Maher is mayor after three twisty ballots; Simmons had to back out twice (update)

David Maher, upper right, waits to enter City Council chambers Monday at the term’s inaugural meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)
David Maher, upper right, waits to enter the City Council’s inaugural meeting Monday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

David Maher was elected mayor at the inaugural meeting of the City Council on Monday in an odd series of three ballots. It was a far faster process than in the past two terms, when electing a mayor took up to 10 ballots and lasted well into February, but it revealed that four new members might just mean a whole new set of divisions.

Dennis Benzan, new to the council, was elected vice mayor by unanimous vote of the council’s nine members – a much simpler process.

Part of the problem was that E. Denise Simmons tried twice to remove herself from the mayoral voting, but each time it resulted in other councillors switching their votes to support her in apparent admiration.

“I’m not sure if at the Vatican it was this difficult,” Maher said after his election. “No one said government was an easy thing. There are challenges we all face, and you saw a little of that today, but I hope we have a brighter future ahead of us.”

In a prepared speech, Maher, starting his eighth term on the council after three terms on the School Committee, vowed to turn Cambridge Public Schools into the “best urban school system.”

The first mayoral ballot gave him four votes, but gave E. Denise Simmons three and Leland Cheung two. The second ballot wound up giving Simmons six and Maher three when Cheung and his supporters flipped their votes, followed by Benzan. It was all settled by the third ballot – but that hardly expresses the rapid changes, confusion and fumbling that came between ballots and the final pounding of the gavel.

“That was bizarre,” said politics watcher Robert Winters, who runs the Cambridge Civic Journal website. He called it a satisfactory end point but the “weirdest way to get there.”

Simmons’ first withdrawal

Others weren’t quite as charitable, blasting the switching of votes to Simmons even after she formally withdrew her candidacy as “gamesmanship,” and Benzan said in his speech after election, “I give the process an F.”

The first and second ballots were straightforward, but when the second round of voting seemingly ended with four councillors each backing Cheung and Maher and only Simmons voting for herself, she asked City Clerk Donna Lopez before the gavel fell for the chance to address the chamber, thanking everyone “urging me to keep my name in contention”:

As the only woman elected to serve on this council term, I have the added responsibility of ensuring that the woman’s voice is heard in city discussions and debates. That’s a responsibility I take incredibly seriously. And while I hope to be mayor again, I also recognize that there is important city business to be taken care of. In the past terms, the vote for mayor has gone for days and then weeks and then months, and that does not serve the city well.

“If one is going to be a leader, one has to stand up and rise and be that leader,” Simmons said to applause. “I think it was said: Council business had to be different. I’m going to take that step. I’m not going to put my personal ambitions in front of what’s good for the city … I’m willing to change my vote to support councillor Maher.”

The applause only got louder. But that good feeling ended with disappointment for anyone who thought the council would stun with a turn to the harmonious after two years of frequent acrimony and complication, and that Maher would become mayor with what looked like a sudden 5-4 lead over Cheung.

“Getting a bit silly”

Instead it led to Cheung swapping his vote to Simmons “for her and the women of Cambridge,” followed by Kelley, Carlone and Mazen – all to applause from an audience who suddenly saw another Simmons mayoralty after her term of 2008-09. The vote was still five for Maher and four for Simmons, though, until she took back her vote and Benzan followed.

Just as it looked like a solid 6-3 for Simmons over Maher and the city clerk called for final changes, Cheung spoke up. “Madame clerk, this is getting a bit silly,” he said, chuckling. “Doing this on the floor in this manner is not up to the public respect and demeanor we’ve been trying to set for this council. I’m urging my colleagues: Let’s have a split vote and come back at this in a week.”

If things weren’t already confusing enough, Mazen changed his vote to Kelley, followed by Carlone. With a 4-3-2 split, Benzan moved to close the ballot, then took it back with unanimous consent of his fellow councillors, and the city clerk became increasingly flustered by the changes. Several times during the action she called out results that were corrected by city officials and members of the audience calling out.

Simmons’ second withdrawal

It went on, with Benzan switching his vote to Maher for the third ballot. But that ballot was literally stopped at two each for Cheung (Carlone and Cheung), Maher (Benzan and Maher) and Simmons (Kelley and Mazen) when it reached Simmons herself.

“This is not the appropriate time to speechify, but I’m going to,” she said. “I do very very much want to be mayor of the city. But I’m not going to be a pawn. I’m not going to put my city or myself through this process. So I’m going to cast my vote for councillor Maher … and I’m going to step down, take my name out of contention.”

“I just have to applaud councillor Simmons. That, ladies and gentlemen, is leadership,” McGovern said.

Even her drastic step and five votes for Maher didn’t end it, though, as Cheung announced he was switching his vote to Simmons (urging her to change her mind because she was the “best mayor for the times”) and keeping it there. As did Carlone and Mazen.

