine, Egg was disqualified from the ballot because he did not collect enough legitimate petition signatures.

But Egg says he is not giving up hope. "It's going to be theater," he says of his campaign. "And its going to be powerful."

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