POLITICAL HISTORY OF CAMBRIDGE IN THE 20th CENTURY
written by Glenn Koocher, November 2004 -- edited by Robert Winters, July 2006
[An alternate edit of this essay appeared, along with many other valuable essays, in a
centennial volume published by the Cambridge Historical Society in Fall 2006.]
Several consistent themes flow through the complex, but never boring political history of Cambridge during the 20th Century. While the face of the city evolved dynamically and defied predictability, and as commerce evolved to match the changing economy, its politics retained both similarities and unique qualities.
During the last 100 years, Cambridge became both a melting pot and the stew as old Yankees clashed with waves of Eastern European immigrants, uprooted Canadians, Pacific Asians, and migrating Southern African Americans and South and Central Americans seeking whatever the political system had to offer. In the 1990s, Cambridge included census tracts that included the wealthiest and most economically disadvantaged populations residing within walking distance of each other. By 2004, the city’s public schools included students with heritage rooted in more than 70 nations. The voting lists were almost as diverse.
As immigrant peoples earned the rights of citizenship, fought for political strength, and influenced the course of municipal affairs, others who chose the city as a place to study, work, and live also weaved their way into positions of power and influence. In fact, the dominant political theme of the 1900s was the struggle to win and keep a share of political power and all it provided: patronage, social services, education, regulation of the economy, control of the local housing stock, and wise policy. Invoked at almost every turn was ethnic, religious, and class politics. Invariably, political campaigns arose around two factions: self-styled “good-government” reformers “of Avon Hill and Brattle Street” vs. populist challengers under various banners who claimed closer connection to the people.
The “us vs. them” concept played out well through most of the 1900s with central issues including licensing of alcoholic beverages, political patronage, urban renewal and development, administration of the schools, and the dominant theme of the last 25 years -- rent control.
No less important was the presence of two of the worlds greatest universities, Harvard, founded in Cambridge in 1636, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which moved to the city from Boston in brief stages starting in 1915. Over time, they would co-exist in a state ranging from selective harmony, to adversarial, to a more common détente. In time, Harvard, the bastion of Yankee power and elitism and a constantly growing institution in the geographic center of the city, and MIT as an international center of science, technology, and urban planning would become frequent and convenient targets.
And if the Parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, was correct in noting that the individual may be foolish, but the species is wise, his heirs might point to Cambridge civic history to prove his point.
THE CHARTER OF 1911
The early government that followed incorporation as a city evolved by the turn of the century into a bicameral system with a mayor, a 21-member Common Council and a Board of Alderman in a partisan, party-driven system with political patronage vying with the emerging concept of “good government.” A school committee of 15, no less divisive, supervised the Superintendent of Schools and oversaw the education system that assumed, among its tasks, turning new immigrant and first generation American children into citizens. Charges of political favoritism, patronage, and corruption – all exacerbated by the rhetoric of the times might seem tame by the standards of 2004, but mismanagement of government was sufficient to keep a strong and active organized “reform” movement in place.
Harvard Professor Lewis Jerome Johnson who, as chair of the Cambridge Charter Association, proposed the first major change in local government of the 20th Century. Distressed by budgetary mismanagement, construction overruns, patronage, and a structurally unsound framework, he led the campaign to put before the voters a “commission” form of government to focus on the right work and to “get the right men in office.” While the initiative went down in defeat on November 7, 1911, the proposal introduced four dramatic changes in local government whose time had not yet come: non-partisanship by removing party labels from local races; consolidation and compacting of legislative and administrative authority; the right of initiative, referendum and recall; and “preferential voting,” a system so new as to put fear into the heart of any ward boss.
Instead of a common council and board of alderman, a new five-member city council acting as an administrative commission was proposed to include a “mayor” to act as the chair and supervisor of administration. Rounding out the quintet of commissioners were supervisors of finance, public works, public property, and health. The school committee was reduced to five members. It was modeled on successful commissions in Houston, Dallas, Des Moines, and Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Local initiative by citizens, referenda on local legislative matters, and the right to recall elected officials by petition of 25% of voters were instruments of genuine reform, sufficient to strike fear into the hearts of the local power brokers.
