Decision '91: The city's Progressive Council Puts Its Record on the Line

In the past few months a change has come over the Cambridge City Council. The nine councillors--usually at loggerheads over issues ranging from rent control to condom dispensers--have grown exaggeratedly solicitous of one another, and take pains to ask permission from the mayor before speaking.

Many have taken to blatant grandstanding, launching into lengthy, flowery and repetitive speeches at a moment's notice.

Council meetings stretch into the wee hours, as the councillors exercise their rhetorical skills and mastery of ceremony for the benefit of cable TV viewers.

It's election time in Cambridge, and the city councillors, all of whom are running for reelection, want your vote. According to many city activists and council watchers, they may very well get it.

Because of Cambridge's proportional representation voting system, which allows voters to rank their candidates, incumbents are traditionally very hard to beat. In addition, this is an election year without an outstanding issue to draw voters to the polls and encourage them to search for new names and solutions.


Last year, the highly controversial Proposition 1-2-3 referendum, which would have allowed occupants of rent controlled apartments to purchase the apartments after a year of residency, sparked an unusually high turnout of approximately 29,000 voters. Ten-year local activist Jack E. Martinelli, who was resident of the progressive coalition Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) from 1986 to 1987, predicts an average to below-average turnout of 24,000 or so this year.

Martinelli says this situation both favors the incumbents because they know how to campaign effectively and get out their vote, and indicates that voters are satisfied with the performance of the council over the past two years. He also points out that the fact that only 10 challengers are running this year in city elections which usually attract 20 or 30 demonstrates that potential candidates see the incumbents as hard to beat.

The only challenger to get consistently good odds from observers is former mayor and conservative Independent Alfred E. Vellucci, infamous for his vitriolic responses to any issue to come his way, who is often referred to as the "10th incumbent." So for Martinelli and others, the issue in this election race without a standout issue is whether the progressive CCA councillors, who two years ago won a majority on the council for the first time, will maintain their hold on the city government.

The return of the incumbents would cement the city's current political balance, indicating a rejection of the neighborhood and individual constituent-based politicking that the traditional Independent candidates epitomize.

"The important issue right now is if the progressives...can maintain a majority on the City Council," Martinelli says. "If the progressives hold the City Council, then I would say we've really broken the backs of the old Irish Democrats in Cambridge."

Cambridge's Independents are associated with old time, traditional neighborhood-based patronage politics and draw their support from townies with strong business or family interests in the city. The liberal CCA coalition projects a far sighted internationally minded image and appeals to the city's university and yuppie sectors. But many observers say that that stereotypical dichotomy no longer holds true.

Cambridge Republican Party head Vince L. Dixon notes that candidates from both camps stress neighborhood concerns in their campaign literature,and he maintains that the current CCA-dominated council has made significant attempts to address local issues.

"No one is more aggressive about responding to traffic and pothole issues than a CCA councillor," Dixon says. "By addressing the local service issues, the CCA has the opportunity to neutralize the independent potential and to come back and get support on those issues."

Dixon also observes that the city's Independent block has undergone "tremendous changes" over the years, as patronage politics and favors for individual constituents have come to play a smaller and less accepted role in the Cambridge political game.

Of the four Independents currently sitting on the council, only two, Walter J. Sullivan and Sheila T. Russell, remain of the old-time politicos who used to dominate the city's political scene. According to Dixon, Councillor Timothy J. Toomey Jr., who often votes with the CCA block, epitomizes the new breed of younger, issueminded Independents who are cropping up in council and School Committee races.