“We as this body came in here during the campaign and talked about a new day. I have to say, the gamesmanship that’s going on here is embarrassing, and it’s unfortunate. For new councillors who ran a campaign based on doing things different and not being political to play this game is outrageous,” McGovern said.

The end and the beginning

The city clerk had banged the gavel twice – three times would seal the vote – when Simmons spoke, bringing an audible gasp from some watchers, after the twists of the past several minutes, simply didn’t know what to expect. She asked the clerk the vote, bringing confirmation that it was five for Maher and four for herself, and when she didn’t speak again the clerk banged the gavel another three times. The voting was over.

The inauguration exercises came with a fair amount of pomp, with red carpet laid up the stairs of City Hall, running past a velvet rope into Sullivan Chamber, where there was an operatic musical presentation by Yuriko Nonaka before Lopez – running her first such event – got down to business. After the inauguration and elections came a party at a Harvard Square hotel.

Before councillor oaths were administered, their credentials were checked, histories recounted and escorts announced, with Maher introducing his partner, Joseph P. Carney; Tim Toomey tearing up in explaining that this was his first inauguration without his father in attendance after the elder Toomey died last January; and Simmons charming the crowd with the largest entourage: seven members of her family, including grandchildren who began attending her inaugurals when much younger. Cheung had a similarly charming moment when he brought tiny daughter Lela Zhou, born in September, onstage with him for his oath.

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9 Responses to "Maher is mayor after three twisty ballots; Simmons had to back out twice (update)"

  1. urbandesign10   Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    The suggestion that Councilors who switched their vote to Denise Simmons after she announced that she was withdrawing her candidacy for Mayor did so “in apparent admiration” is laughable. What even the most casual observer of Council proceedings could not fail to notice is that Councilor Cheung and his two new colleagues were engaged in an effort to block David Maher from being elected Mayor. Shame on newly elected Councilors Carlone and Mazen for pulling the rug from under Denise Simmons by switching their votes to Craig Kelly after Simmons had actually achieved six votes to be Mayor. The process could have ended at that point if those voting for Denise Simmons had actually achieved six votes to be Mayor. The process could have ended at that point if those voting for Denise Simmons had any “admiration” for her. If this is the type of cynical manipulation we can expect from the “clean slate” duo, then we are in for a rough two years.

    The only thing more pathetic was Councilor Cheung announcing on the third ballot that this time he really meant it when he voted for Simmons (as opposed to his prior votes) and he would not be changing his vote again. Kudos to Denise Simmons for calling them out and stating her refusal to be used as a “pawn”.

    Too bad for would be king maker Charles Teague who was all decked out Monday morning in obvious anticipation of a Cheung Coronation. An honest analysis of the Mayoral election would contain the headline “Cheung, Carlone, and Mazen use Simmons in a failed effort to prevent Maher from being elected Mayor”.

  2. chriscambridge1990   Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Poor David Maher, how humiliating. First his number 1 votes decline since the last election, and then he’s elected mayor with only 3 unequivocal votes, at best 4, one of which was his own. And forcing Denise Simmons, the only woman on the council, to withdraw because he and his two rigid supporters were too inflexible to support her, even when Benzan switched over to give her 6 votes in her favor.

    Benzan, Carlone, and Mazen, as new councilors, all showed flexibility, imaginative use of the process, and a desire to elect a mayor with something close to consensus, and certain not a divisive 5-to-4 vote. It was a good effort, even if they weren’t successful because of the inflexibility of Maher and his two supporters.

    Seeing Benzan switch to Simmons but McGovern, Toomey, and Maher holding fast to Maher despite a 6-3 majority for Simmons, Carlone and Mazen probably decided to cast placeholder votes (rwinters’ term) in order to let everyone think over who would be a consensus candidate, and to come back in a week, which is not at all unusual. Good for them to seek greater consensus and to try to use the process that exists to try to encourage the council to step away from this brinkmanship. Benzan almost agreed, but for some reason chose not to close the voting so they could breathe for a week.

    Sadly, Maher missed the leadership opportunity to switch his vote to Simmons, who was the first person in the process to garner 6 votes and the only woman. A woman of color at that. Simmons must have decided it was better to have her second-choice mayor (Maher) than take a time-out for a week, though this is done regularly. Why she was so impatient is unclear. And unfortunate. Why she didn’t trust her colleague Leland Cheung when he said he wouldn’t change his vote is unclear, since they have probably worked together for many years.

    Unfortunately, Simmons let her impatience or fear of “being used” supersede what she though was best for the city, which she clearly thought was for her to be mayor. (Aren’t all public servants “used” by others and isn’t that a good thing, to be “of use”?) She called it her “ambition,” but she also owed something to her supporters to follow through, particularly when she was clearly a more consensus candidate with 6 votes than Maher with only 3. It’s unclear why she folded in the end to Maher’s “ambition” when he only had 3 or 4 real votes.

