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Bumper Stickers Mean City Elections Are Here

Local Politics

By Jeffrey C. Wu

Almost every taxi cab in Harvard Square sports a "Ken Reeves #1" bumper sticker.

Signs urging Cambridge residents to put Walter J. Sullivan at the top of their ballot sprinkle the residential neighborhoods around Mather and Dunster Houses.

And in the heart of Central Square at 649 Mass Ave., volunteers for the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA)--the good-government municipal slate that has controlled the City Council for the past two years--are working overtime preparing press releases, organizing flyer campaigns and plotting political strategy.

With eight weeks to go before Cambridge elects a new council, the campaigning is starting to pick up.

At stake on November 5 will be the CCA's newly-won control of the municipal government. Two years ago, promising to defend rent-control, control development and reform government excesses, the 50-year-old CCA won its biggest election victory ever, taking five of the nine council seats. A sixth councillor sympathetic with many CCA causes--Timothy J. Toomey Jr.--also won election. The last time the CCA ran City Hall was 1974-5.

"It's going to be a very, very simple kind of election," said CCA Councillor Edward N. Cyr. "What's at stake in this election is progressive government, what's at stake is our two-year-old experiment in democratic government based on the elimination of patronage and responsiveness to local needs."

Independent councillor William H. Walsh agreed that the CCA's two-year record will be the issue, but called those years "a lot of glitz and no substance." The Independents are neighbourhood-based candidates who favor development and draw support from longtime Cambridge residents.

Over the two years, the CCA has appointed police commissioner Perry Anderson to reform the department, introduced a controversial rent-control reform package, passed a parking freeze in downtown Cambridge to control traffic and pollution and set a progressive tone for the council with actions such as encouraging restaurants to sell "affordable" condoms.

Low Turnout?

Cambridge observers generally agree, however, that this year's election will not be as fiery as the last.

In 1989, three open seats on the council and the city's biggest issue--rent control--brought out Cambridge voters en masse. More than 27,000 residents, or 57 percent of the city's registered voters, came to the polls--with the vast majority of them voting against Proposition 1-2-3, a bill that would have allowed tenants in rent-controlled units to buy their units after renting them for two years.

In comparison, only 23,000 residents voted in 1987, and many observers and candidates, citing a lack of controversial issues and the fact that all nine incumbents are seeking to win their seats again, are predicting a similar turnout this year.

Cambridge is the only municipality in the U.S. to elect its councillors through proportional representation, a complicated system which helps minority and fringe factions win seats and virtually guarantees that incumbents return. In 1987, all nine incumbents were reelected.

Kissing Babies

But observers say that, without any real issue to define the election, the seats will be won or lost through traditional door-knocking and baby-kissing.

"There will be a lot more premium on retail politics," said Vince Dixon, former chair of Cambridge's Republican party. "And the incumbents are obsessive in doing these things. They touch every hand, they knock on every door."

But this time, many observers and candidates are saying there are 10 incumbents. Former mayor and 34-year-old Independent council veteran Alfred E. Vellucci, dissatisfied with his seat on the school committee, threw his hat into the ring in the spring. The colorful, Harvard-baiting Vellucci served on the council from 1955 to 1989, and has never lost an election.

"Al Vellucci could win a seat," conceded Dixon. "Al Vellucci is sui generis-- one of a kind."

CCA candidates and supporters say they believe Vellucci's presence will hurt Toomey's chance for reelection because both of the Independent, prorent-control candidates draw strong support in East Cambridge. Walsh said he feels both candidates can win if Vellucci's popularity among rent-control activists draws votes away from the CCA.

Other strong candidates in the 19-way race include Independent Jane Sullivan, a six-year veteran of the school committee, Independent James McSweeney, who is running an expensive, high-profile campaign and Elaine Noble, a former state representative and the first openly gay candidate for city office. Noble is not affiliated with the CCA or the Independents.

Temporary Calm

But for now, things remain quiet. The public debates haven't begun yet, and many candidates have yet to stage their official campaign kick-off party. Several major lobbying groups, such as the Cambridge Tenants Union, have yet to announce their endorsements.

The candidates are still busy organizing volunteers, raising funds and plotting strategy.

But in the weeks ahead, the candidates say, there will come the debates and public posturing, the signs and bumper stickers of all campaigns.

"The campaign so far has been low-key, although very, very hardworking," said Cyr. "It's going to be fun. It's going to be fought out in the neighborhoods. I'm feeling very, very excited."

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