As Cambridge’s Municipal Election Approaches, A Look at the Candidates and Issues

A variety of hotly contested issues are at stake this election cycle, and candidates have sought to differentiate themselves in a crowded field with a nonpartisan municipal ballot.
By Declan J. Knieriem and Katelyn X. Li

Mayor Marc C. McGovern's office is located in Cambridge City Hall.
Mayor Marc C. McGovern's office is located in Cambridge City Hall. By Jacqueline S. Chea

With Cambridge’s Nov. 5 municipal election date on the horizon, campaign season for the city’s nine council seats is officially underway.

This year, 22 candidates — including eight incumbents and 14 challengers — have thrown their hats into the ring. Cambridge’s elections are held in odd-numbered years, with each elected councilor serving a two-year term. Elections run under a proportional representation system, with voters ranking their chosen candidates in order of preference on the ballots.

Under the city’s electoral charter, adopted in 1940, the nine elected councilors form the legislative body, charged with setting policy on relevant issues — ranging from affordable housing, to sustainability, to transportation infrastructure. The mayor, elected among the councilors once they are sworn into office, presides over the council.

A variety of hotly contested issues are at stake this election cycle, and candidates have sought to differentiate themselves in a crowded field with a nonpartisan municipal ballot.

What are the issues on the table?

The scope of issues across campaigns will be broad, likely including everything from bike safety to recreational marijuana. Several prominent issues, however, are poised to dominate the election conversation.

Affordable housing has long been a contested topic in Cambridge. The most recent effort to address the city’s housing crisis is a proposed affordable housing overlay. Initially proposed in March of this year, the overlay has seen heated debate from councilors and residents alike for months. The proposal would reform zoning law and incentivize developers to build more affordable housing units in Cambridge.

David E. Sullivan, a former councilor, said in an interview this summer that the affordable housing crisis in the city is “by far” the most important issue to Cambridge voters, given that the cost of housing is “totally out of control.”

Another pair of issues on nearly every candidate’s platform are environmental protection and the impacts of climate change. Over the past months, the council has discussed conservation-related proposals at length and passed legislation in February aimed at protecting Cambridge’s tree canopy.

Sullivan said that though he does not anticipate major disagreements on many issues such as climate change, he said affordable housing promises to be an exception.

“Frankly, there aren't many issues on which candidates disagree. Everyone likes trees, everyone likes bicycles, everyone wants to do something about climate change, everybody wants to have a more livable city,” he said. “You will find differences on affordable housing, and specifically on the overlay.”

Who’s looking to keep their seat on the City Council?

Eight of the nine current City Council members are looking to keep their positions and hope to build momentum from their current term in office.

Marc C. McGovern’s first term as mayor saw him champion issues like affordable housing and immigration, while also using his position as a platform to speak about larger national issues.

Craig A. Kelley, a seventh term incumbent, said in an interview this summer that his top priority is “good governance.”

“We need a government that is effective, that's transparent, that communicates well, that listens to people, that comes to balance reasons, outcomes, and decisions,” he said.

Incumbent councilor Alanna M. Mallon said that listening to the needs of Cambridge residents — particularly through her work in human services — is one of her top priorities.

“When I talk to people about why to re-elect me, it's not just about the issues, it's about the way that I work...the way that I'm able to connect with residents on their issues,” Mallon said.

Councilor Dennis Simmons — who became the nation’s first black, openly lesbian mayor in 2008 — is running for her tenth term in office. Simmons currently serves as Chair of Civil Unity and Co-Chair of the Housing Committee, along with Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, who is also seeking reelection.

Other councilors looking to retain their seats include Quinton Y. Zondervan, an environmentalist centering his campaign on combating climate change; Dennis J. Carlone, a former urban planner and architect; and Timothy J. Toomey, who has previously worked to expand transportation and affordable housing options.

The only council member who will not be pursuing re-election this November is Vice-Mayor Jan Devereux. Devereaux announced her intent to opt out of running for a third term in mid-May, citing the decision as “personal, not political.''

Who’s looking to gain a seat for the first time?

November’s ballot will also feature 14 challengers, including four of whom have run for City Council at least once before.

Charles J. Franklin, an engineer and first time challenger, said he will focus on tenant displacement in his campaign. He also said he is concerned that some Cambridge neighborhoods are losing their demographic diversity.

“I want to use my skills and my knowledge and my ability to talk to people, my willingness to hear what they need, to try and help the underserved the voices that aren't being heard,” Franklin said.

Adriane B. Musgrave, a second time challenger, said she will push for early childhood legislation, calling it the “next wave” of progressive government. She also said climate change would feature prominently in her campaign.

Burham Azeem is another new contender for City Council. A recent MIT graduate and a Pakistani immigrant, he said in an interview this summer that his campaign will focus “first and foremost” on climate change. He also said he plans on mobilizing the youth vote in Cambridge.

“We have a special subset of our campaign, which is developed around getting students to register to vote and vote in the general election in November, as well as targeting — in Cambridge — people who voted for the first time in 2017 and 2018,” he said.

Over the past several months, other challengers — including Patricia “Patty” M. Nolan ’80 and Ilan Levy — have also spoken up at City Council meetings, voicing their opinions and looking to differentiate themselves from their fellow candidates.

There is no early voting for municipal elections, but absentee voting is available until Nov. 4 and polls across the city will be open Nov. 5. Residents can find their polling locations on the Cambridge city website.

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

— Katelyn X. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @KatelynLi2.

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