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Cambridge Council Candidates Clash at Forum Hosted by Harvard Grad Student Union

Fourteen of the 24 total candidates for Cambridge City Council attended the Tuesday forum.
Fourteen of the 24 total candidates for Cambridge City Council attended the Tuesday forum. By Julian J. Giordano
By Muskaan Arshad and Julian J. Giordano, Crimson Staff Writers

Fourteen candidates for Cambridge City Council gathered at Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard for a forum organized by Harvard’s graduate student union on Tuesday night.

Two dozen students and residents attended the forum — held both online and in person — which was jointly moderated by one Harvard and one MIT graduate student. Candidates were asked to share their positions on five issues — labor rights, public safety, affordable housing, bike safety, and climate change — and answer one question from the audience.

Tuesday’s forum — the third of the election cycle — was the most contentious, with candidates striking strong contrasts with their opponents and audience members challenging candidates on both their policy positions and past conduct.

About halfway through the event, Aanchal Manuja, a Tufts graduate student, asked Cambridge blogger Robert Winters about several transphobic tweets he had liked.

“You have posts on Twitter that oppose trans rights, including one that calls transgenderism like a pedophilic ideology,” Manuja said.

“I actually don’t remember if I put a like or something on something I thought was funny or something,” Winters said. “That is certainly possible, but I certainly don’t remember doing anything particularly controversial in that regard.”

Manuja replied that it wasn’t just one liked tweet.

“I don’t agree with that,” said Winters.

Challenger Robert Winters is an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and Summer School. He said that he sometimes teaches classes at Emerson Hall.
Challenger Robert Winters is an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and Summer School. He said that he sometimes teaches classes at Emerson Hall. By Julian J. Giordano

Labor Rights

A majority of candidates expressed support for the MIT Graduate Student Union and Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and said they would support workers’ rights on the Council.

Councilor Burhan Azeem — who is running for reelection after one term on the Council — reflected on his time as a student at MIT while its graduate students were unionizing.

“I was really excited to be a part of that,” he said, adding that he has been a lead sponsor of a Council resolution supporting graduate student unionization at MIT.

First-term Councilor Paul F. Toner was asked why he had voted “present” on a resolution supporting the unionization of MIT graduate students in March.

He said that he was unfamiliar with the actions of MIT’s administration and felt it was “unfair” to criticize MIT about issues he did not have knowledge of — adding that he otherwise supported the resolution.

“I’ve always stood with the unions,” Toner said, explaining that he has been in a union since the age of 24. He has previously served as vice president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Dan Totten, a former aide to Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, said that he would always support union members in contract negotiations if elected: “I will choose a side and it will always be union members.”

Challenger Catherine Zusy declined to answer the question.

“This is an issue I haven’t thought about,” she said. “I promise if I’m elected to the Council, I will think much more about this issue.”

Public Safety

Discussions around public safety centered around the January killing of 20-year-old Sayed Faisal by Cambridge Police, with moderators asking what candidates would do to prevent police violence.

Candidates discussed their personal experiences in the days following Faisal’s death.

“I stood with Faisal’s family the night after he was murdered by the police,” Totten said. “We have to move away towards transformative models of care like Cambridge HEART.”

HEART — the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team — is an independent public safety group in Cambridge aimed at providing a non-police response option for some emergencies.

“This one is near and dear to my heart as a Muslim,” said recent Harvard graduate Ayah A. Al-Zubi ’23, the youngest candidate in the race. “Policing was built to patrol enslaved folks back in the 18th century. If a system is broken, fundamentally, we cannot expect it to continue to serve the people,” she said.

“I think the number one focus I have is trying to reduce interactions with the police,” Azeem said, citing traffic stops by police as one area where interactions can be reduced.

Catherine Zusy speaks at the Harvard graduate student union's Cambridge City Council candidate forum on Tuesday night.
Catherine Zusy speaks at the Harvard graduate student union's Cambridge City Council candidate forum on Tuesday night. By Julian J. Giordano

Zusy, however, questioned the circumstances surrounding Faisal’s killing.

