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Cambridge City Council Candidate: James Williamson

By Julia K. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

Although James M. Williamson ran for Cambridge City Council in 2009, comparatively little information about him is available. Williamson has no printed campaign literature, a website coming soon, and no funds to spend on advertising.

He describes himself as an event organizer, a publicist, and a neighborhood activist. Williamson has been involved in activist movements since high school, when he joined the Students for a Democratic Society, a student movement prominent in the 1960s. He says he attended New York University but was expelled as a result of his protests against the Vietnam War.

“I was a victim of oppression around vigorous protests to war,” Williamson says.

After his expulsion, he moved to Cambridge, where he has lived for the past forty years. He says he has since taken courses at Boston University and later the Harvard Extension School. Williamson says he continues to audit classes.

Williamson says his chief motivation for running is the current Council’s lack of initiative in addressing the concerns of City residents. His criticisms of the City Council extend to its lack of familiarity with the areas in which people live. He thinks the city’s governing body is too removed from residents and their problems.

“The people who run the government are out of touch, and the people we elect, who should be the watchdogs, aren’t doing their jobs,” Williamson says. “They don’t get it. They’re not paying attention. I never see any of them around.”

Williamson says he is concerned with issues that directly affect the public and that the City Council can tackle with or without the city manager’s support.

In this election, Williamson is directing his attention at sidewalk safety, an issue he says is overlooked by the current City Council. Williamson has been frustrated that cyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalk in some areas and not in others and that those geographical areas change with little warning. Several serious injuries have resulted from a lack of enforcement of bicycle laws, Williamson says. In the fall of 2010, Ruth Daniloff, a 75 year-old woman, was hit by a bicycle in Cambridge, according to an op-ed she authored in The Boston Globe. In Williamson’s opinion, city councilors have not responded adequately to these incidents.

“If we are a city with handsomely paid people, with an enormous bureaucracy, and all this money, if we have this kind of negligence, we are in bad shape,” Williamson says. “This is what motivates me. Wake up, people.”

Williamson is also concerned with public transportation, specifically the temporary weekend disruption of Red Line service between Alewife and Harvard Square.

“I am very distressed with the way the MBTA is handling that situation. They only notified the public less than two weeks from when this massive dislocation will take place,” Williamson says. “We need to improve public transportation dramatically.”

As a public housing resident, Williamson views himself as a relatable candidate who is an active member of the community he seeks to represent. He participates in the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, which is made up of public housing residents and voucher holders. For the past few months, he has devoted his full attention to his candidacy.

“We are losing more and more of what we care about because people aren’t doing their jobs. That’s my number one problem with the City Council,” Williamson says.

“It’s not enough to have a $70,000 job in Cambridge,” Williamson says, speaking about the city councilors’ annual salaries. “Several of them have other paid jobs—their ‘real’ jobs. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if they got things done.”

In addition to his focus on commuter safety, Williamson is concerned with developing more democratic structures. Were he elected to the City Council, Williamson says he would hold more meetings that would allow citizens to voice their concerns and participate in city budgeting.

“I’m just doing my bit just like anybody else, trying in my way to participate in what I would hope will be a more democratic self-government,” Williamson says. “It’s not that hard to get on the ballot. It is hard to get elected. The difference is money.”

Williamson invites voters to be more critical of the campaign materials they receive and to play a more active role in civic engagement. He urges the public to consider how and from where other candidates are collecting their funds.

Due to his fears that other candidates are relying on real estate developers to provide funding that will ultimately be detrimental to the community’s best interest, Williamson says he has signed documents drawn up by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance pledging to neither raise nor spend money in this election.

“The relationship between money and politics has to be broken. It has to be re-imagined and reconstructed as public financing of our public elections,” Williamson says. “Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck forever with people with money and power controlling our government.”

The closest he has to campaign literature is flyers that he prints for free at the public library. Instead of signs and “political campaign junk,” he is relying on word of mouth and a short Cambridge Community Television video to spread awareness of his candidacy.

However, it appears these methods of campaigning are not as effective as Williamson would wish. His name seems to be relatively unknown in the Harvard Square area.

“I haven’t heard of him,” says Andrew F. Hammond, a Cambridge resident for 13 years.

Likewise, Mark T. Szretter, another area resident, has not heard of Williamson, but the issues at the forefront of his mind in this election align with Williamson’s platform.

“It would be nice for candidates to pay more attention to issues younger residents care about. They’ve done a poor job with the MBTA communicating what’s happening,” Szretter said, referring to the changes to the Red Line. “It was something I feel I wasn’t consulted on, and it totally affects my life,”

Although Williamson is not a big name in the upcoming election, he is still excited and committed to running for City Council this year.

“For forty years I’ve seen the things I love be destroyed and stepped on. For a while, I thought it couldn’t get worse,” Williamson says. “But it could. You always have to fight.”

—Staff writer Julia K. Nguyen can be reached at

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