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Cambridge City Council Candidates Look to Woo Harvard Students

Cambridge City Hall
Cambridge City Hall By Jacqueline S. Chea
By Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writer

As Cambridge’s City Council election draws closer, some candidates have begun pitching their campaigns to Harvard students in the hopes that they might appeal to students’ interests and gain their support.

The race, with 22 declared candidates, has picked up steam in recent weeks and seen candidate forums on issues like affordable housing and climate change.

City Council candidate Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said college student engagement is one of the hallmarks of his campaign. He characterized young voters as “crucial voices” lacking in city government, citing the statistic that 60 percent of Cambridge voters are under 40 years of age, while only one current city councilor falls in that demographic.

“In terms of the issues we're pushing on, they are the issues that students care about,” he said. “Fundamentally, they’re sort of big structural changes, and the more folks we can activate, the more we can reshape politics in the city.”

Candidate Derek A. Kopon said he hopes his message will attract “idealistic” young voters to his campaign. Kopon, an astrophysicist with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said he understands the issues important to Harvard students, such as traffic safety, climate change, and the cost of local housing after graduation.

“I’m probably one of the candidates who has the closest relationship with Harvard undergraduates or insight into their lives,” he said. “I work on Harvard's campus, I share an office with Harvard undergraduates; I understand the specific problems that Harvard undergraduates face.”

Several candidates, including Sobrinho-Wheeler, said that they made overtures to the Harvard College Democrats regarding endorsements. The group typically puts its support behind one candidate each election cycle.

On Monday, the College Democrats voted to endorse candidate Nicola A. Williams, a local entrepreneur. The decision came after the group held a meeting where members spoke on behalf of candidates, followed by an online vote, according to College Democrats Campaigns Director Menat N. Bahnasy ’22. Bahnasy said that the group will be coordinating canvassing and phone banking with Williams’s campaign in the future.

During the last city council election in 2017, the College Democrats voted to endorse current Vice Mayor Jan Devereux. Devereux announced earlier this year that she will not seek re-election, citing personal reasons.

Williams said she is “thrilled” to receive the endorsement, and said she looks forward to working with the College Democrats throughout her campaign. She added that she hopes students will be drawn to her platform, particularly with her focus on climate change.

“If they care about climate, we’re in a city that we can make a difference,” she said. “I think that having progressive counselors like myself — we're committed to the environment — will help make a difference.”

Several candidates, however, said they have faced difficulties making inroads with undergraduates. Candidate Burhan Azeem, who at 22 is the youngest candidate in the race, said that he has faced many “structural issues” reaching Harvard students, such as access to email lists and canvassing in dorms.

“You have to have undergrads, like, know that you're running, which to some extent is one of the easier problems to solve,” he said. “You can get people from each of the different houses that can email within their house. So, there's ways of getting across that information barrier.”

Kopon also said that involving undergraduates in local politics poses a unique challenge to candidates.

“It's tough, because undergraduate students have historically proven to be almost impossible to engage with, and they tend not to vote locally,” he said.

Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80, council candidate and School Committee member, said that though she understands why students choose not to vote in Cambridge, she said it would be “thrilling” for undergraduates to get more involved in local campaigns.

Azeem also said he believes Harvard students should engage with Cambridge politics, citing the impact on future students.

“While you may not be here in four years, students will still be here, and continue to be here after you're gone,” he said.

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him ono Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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