Supporters cited endorsements of no less than Republican former president Theodore Roosevelt, Democratic New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, and Wisconsin’s Progressive “Fighting Bob” LaFollette to show how the plan posed no threat to anyone. Still, the local Democratic power structure and entrenched political interests waged a bitter campaign and defeated the plan by a vote of 6,073 – 5,272. The principles behind it remained very much alive to surface another day.
Left for future reform efforts was the concept of “preferential voting,” an elementary system used at the time in Boulder, Colorado of ranking candidates in numerical order to allow for the transfer of votes from first choice to lower choices in order to eliminate primary elections and empower the true majority.
THE CAMPAIGN OF 1915
Mindful of the strong base of support to eliminate patronage and establish good government, democratic forces grasped onto another of the four charter options offered to cities by the legislature in 1915. If the failed commission represented Plan A, a strong mayor and city council of 15 was Plan B – put before Cambridge voters in November. To ensure adequate representation of both the majority and minority, the city council included 11 members elected from each of the city’s wards and four members at-large. A mayor, elected separately, chaired the school committee, now a seven-member body elected at-large in staggered three-year terms.
Not nearly as radical as Johnson’s 1911 plan, it called for non-partisan races and was enough of a reform to rally the Citizens Municipal League (CML) to action against the rival “Democratic Citizen Ticket.” Joining the League in support was the Republican-dominated Public School Association (PSA) and its campaign for an end to a “dictatorial” majority on the school committee and patronage, and reforms like open bidding for purchasing and professional leadership from the superintendent of schools, M.E. Fitzgerald, who had succeeded the deposed Frank Parlin.
The 19th Amendment had not yet brought universal suffrage, but women had voted in School Committee elections and served for many years, including the daughter of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In fact, women were represented on the board as early as 1880. Just before the 1915 election, the Equal Suffrage Club sued to extend voting rights for women to the mayoral race under the 1915 charter, arguing unsuccessfully that the chief executive was to be the chair of the school committee. Among the strongest opponents of women suffrage were the liquor dealers whose products were available only from druggists for medicinal purposes. In fact, Cambridge would remain officially “dry” until the end of Prohibition.
On November 2, 1915, the Charter of 1891 yielded to the new Plan B government. The CML candidate for Mayor, Wendell D. Rockwood, assumed office and a full slate of PSA-endorsed candidates took over the School Committee. Municipal elections were annual events until 1921 and became biennial after 1921.
Another milestone occurred when Florence Lee Whitman, elected in 1921 as an at-large member, became the first woman to sit on the city council.
For the next two decades, Cambridge politics refocused on political patronage as the dominant issue. The popular, colorful mayor Edward J. Quinn provided stability from 1918 through 1929 and yielded to Richard M. Russell, scion of a distinguished family of progressive political leadership. Russell’s grandfather had held public office and his father had served as a youthful mayor in the 1880s before becoming the state’s youngest and first modern era Democratic governor. He managed local affairs efficiently, but the Depression hit the city hard and people turned to their political leaders for jobs.
It was during this period that two figures who would become prominent in American public life emerged from opposite neighborhoods with perspectives that typified the two ends of the Cambridge political spectrum. The Pulitzer Prize winning historian and chronicler of the Kennedy Administration, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., spent his youth in Cambridge, attended the Peabody School and, for a time, Cambridge High and Latin School. He counted many Irish locals among his friends but described their political patrons as those who “..did regard the schools as repositories for ill-qualified friends and relatives.” (This included, for example, the social studies teacher who explained that residents of Albania were known as Albinos, complete with white hair and complexions to match.) His mother regularly observed “exasperating” school committee meetings and served on the Library Board where, after being replaced in 1939, she called it, “a nice, quiet little pond where any politician can cast his line and pull out a job for someone.”
Across town, Schlesinger’s contemporary, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., the son of a turn-of-the-century common councillor and the Superintendent of Sewers, was beginning a political career in the state legislature. In 1946, two years away from becoming the first speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he was pressured by his parish priest into running for and serving a two year term on the school committee, to deliver jobs for his neighbors. That they both earned venerable status among the nation’s liberal establishment – Schlesinger as a presidential advisor and writer, O’Neill as US Speaker of the House, demonstrates the dichotomy and uniqueness of the Cambridge political experience.