    In the end, it’s Maher, McGovern, and Toomey who look like inflexible bullies who came in determined to elect Maher no matter what their colleagues felt, and gamed the system to get what they wanted rather than colleagially yielding to Simmons.

    But Benzan, Carlone, and Mazen have showed themselves to be three new councilors who have, between them, the patience, flexibility, imagination, and desire for consensus rather than “winning” or “enough votes,” which is what we need in our Council. How refreshing to have these 3 new faces.

  3. chriscambridge1990   Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Not only were Maher and his colleagues trying to block Leland Cheung from being mayor (despite his overwhelming win in number of first votes), they were insistent on Maher being mayor, unlike Cheung’s supporters who showed openness to consider Simmons but wanted an extra week for the process, as has happened for the past 14 years that the Council hasn’t chosen a mayor on the first day. Shame on Maher, McGovern, and Toomey for not switching their votes to Denise Simmons and making it a consensus when she had 6 votes to their 3. Shame on them for not supporting Benzan and Cheung’s suggestion to take a breather when it was obvious it was a split vote and everyone was just waiting everyone out. If they hadn’t rushed the process they might all have come to the conclusion that the best person was Benzan–someone new, popular across many constituents, and with stature. Hopefully his vice-mayorship will prepare him to become mayor in two years so it can truly be a “new day” in Cambridge.

  4. BethM   Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Yes, it’s awful to see elected officials stick to their beliefs about who would be best to lead the city, and not bow down to political pressure.

    And I have no idea why after working with Cheung, she wouldn’t trust him. Hmmm… How odd.

  5. chriscambridge1990   Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    So it sounds like Maher, McGovern, and Toomey all agreed that Denise Simmons would not have been the best one to lead the city. And why wouldn’t she have been? Sad that she joined up with those who obviously rejected her leadership.

  6. BethM   Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Well, it’s clear that they thought Maher was the best person for the job.

    It’s also clear that given the choice between Maher and Cheung, and after working with both of them for years, Simmons thought Maher would be better for the city than Cheung.

    I don’t know what’s sad about that, or confusing in any way.

    The others? Who did they think would be best? Cheung? Simmons? Kelley? Who knows? They all switched their votes to each, in unison, three times, under Cheung’s direction.

    To me if anything is confusing or sad here, it is that.

  7. chriscambridge1990   Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Very few things are clear in Cambridge politics. Maybe she had a prior arrangement with David Maher that if she couldn’t get enough support she would switch her vote in exchange for a future vote she really wanted on a particular zoning policy or whatever. That’s politics. But I wouldn’t assume folks make decisions based only on what they think is best for the city. Often they make decisions on what is best for their constituents.

    Ultimately I think Benzan would have been the best choice given the native/non-native split and desire for someone new. But we don’t always get what we want, starting from age zero. They all make some good calls and some not good calls. Obviously the two biggest issues are Kendall-Central development and the schools.

  8. HeatherHoffman   Monday, January 13, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Chriscambridge1990, I have a nit to pick with you and many other people. The word “constituent” in the political context does not mean the people who cast votes for a particular elected official, it means the people an elected official represents. For Cambridge city councillors and school committee members, that would be all of us. It would be political suicide to write off everybody who didn’t vote for you rather than make an attempt to convince them to change their minds next time around. Nonetheless, that is what I’ve seen a few politicians effectively do by wrongly calling only the people who voted for them their constituents.

    This is not to say that elected officials don’t represent particular points of view; that’s obviously a factor in many voters’ decision to support one candidate rather than another. But to say that, because I didn’t vote for someone (or s/he thinks I didn’t), my views should count for nothing is bad politics and bad governance.

    Good politicians make deals with each other to advance the interests of the people they represent and the values they espouse. For our city officials, all of us who live in Cambridge are the people they represent. All of us are their constituents.

  9. urbandesign10   Monday, January 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    There is nothing new about city councilors changing their votes in a Cambridge mayoral election. What was so extraordinary here was Councilor Leland Cheung’s orchestrating the moves of Councilor Mazen, Councilor Carlone, and Councilor Kelly by use of text messaging. The three appeared to vote in unison, and at the direction of Cheung. As someone who was in the chamber, it was clear that Cheung was texting throughout the proceedings.

    In Cambridge, there has been recent dialogue concerning the open meeting law and freedom of information requests. Since the would be kingmaker, Cheung, was corresponding with his fellow three councilors, during the vote, perhaps those texts should be made available to the public for all to see. I would find it to be most instructive to know what their dialogue may or may not have been as they continued to wheel and deal.

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