It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Cambridge’s most popular politician is in his natural environment.
Wearing dark wash jeans, a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Try Harder,” wireless headphones hanging from the neck, and sporting a man bun, City Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen can’t walk more than five feet from his Mass. Ave. office without being stopped by a large crowd on the street.
He stops to chat up a community organizer, a few college students, and a local candidate for state senate. Throughout the day, his wireless earpiece constantly buzzes with calls from constituents, employees at his startups, and even another reporter.
A testament to his community advocacy background, grassroots campaign, and strong local business ties, Mazen seems to know Cambridge and its people intimately.
Mazen, the son of an Egyptian immigrant, is the youngest member of the Cambridge City Council, squeaking onto the body two years ago with the least votes of any candidate elected to the nine-member Council.
Yet only two years later, he received the most votes of any candidate running. He speaks with a deep knowledge of national and local issues, and is fiercely defensive about his beliefs. More importantly, Mazen is shaking up the Council and brings national issues to the local level, such as the need for affordable housing, an increased minimum wage, and campaign finance reform.
Mazen has placed self-imposed term limits on himself, and it is unclear how far he will be able to take his ambitious agenda, despite Cambridge’s heavy liberal tilt. But one thing is certain: Mazen's not a traditional politician.
In many ways, Mazen had a traditional upbringing. His parents settled in the quiet town of Andover, Mass., seeking a “white picket fence” success in America. He attended the elite prep school Phillips Andover Academy on financial aid and later, at MIT, studied mechanical engineering with a minor in biomedical engineering. He also pursued applied international studies.
Growing up, Mazen felt the need to go out and explore the world beyond his “homogeneous” suburb.
“I felt like every minute in the suburbs was incomprehensible,” Mazen said. “My generation, whether you're the son or daughter of immigrants or not, wants to be in the city.”
Mazen’s father taught as a professor on the study abroad program “semester at sea, ”which takes place on a boat. As a child, Mazen traveled extensively, only to feel dismayed upon arriving home.
“I traveled the world and then to come home to Andover I was like ‘ugh.’” Mazen said. “You see world capitals and you’re like ‘why are we here?’”
Coming from an academic household, Mazen felt pressure from a young age to live up to his dad’s expectations and succeed academically. While he spent most of his undergraduate career studying engineering, he found his true passion in international affairs. That interest, and his faith as a devout Muslim, spurred in him a desire to see effective leadership at home.
“In my religion there is a mandate that if a certain social good is not being guaranteed by government or society... then we have to drop what we are doing individually,” Mazen, who is the first Muslim elected to a governing body in Massachusetts, said. “The fact is there is a lot of latent energy to make improvements wherever people are.”
After a brief flirtation with online fame while directing a viral music video for alternative rock band Ok Go, Mazen began to consider running for elected office in Cambridge. He was deeply disenchanted with national “machine” politics, but remained hopeful that local politics would be different.
He visited City Council meetings to get a feel for what might lie ahead, and was surprised by what he considered ineffective and combative politics. But rather than deter him, it had the opposite effect.
Mazen ran for the council in 2013 against 24 other candidates and won the ninth and final seat with 5.5 percent of the vote.
CALL HIM NADEEM
During his first term, Mazen said he took “every meeting and every time, no matter what time in the day.” He worked tirelessly to acquaint himself with local stakeholders, even while working under self-imposed term limits of “two to three terms.”
During the 2015 election cycle, Mazen received the highest number of votes of any candidate for City Council. He cruised to victory while running against a slate of seven incumbents for one of a total of nine slots. He formed his own four-person slate to try and bring new voices and “innovative thinking” to the Council.
Since then, he has been an active councillor, supporting legislation connected to national debates over raising the minimum wage, the opioid epidemic, campaign finance reform, Indigenous People’s Day, and most importantly to Mazen, the affordable housing crisis. He and Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern, officially sit on nine of the council’s 11 committees, the most of any councillors.
“He’s very high energy just day to day,” Shaun J. Kennedy, deputy manager for Mazen’s campaign, said. “When you add the requirements of the campaign on top of that it's very demanding, but Nadeem somehow pulls it off. I think most days he probably operates on four to six hours of sleep and he doesn’t drink coffee.”
Mazen in unique in how he maintains his heavy workload on the Council—not to mention his role as CEO of two startups and president of a political action committee.