In 1936, popular North Cambridge druggist John D. Lynch, a former member of the school committee and city council, assumed the mayor’s chair. He had built his base on customer and constituent service, and it did not hurt that he was an officer of a local bank during difficult economic times. He was, however, unseated by John W. Lyons in a bitter 1937 race. In the meantime, property taxes had risen substantially and charges of corruption in government characterized the tone of local elections.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR PLAN E
Out of this period emerged a reinvigorated campaign for reform under the leadership of the Cambridge Taxpayers Association and its primary leader Stoughton Bell. Lawmakers had offered cities the option of a city manager form of government with a Plan D, but with the support of the legislature, reformers introduced an option, known as Plan E, in 1937. Unlike the commission format and the strong mayor/council structure, Plan E featured a city manager like Plan D, but most importantly, it added a major improvement to the preferential voting plan that Johnson had proposed in 1911. This revision, a system of “proportional representation” voting, based on the Hare System developed in England, used a single transferable vote. It had been introduced in America thirty years earlier and was very popular in many Ohio cities.
The strengths of the Plan E charter were fourfold:
First, a professional city manager, hired at the pleasure of a nine-member city council, would hold strong administrative authority, including most personnel functions, to reduce patronage and improve the efficiency of government. In theory, politics would be taken out of city affairs. (As another Cantabrigian of an earlier period, William James, said, “A fine theory, brutalized by a vicious set of facts.”). In fact, the charter rendered illegal any attempt by a city councilor to influence personnel decisions or to interfere with the administration of the city – an ominous provision, but one that no judge would enforce over the next sixty-five years.
Second, the city council and six school committee members would be elected at large. The city council would then choose from among themselves a mayor to act as ceremonial head of the city with limited other powers. The mayor would chair both the council and school committee.
Third, voters would elect the council and school committee using proportional representation voting. Complex enough to require three weeks to count the votes cast in 1941, the system requires voters to list candidates numerically in order of preference. By eliminating weaker candidates and transferring their votes to the next highest choice on the ballot, eventually only nine council and six school committee candidates would remain to be elected. The key to the system was determining a “quota” of votes to serve as the threshold of election. Once candidates reached that quota, they were declared elected and received no more transferred ballots. Thus, a discreet political faction that comprised a large enough bloc of voters could channel its votes from its weakest to its strongest candidate and assure election.
Finally, by creating a way for voters across the city to vote for all other candidates without compromising their special interests, Plan E created within the city a “multi-member district.” Candidates would have to campaign citywide and urge voters to select them with a first-choice or “#1” vote. In fact, the “1” on bumper stickers and literature became the signature marking denoting a Cambridge candidate. But candidates did not want to alienate other candidates, lest they miss the opportunity to capture the transfer votes later in the balloting process. Elections could become less bitter, and, in fact, a comparison of campaign literature from the 1950s through the present shows far greater diplomacy and issue focus than what voters received through the end of the Depression.
There were two campaigns for Plan E. The first, fought in 1938, was unsuccessful, but encouraging enough to the Cambridge Taxpayers Association to revive the Committee for Plan E in 1940 for a second try. James M. Landis, the Dean of the Harvard Law School, led the Committee in name while a devoted core of hard-working reformers directed the organization.
The campaigns were bitter with inflammatory charges and countercharges and produced political literature and editorials sufficiently detailed to rival the Federalist Papers. Supporters pointed to the mismanagement of Mayor Lyons, the trading of jobs by the score, politics in the schools, and poor municipal services. They appealed to under-represented factions that had been shut out of influence because their citywide base had been overwhelmed by local majorities in neighborhoods.
Critics were quick to point out that the likes of Adolph Hitler had used proportional representation to advantage for the Nazis in his rise to power and that communists supported the system.
November 5, 1940 had a lot at stake for Cambridge voters. Roosevelt was on the ballot seeking a third term. Congressman Luce fought for his political life against Cambridge’s Thomas Eliot, the son of a Harvard President, author of key parts of the Social Security Act, and a member of FDR’s brain trust. If Luce’s vaguely camouflaged prejudice wasn’t enough to exacerbate ethnic war (including Eliot among the New Deal’s “intellectual punks” and citing Thomas Corcoran and Benjamin Cohen among them in campaign literature), the opponents of Plan E played to class distinctions in their own campaigns.
Voters may have also had other things on their minds, as there were national and state races on the ballot and seven referenda. Plan E was skillfully sandwiched in between three measures to keep liquor licensing and three questions on lotteries and funding for Old Age Assistance. If booze was offensive to the old guard Republicans, licensing, lotteries, and old age benefits were attractive enough to Democrats to keep some voters in a “yes” frame of mind.