“I do think if he had stayed in his house, it would have been a private issue,” Zusy said, adding that when Faisal left the house with a knife, it “was a community safety issue.”

According to a January press release, Cambridge Police Department officers pursued Faisal through several blocks in Cambridgeport before firing a non-lethal round at him. When he allegedly continued to move toward officers, a CPD officer fatally shot him.

“I think it was appropriate for the police to respond,” she added. “Clearly, something went wrong, and that was unfortunate.”

She added that the Cambridge Police Department is nationally renowned.

“We hear about how bad policemen are all over this country, but actually, our police do pretty good work,” she said.

Later in the forum, incumbent Marc C. McGovern criticized this sentiment.

“It doesn’t matter to his family that the Cambridge Police Department is nationally known,” McGovern said. “They lost their son, and no parent should ever have to bury a son.”

McGovern also spoke about the work the Council has done to support alternatives to police response.

“Soon, we will be having a Community Safety Department or social workers that will respond to non-violent calls,” McGovern said.

Affordable Housing

As in previous forums, candidates were split on support for the Affordable Housing Overlay and its controversial proposed amendments.

Zusy said that though the cost of housing in Cambridge is significantly higher than the national average, she doesn’t think the AHO is the answer.

“I think there are other ways we can solve this problem,” she said, listing increased funding from taxes to build additional housing and rezoning to allow for apartments in existing houses as alternatives.

“I am against 12 and 15-story buildings in Cambridge,” said Federico Muchnik, adding that he believes “we need to put the public before the developers.”

Adrienne Klein, the former director of constituent services for Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, said that affordable housing was the number one issue that people called her office about. She called on universities to play a role in supporting affordable housing for their graduate students.

McGovern, a co-sponsor of the AHO and the currently proposed amendments, was asked by an audience member if he accepts money from developers.

“Some developers,” he replied, adding, “I don’t think all developers are evil.”

Transportation

Transportation was another point of discussion amongst the candidates.

Asked about a bicycle safety pledge put forward by local advocacy group Cambridge Bicycle Safety, candidates were divided on whether they supported it.

Vernon K. Walker signed the pledge, citing a traffic accident in which a pregnant woman on a bicycle was struck by a motorist.

“​​I think we need to think of a way to create safer streets for our motorists, for our cyclists, for our pedestrians,” Walker said.

Toner, who did not sign the pledge this year or in 2017, said, “The reason I don’t sign pledges is that I actually want to be an independent thinker.”

Winters — who remarked that he sometimes teaches classes at Emerson Hall as a Harvard Summer School and Extension School instructor — explained, “Signing pledges says, ‘I’m just going to close my eyes and cover my ears.’ I can’t sign a pledge like that.”

Ayah Al-Zubi '23 is the youngest candidate in the race, and would be the youngest member of the Cambridge City Council if elected.
Ayah Al-Zubi '23 is the youngest candidate in the race, and would be the youngest member of the Cambridge City Council if elected. By Julian J. Giordano

Al-Zubi was one of many candidates who complained about delays on the T, particularly between the Central Square and Harvard Square stations.

“I could probably climb Mount Everest at this rate before I got to Harvard Square,” she said.

Two candidates were asked about the impact of age on civic service.

Documentary filmmaker Federico Muchnik quoted Indiana Jones. “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think age is a factor.

One audience member asked Al-Zubi if she had advice for young people in Cambridge.

“There are folks that really want to dial down our voices as young folks,” Al-Zubi said. “The reality is, we have a whole heck ton of energy.”

—Staff writer Muskaan Arshad can be reached at muskaan.arshad@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @MuskaanArshad or on Threads @muskarshad.

—Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at julian.giordano@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @jjgiordano1 or on Threads @julianjgiordano.

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilLaborMetro