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In his 35 years as a Republican representative to the Cambridge Election Commission, Edward J. Samp Jr. has overseen nine presidential elections, 17 city council races and countless primaries.
But tonight, the city's Republicans will choose a successor to the "institutional memory" of the commission, who at age 76 says he has decided to retire.
"It's time that I got out," Samp says. "I'm not as good as I was physically and mentally 20 or 30 years ago. We can always use fresh blood."
As one of four members of the Election Commission, Samp has supervised Cambridge's notoriously complicated elections, overseen voter registration programs, administered Cambridge's ethics ordinance and rewritten local ballot questions, among other duties.
Colleagues say Samp has brought to municipal government both a passion for elections and a keen knowledge of detail.
"You always had a sense that Ed knows where all the bones are buried," says Election Commissioner Darlene G. Bonislawski.
Former Mayor Alice K. Wolf says Samp "seemed very attuned to the democratic process."
"He's been very active as a citizen in Cambridge," says former Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci. "He's done a smooth-running outstanding job in directing the counting of elections in Cambridge."
David L.K. Trumbull, chair of the Republican City Committee, says Samp's intelligent counsel will be difficult to replace.
"He is the institutional memory of the commission," Trumbull says. "He has an incredible memory for detail. He's a man who loves the intricacies of elections, thinking through what are the implications of proposed changes to the laws or to the procedures."
Fellow Election Commissioner Artis Spears says that Samp's experience is one of his greatest assets.
"By being on the commission longer than all of us together, he's contributed quite a bit," Spears says. "He's shared everything with us. They don't make them like Ed Samp anymore."
A World War II veteran and Harvard Law School graduate, Samp first sought to join the Election Commission because injuries he sustained in the Battle of Okinawa made it difficult for him to hold a job with regular hours.
"A bomb went off underneath my battle station and tore off part of my head, which may explain to some people some of my idiosynchrocies," Samp says. "I came back and finished up at Harvard Law School, but it became evident that I was not going to be able to do a 9 to 5 job because I physically wasn't strong enough to do that."
Samp says he chose to involve himself in Cambridge's notoriously convoluted political scene out of respect for "the sanctity and honesty and integrity of the voting process."
"I looked around to see what I could do to be of help to my country," Samp says. "I like politics, anyway."
During the more than three decades he has served on the commission, Samp says he has seen the evolution of both Cambridge politics and Cambridge elections.
Most notably, the Democrats in Cambridge have become more liberal, while the Election Commission has become more professional, Samp says.
As an election commissioner, Samp says one of his most difficult tasks has been determining would-be voters' eligibility.
"We went after policemen and firemen and teachers who did not live in the city but claimed the city as their residence," Samp says. "Many believed that if you were born in Cambridge, you had a right to vote in Cambridge for the rest of your life no matter where you lived."
Samp says the crackdown was necessary because people who are not residents of Cambridge "find it politically advantageous" to vote in Cambridge.
Samp recalls that students at Harvard and MIT began to register to vote in earnest after the passage of the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
"When a student [became] eligible to register at 18, he had three years to go at school," Samp says. "There was much more readiness on his part to register to vote in Cambridge."
But Samp says it bothers him that students who are registered to vote in Cambridge do not necessarily consider the city their home.
"Most students were just using Harvard as a way station for something else," Samp says. "They didn't consider Cambridge their residence except when they registered to vote."
In order to make students more aware of their Massachusetts citizenship, Samp says he once suggested distributing income tax forms with voter registration forms as a reminder that their responsibilities as taxpayers are as important as their rights as citizens.
"That went over like a lead balloon," the retiring commissioner recalls with a laugh.
Dead Men Don't Vote
Just as it is difficult to determine whether one is eligible to vote, it is also difficult to determine who is no longer able to vote, Samp says.
"You don't want the names of people who have died on your voting list," Samp says. "If somebody comes in and gives the name of a dead person, we are hoping that one of our employees will know that person has died."
While the composition of the electorate has changed dramatically since 1960, Samp says the commission's commitment to integrity remains the same.
As an example of the Election Commission's commitment to integrity, Samp points to the apprehension of a voter who had lied about his name at a polling location during a City Council election several years ago.
According to Samp, election workers worked with police to seize "some fellow" who falsely identified himself as an MIT student and voted twice.
Samp says an advertisement for a City Council candidate on the man's car led to his subsequent arrest and six-month imprisonment.
"That was kind of a funny story in a sense," Samp says. "We try to publicize things like that to let people know that we are watching them."
'Republican Through and Through'
Described by Spears as "a Republican through and through," Samp has fought his share of partisan battles on the commission, which consists of two Republicans and two Democrats.
Recently, Samp has opposed the implementation of the "Motor Voter" bill, which would enable individuals to register to vote when renewing a driver's license, collecting welfare benefits or engaging in any of a number of other activities.
"There's an open invitation to fraud here," Samp says. "The thing we worry about is a social worker saying to a client, 'if we can get more money here, we can do this for you and this for you,' relating that to a political party."
Bonislawski, who is a Democrat, says Samp's opposition to the legislation reflects the views of many in the Republican party.
"The Democrats have played an outstanding role in the past 20 years in opening up the process of voting to be much more inclusive," Bonislawski says. "Ed has not always shared that vision."
Law and Little League
Colleagues say they admire Samp not only as an administrator but also as a lawyer and Little League coach.
"When I was in law school, Ed would quiz me on areas of law, just some times out of the blue," Bonislawski says. "It turned out to be very helpful for me."
Both Wolf and Bonislawski also say Samp has had a distinguished career as a local little league baseball coach.
"He just really is such a baseball freak," Bonislawski says. "That's the only way to describe it."
"He's a big little league person," Wolf says. "He has a city-wide reputation in that field and as a leader at the Election Commission."
Samp says he plans to continue coaching Little League as well as teaching Spanish to senior citizens after his retirement.
At tonight's Republican City Committee meeting, five challengers will be vying to replace Samp on the Commission.
According to Trumbull, the candidates include Wayne "Rusty" Drugan, treasurer of the Republican City Committee, Peter Sheinfield, a vice-chair of the committee, Paul DeLeo, a ward chair, Arthur Malenfant, a ward chair and Ed Feinman, a Republican activist.
Trumbull says the Republicans will submit a ranked list of three candidates to City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr., and that Healy will select one of the three candidates. Traditionally, the city manager has selected the highest-ranked candidate.
Trumbull says the choice of a new election commissioner is "potentially very important."
"When it comes time to locate the voting places, that's something that the commission will do," Trumbull says. "Where you locate a polling place can often determine who votes."
Following the meeting, Republicans plan to honor Samp with a wine and cheese reception, Trumbull says.
As for Samp, he says he hopes to remain connected to city elections by serving as a precinct warden after he steps down from the commission on March 31.
"I would like to keep my hand in trying to be a good citizen and help where I could as long as my health permits it," he says.
Despite Samp's retirement, Bonislawski says she believes Samp will remain involved in local affairs.
"I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Ed," she says.
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