At the same time, Mayor John Lyons was well rumored to be the target of investigations for bribery in connection with several major construction projects. His indictment was imminent at the time of the election and was on everyone’s mind. His conviction, resignation as mayor, and imprisonment would follow after the election.
With a solid base of support among Republican precincts and enough strength in other neighborhoods where high property taxes, political corruption, and a sense of being left out trumped patronage, voters turned the defeat of 1938 into a huge victory by a 59% to 41% margin. Voters also turned Luce out of office.
However, so complex was the new PR system that 14% of all voters did not vote on the initiative. During the next twenty-five years, opponents of PR would appeal, unsuccessfully, to voters five times to repeal the system.
THE ERA OF PLAN E GOVERNMENT
Plan E changed the politics of Cambridge significantly, starting with campaigning. Under PR, slate balloting was key. Voters needed to be reminded of how best to direct their votes to candidates who shared, for example, their political views, racial or ethnic heritage, or neighborhood. They also needed to be educated on how to vote.
Eighty-three candidates ran for city council in 1941. No one knew how to judge their own strength, nor how transfers might play a role.
In 1945, the Cambridge Committee for Plan E, the Cambridge Taxpayers’ Association, and the Cambridge Citizens’ Committee merged to form the Cambridge Civic Association. They also established the Cambridge Research Association to conduct original research in matters affecting the welfare of the City of Cambridge and to make reports available both to the public and to the city government. The Cambridge Civic Association, or CCA, on the other hand, would be the political arm. Dominated by the now non-partisan forces of progressive Democrats and old guard Republicans, the CCA waged regular, highly organized campaigns for the city council and school committee, mastering the art of slate voting. Over the years, the CCA endorsement became a brand of sorts, a label that many voters trusted to guide them.
Unlike the CCA factions, other political interests remained more candidate focused. It was city councilor Michael Neville who appears to be the first to use the phrase “independents” to define those not associated with the CCA. The label stuck. In election after election, the CCA battled Independents for majorities.
The CCA focus remained on efficient, good government without political patronage, well-planned economic development, high quality schools, and unity in the election of a mayor so as to tip the balance of power on the school committee. Independents simply interpreted these same goals differently and found unity harder to achieve.
Battles over the mayoralty went back and forth with partisans occasionally changing sides. One race, in 1948, required four months, 35 sessions, and 1,321 ballots to elect Michael J. Neville. Other mayoralty votes traded back and forth over issues.
The first Plan E city council elected John H. Corcoran as its mayor and quickly appointed John B. Atkinson as city manager. Atkinson was a local industrialist whose base was the shoe industry, but he put his administration together and proceeded to control taxes and improve services. He was, however, fiscally conservative – too conservative, for example, to address the city’s desperate need for new schools and a more solid infrastructure.
In 1952 he was unceremoniously replaced with John Curry, principal of the Roberts School (now Fletcher-Maynard Academy). Curry oversaw both a major school construction program and the first phases of urban development.
THE POLITICS OF US VS. THEM AND THE EVENTS OF 1965 – 1972
CCA and Independent relationships hovered between states of collaboration and détente with elections and the occasional highly partisan crisis emerging to remind voters that there were political differences at play. A few of these crises explain why each side always kept a close eye on the other.
Such a partisan disruption took place in December 1952 when the school committee celebrated the holiday season by convening in executive session and forced from the compliant superintendent a series of personnel appointments that were so blatantly patronage-ridden with relatives that the Cambridge Chronicle’s reporter labeled it “Family Night.” Superintendent John M. Tobin, whose father, Dan Tobin, had headed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and whose promotion to the post was, in part, swayed by calls to school committee members directly from the White House, was already the target of educational reformers.
The scene, again with Tobin as superintendent, was repeated in December 1956 and January 1957 with a “Family Night II” that was ultimately rescinded under overwhelming pressure from the public and a spirited campaign.
In the early 1950s urban renewal was an important priority. The city took slum properties along Main Street and Broadway and worked with developers to produce what was called Technology Square. In the early 1960s, the Johnson Administration located a major office of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the contiguous Kendall Square area, and by the end of the century it had blossomed into the Kendall Square economic boom. This was foresight and planning at its best. Edward A. Crane, who had served on both Plan B and E city councils, and who served four terms as mayor over 16 years, was the principal political negotiator who helped put the plan for Technology Square together. A huge man with a larger-than-life reputation, he held considerable influence with City Manager Curry.
