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When Sheila T. Russell was elected mayor last week, she knew she was off to a late start.
"I've been gypped--no, shorted--two months of my term," she says.
But in 1956, Russell had an early start, this one of another kind.
When she married Leonard J. Russell at age 20 she unknowingly took the first step toward the mayor's office.
"I came from a very non-political family myself," she says. "My husband got me into politics. Now I'm a junkie."
A lifelong resident of Cambridge, Russell had attended St. John's Parochial School in North Cambridge.
While married to Leonard Russell, Russell worked in the family trucking business.
"I did bookkeeping," she says. "I was home with five children. I never drove any trucks."
When Leonard Russell campaigned for City Council in 1967, it marked the beginning of Russell's indoctrination into the world of Cambridge politics.
Russell is not related to the three Cambridge Russells who served as mayor during the first half of this century.
While campaigning, however, Leonard Russell would occasionally claim to be a cousin of the popular Russell, Sheila Russell says.
Leonard Russell lost his 1967 campaign, as well as the two which followed. But in 1973 he was finally elected to the City Council.
Leonard Russell was elected mayor in 1984, and served until his death in June of 1985.
Sheila for City Council
Sheila Russell says she was surprised when some of Leonard Russell's supporters suggested she should run.
"We were sitting around the day of the funeral and talking. I thought they were kidding when they said, 'why don't you run.'"
Russell has served six terms since winning the 1985 election.
When the Alliance for Change was founded in 1993, it endorsed Russell, then a four-term independent. Russell is still endorsed by the Alliance
She now resides at Hawthorne Park. Four of her children have married and left Cambridge. Her youngest daughter, Mary Kate, still lives in the city and works for State Representative Eric T. Turkington.
Russell opposed rent control, the most controversial issue taken up by the community during her tenure.
Russell says she was forced to support Question Nine, which ended rent control in 1994, by the inflexibility of tenant organizations.
"They wouldn't even agree to changing a comma" of the rent control code, she says. "If only they had done that, we would never have had Question Nine."
"I felt badly that [property owners] were driven to Question Nine," she says.
Colleagues praise Russell's ability and her straightforward approach.
"She takes her City Council responsibilities very seriously," says City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55. "She doesn't spend a lot of time on rhetoric and oratory. She comes to the bottom time very quickly."
'Flew to the Moon'
Duehay also praises Russell's sense of humor.
Russell tells of how seven-year-old Molly Struzziery, one of Russell's nine grandchildren, proudly informed a classmate last week that her grandmother was the mayor.
"Yeah," replied the incredulous first-grader. "And my grandmother flew to the moon."
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