Council challenger: Nelson wants to connect city youth with innovation industries

Matt Nelson is running for City Council for the first time, but he has plenty of experience in politics.

Students in a summer Harvard journalism course interviewed some challengers for City Council as part of a class assignment, and their work — some as profiles and some in question-and-answer format — is running, one a week, on Cambridge Day. Previously was Charles Marquardt and Gary Mello; next up is Jamake Pascual.

Matt Nelson, 31, is running for city councillor for the first time.

But he’s no stranger to politics, including in Cambridge. He worked in 2005 as outreach and events coordinator for Luc Schuster when he was a School Committee member; as campaign manager for councillor Henrietta Davis in 2007, and as her campaign chairman in 2009.

Nelson has managed campaigns in Arlington and Brookline as well and was state director for Healthcare United Virginia, a project of the Service Employees International Union, in 2008; Last year he worked as the state coordinator for the Heat is On Campaign, a project of the League of Conservation Voters, in collaboration with the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and for the Massachusetts Environmental Voters Education Fund.

He continues working as a manager at the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters while finishing up a master’s degree in public administration at Suffolk University.

This interview took place last month.

Why are you running? What is it in you or the community that compels you to do this now?

A: I am from Cambridge, I was raised here and I have been working in politics and as an organizer for the past seven years. I really see a need for a community organizer to join the City Council. I see the role of a city councillor as someone who doesn’t just pass policy, but goes into the community and helps engage constituents and residents in the policy-making process. I don’t see any other time better than the present to try to start that process.

What is the No. 1 issue facing Cambridge now or in the next two years, and what is your approach or solution to that issue?

A: It’s hard for me rank issues. But one issue that is really important for me is getting our youth involved more with what’s going on in Cambridge, especially in terms of our technology and biotech sectors in Kendall Square — and really try to create more opportunities for all of our youth to have access to internships, part-time jobs or even just outside coursework, outside of the school department’s jurisdiction. Giving our youth more hope, as they grow older and see themselves as possible employees for some of these businesses.

Step one is to survey what is out there already and actually make the connection between nonprofits, city programs, businesses and folks who might be interested. There are programs that exist that the city runs as well as other nonprofits, but the way I see it, we need to do a better job at reaching out to the community to get them more engaged in these programs. Having said that, I do think that we can also create more official internship programs with our kids and with what is going on here in Cambridge.

What kind of a job do you feel the current office-holders are doing?

A: For the most part, I think they are completing their role as city councillors. They set policy for the city and the city manager enacts it. And right now the city is doing a relatively good job as a whole. I do think I could fill a role as someone who is younger, who grew up in Cambridge. It might be a little reach-out to a different constituency that is not being heard of right now.

What is the best thing done by the current office-holders during their term?

A: There has been some good stuff that has happened. The policy that was enacted to subsidize the tax gay couples have to pay federally, just passed within the past couple of months. That was very progressive, and the City Council took a big step forward with that and certainly set precedent around the country.

Tell us how you perceive the balance of power between our city manager and councillors? Is the balance appropriate? Do you want to do anything differently?

A: For the most part the balance of power is appropriate. I think one problem we have is a lot of our people in the community don’t realize how our city government works, and that’s one of the aspects I want to take on as a city councillor — to really try to educate the folks who might be a little confused. But right now I think the City Council works pretty well with the city manager, and what they ask for they seem to get answers on, so I think the balance of power does work well. And a city like Cambridge, it’s hard to argue with our form of government. We have great school systems, we have great city services, and it comes from a city manager form of government.

His campaign website is here. His profile on the Cambridge Civic Journal is here.

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