But economic development also ran the risk of displacing people and land-taking meant the loss of homesteads. Technology Square replaced unsalvageable slums, but a new project emerging in 1958 threatened the loss of more than 200 homes along the Cambridge, Windsor, and Willow Street borders. The CCA strongly supported the plan to revitalize this area. Independents fought to protect the homesteads of their long-time constituents. The plan might have steamrolled through had it not been for the courageous actions of city councilor Pearl K. Wise. Wise had been part of the Committee for Plan E and had served on the school committee under the new system. A committed liberal and social activist, she objected to federal requirements that urban renewal take over properties deemed “decadent.” What may have been decadent to urban planners was home to hundreds of Cambridge families. Old as they might have been, they were also well-kept, well-loved residences. Wise refused to support the plan and it went down by a 5-4 vote.
As part of the resolution, however, the city created the Wellington-Harrington Citizens Committee as the first true “citizens’ participation” planning process, a step that helped create a social activism movement that heavily influenced Cambridge politics later in the century.
At the same time, a proposed “Inner Belt” highway was proposed through the heart of the city via a Brookline and Elm Street route. This time, councillors knew better, and despite initial support among a few elected officials, the city council fought the program with unanimity. For once, the city rallied around the theme adapted by MIT professor and Cambridge native Thomas H. D. Mahoney who transcended political labels with “Cambridge is a City, Not a Highway.”
During the election of 1965, change was in the winds. Shortly after the election, former city councillor and mayor Joseph E. DeGuglielmo put together a bipartisan coalition to fire City Manager John Curry. Critical to his group was the support of a highly respected “independent” councillor, Daniel J. Hayes, who would become mayor. More important was the recruitment of Cornelia B. Wheeler, a resident of Coolidge Hill with roots going back to Revolutionary times, and a city councilor of unquestioned political integrity. Wheeler was determined to wrestle power from Crane and to get more involved in municipal policy. The pressure upon her was almost unbearable, but she held to her position to remain in the coalition and to replace Curry. The CCA held forums where her judgment was questioned and where she was confronted with old friends and supporters. Still she remained adamant.
DeGuglielmo was installed as city manager in 1966, but his term did not last long. At the next election, a new majority, including Edward Crane, took office and replaced him. Mahoney chaired the search committee that involved public input for the first time. In 1968, the city council elected James Leo Sullivan, a dynamic town manager with Somerville roots, as its new city manager. However, the coalition that unseated Curry was not the same group that elected Sullivan. Crane was left out of the equation.
Sullivan wasted no time in moving forward and in upsetting the independents – and Crane. By 1970, he had put together another coalition to oust Sullivan. He recruited Thomas Coates of the CCA slate to join him, further enraging the progressive element. The hearings over the firing, held in the crowded auditorium of Rindge Technical School, took on a circus atmosphere and attracted a lot of attention. Civic activists, already mobilized to fight the war in Vietnam and eager for a local issue, put together an alliance of old guard CCA support and social progressives and formed a “Save Our City Manager” coalition, also called “SOC’M.” Sullivan was fired and replaced with John M. Corcoran who had been the city’s assistant city manager.
Meanwhile, over at the school department, there was more turmoil. When superintendent of schools Edward Conley and his deputy, David Hockman, surprised the school committee with their retirement notices in 1968, a battle ensued over whether to conduct a wide search for a replacement or to take, as tradition held, the usual step of appointing the most senior administrator at hand, Assistant Superintendent Frank Frisoli. Frisoli was the son of one of the most respected East Cambridge families and DeGuglielmo’s brother-in-law. He considered the promotion a virtual birthright and fought for it. The school committee, under a CCA majority, called for a nationwide recruitment, but during the search process, two CCA-endorsed members changed sides. Becoming independents and stopping the search in its tracks, they joined with two others to appoint Frisoli.
Frisoli, as did Corcoran, believed that Cambridge people deserved preference for Cambridge jobs. This rang true with generations of residents who resented what they perceived as the condescending attitude of the CCA and the elitist views of the Harvard community.
