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Council Challengers Struggle To Separate From the Pack

By Michael M. Grynbaum, Crimson Staff Writer

It was supposed to be simple. Two years ago, as Cantabrigians headed to the polls on Election Day, observers predicted an easy victory for all nine City Council incumbents.

That’s just the way things work in Cambridge: barring any radical developments, voters tend to stick with the political status quo.

But by the end of the night, all bets were off. After the first-place votes had been tallied, mouths hung agape in the Cambridge Senior Center, where the city’s political classes gather every two years for the ballot count. Sitting in eighth place—ahead of two council incumbents—was first-time challenger Matthew S. DeBergalis, a then-26-year-old MIT graduate who had focused his campaign on student issues.

DeBergalis missed the final cut by 137 votes, but his unexpected success demonstrated that the power of incumbency in Cambridge was not invincible, if the right candidate came along who could harness the power of a previously untapped constituency.

With Cambridge voters preparing to cast their ballots today, there appears to be little potential for another DeBergalis-style surprise. In a council race that looks strikingly similar to two years ago, all nine incumbents are running for reelection, and again, pundits predict a sweep.

While many of this year’s challengers say they tried to learn from DeBergalis’s innovative campaign, few have followed the tactics that brought him so close to victory. And a lack of substantial policy issues has left challengers struggling to capture voters’ attention.

MATT’S SHADOW

In a city of popular politicians with a strong hold on voter loyalty, DeBergalis found his niche two years ago by creating his own constituency.

Students are a demographic long ignored by Cambridge pols, considered by most observers to be a transient group with little interest in the civic goings-on of their temporary home. DeBergalis cast aside this conventional wisdom and embraced students as an untapped resource, canvassing dormitories at Harvard and MIT and shaping his platform around student-friendly issues such as late-night restaurant hours and bicycle safety.

A month before Election Day in 2003, longtime local pundit Robert Winters said the dark horse candidate didn’t “have a chance in hell.” But as early votes came in, fresh-faced “DeBerg” was on the cusp of a stunning upset.

DeBergalis eventually fell behind after the subsequent ballot counts; Cambridge’s proportional representation system rewards candidates who gain “transfer” votes from other candidates, a setup that usually helps incumbents. The system has even gained the nickname “perpetual representation.”

After DeBergalis’s near miss, several of the challengers in this year’s race have said they are trying to reach out to students in their campaigns.

But while this may be a superficial imitation of DeBergalis’s strategy, his real success lay in his aggressive voter registration and his ability to corner the political market on a specific support base.

According to political observers, this year’s challengers have not explicitly followed this model, and few have set themselves apart from the opposition.

“I don’t see anyone out there running that kind of a grassroots campaign, mobilizing voters as he had done,” said Glenn S. Koocher ’71, who hosts a local political talk show.

Koocher added that key issues have not emerged this year to stir voters’ discontent, making it “a tough year to be a challenger.”

“The thing that makes the incumbents a little stronger is the absence of a critical or emotional issue,” Koocher said. “Taxes were reduced or leveled; crime is really less an issue; rent control is really less an issue. There’s nothing to exacerbate the voters’ fears, concerns, or anything like that.”

Many of the challengers, ranging from self-described “progressive” Jesse Gordon to libertarian candidate Bill Hees, have made property tax reform the centerpiece of their campaigns. The candidates point to local anger over a 2004 property tax reassessment that sent some homeowners’ taxes skyrocketing.

But the City Council moved in September to lessen the burden on homeowners by tapping into the city’s budget surplus. And incumbents have also come out in favor of easing property taxes for residents.

With incumbents and challengers sharing similar platforms, no opposition candidate has emerged as distinctly as DeBergalis did two years ago, “It would be easier for me if I was the only one focused on that, no doubt about that,” said Hees, the libertarian challenger.

SIX YEARS RUNNING?

If all nine incumbents do win re-election, Koocher said it would be the first time in Cambridge history that a council slate remains static for six straight years.

As for DeBergalis himself, he opted out of this year’s race, choosing to focus on an online political grassroots project called ActBlue. “I think it was going to have to be one or the other at least for a time,” he said, referring to his decision not to run.

But the dark horse-turned-political darling may have harbored some desire to take another shot at a seat on the council. Winters said he ran into the young politico at a party earlier this year.

“Did you think about it?” Winters recalled asking DeBergalis.

The tantalizing response: “Yeah, I thought about it.”

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.

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