While other City Councillors arrive to weekly meetings in suits and ties or pantsuits, Mazen dons his quintessential headphones and casual clothes. Countless times he has insisted that almost everyone he meets call him Nadeem instead of Councillor Mazen.
“I’m trying to be authentic. I’m trying to bring it maybe down to a level where people feel like they can participate,” Mazen said. “I don’t have to put on airs to be me. I just show up and it works.”
Despite the casual dress, Mazen debates with the same ferocity as other councillors. On the City Council, Mazen has been a powerful force for progressive legislation, bringing national issues to the forefront of Council debates.
“I really admire how he thinks outside the box, the way he pushes us to ask the big overarching questions about policy,” fellow Councillor Jan Devereux said. “He’s a lot of fun to work with. I like sitting next to him.”
Mazen is now focused on increasing the number affordable housing units in the area. The Council’s Housing Committee intends to discuss the recently completed Cambridge Inclusionary Housing Study at at least three upcoming meetings.
“We’re in serious throes of gentrification and displacement,” Mazen said. “It’s harkening to a national crisis in housing where only the private sector can participate.”
However, in recent months, recruiting others to run has become another important goal of Mazen’s in preparation for his transition off the Council.
Mazen promised to serve for only two to three terms on the Council before leaving the body.
OUTSIDE THE COUNCIL
Serving on the City Council is Mazen’s priority, but it is certainly not his only commitment. Mazen juggles his time away from the City Council as CEO of two startups, an animated video production company called Nimblebot, and maker space “danger! awesome.” He is also the founder and current president of Jetpac, a political action committee recruiting minority candidates to run for elected office.
All of his businesses, the City Council, and his own house are within blocks of each other on a section of Mass. Ave. by Central Square. From the window of Mazen’s Nimblebot office, the lawn in front of Cambridge City Hall is easily visible, a reminder of Mazen’s political pursuits and closely overlapping spheres of local involvement. Even the impetus behind Nimblebot aligns with Mazen’s goal of broadening political engagement.
“Nimblebot makes animations for nonprofits, issue advocates, and advocacy groups and educators, and some government [groups who] usually don't think of animation as their format of choice or are struggling to tell their stories affordably,” Mazen said.
Nimblebot’s better known clients include PBS, the Department of Defense, the Boston Globe, and MIT.
“We do a lot for folks who typically don’t get their story out there in a way that is exciting, you don’t usually talk about environmental data with excitement,” Mazen added.
Mazen is eager to show off his businesses, and, from the worn out couches of danger! awesome’s basement, points out projects in various stages of development. The floor is littered with machines for printing and engraving, laser cutters and a myriad of other mechanical tools. The mirrors surrounding the walls boast prototype drawings in marker. With a goal of increasing access to product production capabilities, new workshop classes, and an online store, danger! awesome has seen growth in recent months, Mazen said.
Jetpac, another one of Mazen’s pursuits, combines his two worlds of startups and politics. The organization, born out of Mazen’s City Council campaigns, is “a PAC for minority civic engagement training and anti-hate speech,” according to Mazen.
Kennedy, who is also the vice chair of Jetpac, said the political action committee works to train individuals from minority groups to run for office, organizes minority voters, and lobbies to prevent anti-Muslim rhetoric in politics.
Mazen himself would know about anti-Muslim rhetoric better than most. Earlier this year, Breitbart.com published an article about Mazen called “Hamas on the Charles,” a story the City Council deemed “anti-Muslim libel.”
Balancing work between the three organizations and the Council has proven to be manageable for Mazen, as both his time on City Council and his involvement with Nimblebot begins to run out.
“I’m really focused on danger! awesome right now, Nimblebot is actually for sale,” Mazen said. “It's a very mature company and... I can only focus on so many things.”
Mazen also said that “this term we’re really focused on training others to run, training others to lead, training or inviting those who want to be involved to actually find a place to engage."
In his dwindling time on the Council, Mazen hopes to inspire others to run who think electoral success may not be possible for them. One such person last cycle was Devereux.
“Nadeem has an unusual background for the Council and I mean that in the best sense of the word,” Devereux said. “He really inspired me to run.”
With a little less than two years left in this term, Mazen said he hopes to build on the change he has brought to the Council.
“I actually think we did start a small sort of movement,” Mazen said. “Things have changed fundamentally in just two years.”
—Staff writer Samuel Vasquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @svasquez14.
—Staff writer Joshua Florence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.