Thus the election of 1971 became one of the most important and defining moments of the post Plan-E era. The political agenda of the CCA was two fold: return the job of city manager to a professional urban administrator and fire Frisoli so as to find the best superintendent America had to offer. There was no middle ground and no maybe at candidate forums. Sides were carefully defined. Several additional slates were drawn up to incorporate the more radical political alliances with a goal of channeling those votes to a strong social progressive.
Voters elected five CCA-endorsed city councilors in 1971 who elected Barbara Ackermann as mayor and chair of the school committee. Among her colleagues were, for the first time, two African-Americans: Henry Owens, the son of a prominent and successful businessman, and Saundra Graham, the first self-styled radical to join the council. Graham was a social activist and a consummate pragmatist and quickly became one of the architects of a major social agenda.
Ackermann had tangled with Tobin and articulated the progressive political agenda and had fought the Inner Belt and opposed the firing of James Leo Sullivan. She joined three carefully-screened CCA-endorsed school committee colleagues to fire Frisoli, but not before some of the most intense, bitter hearings in local history took place. The public hearings, prefaced by Frisoli’s promise to fight his dismissal, and featuring shouts, allegations, and even fights in the audience, were broadcast on local television.
While the new city council could not agree on a new city manager, and Corcoran survived for two more years, the school committee appointed Chicago district superintendent Alflorence Cheatham as its new superintendent.
Cheatham’s appointment pleased the significant and growing African-American community who disliked Frisoli. The relationship between African-Americans and the CCA had been successful but fragile. To this time, virtually every credible black candidate had held a CCA endorsement and no black candidate had been elected without a heavy supplement of transfer votes from the CCA slate. This included Henry Owens who bucked his colleagues over the effort to find a new city manager – a move that cost him re-endorsement in 1973 and, subsequently, his seat.
Still, the aftermath of the period was that the lines that defined CCA and progressive voters from independent constituencies were drawn with very thick lines.
Sensing the need to bring people together again following the election of 1973, a bi-partisan coalition was formed to elect Walter J. Sullivan as mayor in return for the “retirement” of John Corcoran, support for Superintendent Cheatham, and the return of James Leo Sullivan. No one but Walter Sullivan and his independent colleague Leonard J. Russell could have made the new coalition work. Russell, an independent who had run on a platform of professional city management and who rarely sacrificed his conscience to political advantage, had finally won election that he had long sought. Sullivan made an art form out of constituent service. His family had been prominent in politics even before his father’s election to the city council in 1935, and he was the city’s most popular elected local official. More important, his reputation and his integrity, like Russell’s, was untarnished.
When James Leo Sullivan retired in 1981, the city council handed the reins of authority to his deputy, Robert Healy. So confident was the public in this change of power that the appointment of Healy was made without a public process or search for a successor.
Similarly, when Cheatham resigned in 1975, his successor was selected with a public process and followed by a smooth transition.
However, the enduring legacy of the period was to shift the CCA’s political agenda permanently – from simple good, economical, and corruption-free government, to a social activist, liberal platform. Many among the old guard remained loyal to the CCA as they had few alternatives, while a few defected to palatable independents because of their objection to rent control.
THE “OTHER BIG POLITICAL ISSUE” – RENT CONTROL
The theme that dominated Cambridge politics over the last part of the century was rent control. No discussion of the political history of Cambridge is nearly complete without it.
Cambridge is among the nation’s most crowded cities. Add to this the growing number of students at the universities in and around Cambridge, transient workers commuting to Boston, and older residents in apartments, and demand far outpaces supply. As a result, rents skyrocketed during the 1960s. When rent control was first introduced in the city council, there was strong, but not overpowering objection. Pressure to protect long-time residents in apartments, and a plan that excluded owner-occupied single, double, and triple unit houses were enough to overcome the anti-rent control forces.
The CCA and tenant activists knew how to count votes and how to develop a slate card. They became among the most influential members of the CCA board that handed out endorsements every two years. At one point, as many as 13,000 tenants would walk to the polls knowing that keeping their low rents required supporting the CCA slate card. Later the Cambridge Tenants Union also produced an effective slate card. Add to this supportive small property owners whose properties were exempt, and a majority capable of overwhelming any opponent was formed.
