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Candidate Profile: David P. Maher

By Alyza J. Sebenius, Contributing Writer

Cambridge Mayor David P. Maher, who is up for reelection this term, lives just around the corner from where he grew up.

Maher, who has resided in Cambridge all his life, has extensive experience in City politics; he has served four terms on the School Committee and six terms on City Council, and is currently the chair of both.

Maher says he is committed to completing and expanding upon the projects he has undertaken during his time in office, while tempering the ideological with the practical when it comes to politics.

“It’s about taking a pragmatic approach to local government and to being able to understand the environment that we’re in, the challenges we face, and trying to address all of that,” he says.

Maher says his father, who was a police officer, encouraged his commitment to public service.

“He instilled this sense of giving back to the community and so I would definitely say he had a major impact on my getting into politics,” he says.

Another early source of inspiration was former President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated when Maher was five. “I think that sense of giving back to the community and people stepping up to be heard is something that I admired both as a young child and something that shaped me a little bit as a teen,” Maher says.

During his tenure, Maher has worked to improve the quality public education in Cambridge, both in terms of programs and facilities.

Maher recently worked to pass the Innovation Agenda to improve Cambridge public education, an initiative that will revamp public schools. The schools, which used to be K-8, will now be K-5, and Cambridge will see the advent of 6-8 schools. Roughly 80 children per grade will attend each of these 4 junior high school campuses. This change will be implemented in September 2012.

Maher calls the initiative “amazing,” adding that the end goal is to create more academically rigorous schools.

In addition, Maher has overseen the renovation of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, the city’s high school.

Coupled with four elementary schools that Maher will be rebuilding, the total construction price is over a quarter of a billion dollar investment in public education.

“We’ve go to get this right. We owe it to the kids that go here,” Maher says. “If there is any community that can do it right it is Cambridge,” adding that Cambridge spends more money per student than any other city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Ruby Pierce, a friend of Maher who worked at Cambridge Rindge and Latin for 34 years and the Cambridge NAACP Education Chair, emphasizes the importance of Maher’s work, noting the glaring discrepancy that currently exists between the quality levels at different public lower schools. She says that she can usually identify which school each high school student went to just by talking to them.

Pierce says that Maher brought together a divided school committee to pass this educational agenda. She said she believes that if Maher is not reelected to the city council it could be “detrimental” to the implementation of his plan.

“I hope David can continue this dream of ours. It is heartbreaking that not every kid is not treated equally,” she says.

But Virginia W. Childs, Cambridge public school parent, is critical of the educational plan.  “I don’t think they really listened to the parents in favor of the K-8 model,” she says.  She believes that the transition to new 6-8 schools will foster social angst that will detract from academic success.  Furthermore, the middle school students will no longer serve as role models on campus for the younger students.

In addition to his work on education, Maher, who spent two decades as a the director of the nonprofit organization Development for Cambridge Family and Children’s Services, has been an public health and environmental advocate. He has launched a campaign to inform young people about the harmful effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products, and passed legislation to make all Cambridge work places smoke-free zones.

Maher also says he is committed to maintaining the quality and vibrancy of neighborhoods, noting the economic strain the community currently suffers. “I am painfully aware of the challenges people are facing right now,” Maher says of the economy.

He has worked to form neighborhood coalitions, revitalize Central Square, and expand outdoor spaces. Maher has also attempted to forge relationships among the city and its businesses and schools. One of his projects as Mayor is to develop a formalized relationship between Cambridge businesses, universities, and public schools. As First Chair of the City’s University Relations Committee, Maher was in charge of the negotiations that led to Harvard’s agreement to build and finance affordable housing and a new parking lot on Memorial Drive.

Maher has fought to promote affordable housing through a variety of initiatives such as the Community Preservation Act. This initiative ensures that Cambridge spends $11 million annually on affordable housing. His Silver Ribbon Commission works to assess the future needs of seniors.

Maher says he believes that young people are especially hard hit by the current job market. College graduates are increasingly living at home, entering low-paying jobs, or taking jobs that are not career-oriented or specific to their education.

“David believes in everyone,” says Pierce. “Everyone has an opportunity in Cambridge.  He believes that no matter what background you come from, you deserve the same thing as everyone else.”

“This is probably the most challenging time for young people in a very long period of time,” Maher says. “My hope is that we are starting to see a recovery that offers more opportunities for young people. I just don’t want young people to feel like they are left behind.”

Attorney James J. Rafferty grew up with Maher in West Cambridge and served for a term with him on the Cambridge School Council. Rafferty says that throughout Maher’s long tenure in Cambridge politics, he has maintained the enthusiasm, committed work ethic, and energy with which he began his political career. And he cites Maher’s “impressive” mediating skills as a vital asset to the city.

“He cares immensely about Cambridge and all of its neighborhoods.  You don’t get the sense that it is a stepping-stone,” he says. “He always wants to make this a better place.”

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