The result was unmistakable at election time. While candidates articulated the time-tested issues for sound development, good civic management, and good schools, the real issues were, as pundits pronounced regularly, “rent control, rent control, and rent control.” Supporters defined rent control as rational social policy which protected the diverse population and reasonable rents. Opponents called it tyranny of the temporary majority and pointed to a zealous and punitive system enforced by an anti-landlord, pro-tenant Rent Control Board. They identified many prominent citizens, including several with considerable wealth, who enjoyed the benefits of rent control.
In fact, for most of its 25-year history, there were few changes to the rent control ordinance. When strategists began converting apartments to condominiums to avoid regulation, tenant advocates secured city council approval of an anti-conversion ordinance. It was not unusual for the city to have “ordinanced condominiums,” converted from apartments after 1979, that could not be legally occupied by their owners.
Then something unexpected happened. A creative attorney who owned an “ordinanced condominium,” Jon Maddox, crafted a ballot question for the statewide election of 1994, pleading his case to the voters of Massachusetts rather than the tenants of Cambridge. On November 8, 1994 voters narrowly voted to support the ballot question.
Tenant advocates demanded that the city council approve a home rule petition to restore rent control as they knew it for the legislature, a strategy that would effectively overturn the ballot question. Unfortunately for them, Governor William Weld, while indicating his willingness to approve ameliorating legislation, joined with MA House Speaker Charles Flaherty, himself a Cantabrigian, to define what might pass muster. They told the city council that any legislation related to rent control would face a veto unless it contained protection for only the elderly, disabled, and low income families, a reasonably administered short-term administrative structure, and a short period during which rent control could be completely phased out.
Under the terms of the bill that Gov. Weld signed, only 9.4% of rent controlled units remained under the program during the two year phase-out. More than 14,600 rental units were deregulated.
The demise of rent control changed the face of Cambridge politics as no other change had done. The loss of rent-controlled units meant that many tenants left the city, including families who relied on affordable housing. Rents rose quickly until the recession of 2000-2004 leveled them off. More importantly, the issues changed.
“Proposition 2½,” adopted in November 1980, put a cap on local property taxes and took from the school committee its autonomous budgeting power. Suddenly, the rolls of municipal employment began to shorten. No longer dependent upon blue collar municipal jobs that had driven the political agenda in the earlier eras, patronage, to a large extent, dried up as a political issue.
The issues of development, transportation services, improving the quality of municipal services, building an expanded public library system, establishing a multi-purpose senior center and expanding elderly programming, and high quality public education to serve the most diverse young population in the city’s history dominated the agenda. Social progressives also raised international issues, a legacy of the peace movement and the large cohort of social activists who remained in the city.
Moreover, disenchanted advocates of good government who found the social activism of the remnants of the CCA, not to mention the foreign policy of some members, hard to accept as a municipal agenda, drifted elsewhere.
The Cambridge Civic Association, tottering without purpose with the demise of rent control, remained as the group with the good government brand known to a dwindling few, but went into sharp decline.
The Plan E era was virtually free of corruption. There had not been an indictment of an elected official for official conduct while in office since Lyons went to jail in 1940. A thirty-year period of stable administration in the hands of two professional city managers improved services, expanded parks, kept taxes reasonable, and fostered careful growth. Because development had secured a solid and diverse economic base for the city, taxes were comparatively low to other Eastern Massachusetts communities. What remained of patronage was more professional than political: one group arguing that their clique was more competent than the other’s cohorts.
Moreover, proportional representation has given the city elective bodies that more closely, yet not perfectly, reflect the community than others with majority and plurality winner-take-all systems. The mandate to conduct an election campaign across the city, to reach out to other constituencies and remain accessible has helped to draw out candidates of all stripes and achieve a measure of credibility even among the potentially disenfranchised.
It was time to focus on issues. Majorities necessary to elect a mayor became hard to predict as labels no longer applied. Thus, citizens in 2004 might find it difficult even to define one noble faction from another. The computerization of the Proportional Representation voting count has even taken the drama out of what would reliably be a week-long, but socially healing, vote counting process.
A hundred-year period that began with political turmoil, partisan battling, and crusades to end corruption and patronage ends with those very same issues – except that in 2004 they play out at the state and national level, and not the local level.
And, as political historians note, it is a period of tranquility that lulls us into complacency only to be toppled by new issues, crises, and economic developments of a new century. Indeed, given time, the species has proved wise.
minor edits, Jan 27, 2012