Friday, February 23, 2024

Leland Cheung speaks Thursday at Kendall Square’s Think Tank Bistrotheque during a campaign fundraiser. (Photos: Marc Levy)

A basket filled up with campaign donation checks during the crowded, two-hour event.

An underdog in elections two years ago who squeaked past a City Council incumbent, Leland Cheung is going into this year’s campaign looking like a powerhouse that can pack a fundraising event with people, draw a healthy roster of state officials to introduce him and fill a basket with donation checks.

A two-hour event he held Thursday filled Kendall Square’s Think Tank Bistrotheque with so many people it was hard to move, and Cheung, an MPA student at Harvard’s Kennedy School and MBA student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ Sloan School, shared the stage for speeches with fellow navy-blue suiters state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, Treasurer Steven Grossman and Governor’s Councillor Terrence Kennedy.

“The leader who he has become in just one term on the Cambridge City Council has a vision for the future of this city and this commonwealth, an understanding that innovation is our future,” Grossman said. “He will lead us there. He will not just talk about things and follow. He will lead … because he understands the fabric of life in the 21st century in Cambridge, in Greater Boston and all over Massachusetts.”

An impressive cross-section of the city was listening, including residents concerned about zoning issues in the Norris Street and Cottage Park areas; a pack of entrepreneurs, techies and venture capitalists; fellow councillors Marjorie Decker and Denise Simmons (Sam Seidel ducked out earlier) and School Committee member Nancy Tauber; community power players such as council candidates Minka vanBeuzekom and Matt Nelson, former mayor Sheila Russell, lawyer Kevin Crane and small-business booster Frank Kramer; a significant delegation from the Harvard Square Business Association; and even behind-the-scenes movers and shakers such as Michael Cantalupa, senior vice president of development at Kendall Square developer Boston Properties Inc.

It was to them Cheung asked two things: organize house parties where he could come talk about his plans and strengths as a councillor and candidate; and to donate money. Lots of money.

A target from a target

“I know a lot of you already donated. I need you to really dig deep, give a little more, even to the point where it starts to hurt, and I’ll tell you why,” Cheung said. “As the newest and youngest city councillor, I have a target on me. I’m the guy that people are going to try to take out.”

Even before he left the stage, he was handed a check to add what looked like dozens of others in a wicker basket at the sign-in table. Suggested donations were $100, $250 and $500, and he said later he hoped to pull in $5,000 that night.

To win in 2009 he spent $6,445.46, the least of all winners, according to Robert Winters’ comprehensive politics site, the Cambridge Civic Journal, while incumbent Marjorie Decker spent $72,705.44 in a write-in campaign, winding up only four places ahead of Cheung in a nine-seat election.

“Two years ago, it was just like me and him in his living room,” said Mike Sherry, Cheung’s campaign manager and partner in door-knocking in the 2009 campaign. “I’m very proud, but I want to win again with a little more money.”

The turnout for Thursday’s fundraiser was a credit to Cheung, he said.

“All this is a reflection of the work he’s done over the past two years,” Sherry said. “He’s never been the kind of person to be complacent. He’s always been the kind of person to tackle things right out of the gate. So all of this is a reflection of the fact he didn’t want to waste time in his first year, he wanted to get stuff done.”

Accomplishments and attempts

Cheung was able to rattle off a list of those things to his audience, including efforts to post details of the city manager’s proposed contract online before it’s voted, add barbecues and Wi-Fi to city parks, implement bicycle-sharing and BridgeStat crime-reporting programs, create an entrepreneur’s walk of fame, keep city money in a local bank “as opposed to Scotland, where it is now” via Royal Bank of Scotland-owned Citizens Bank,  and work with a Boston city councilor to craft a regional strategy for bringing in tech companies who will hire local workers and add to tax revenues. In fact, Cheung told the audience, he had just returned from Seattle and a series of meetings with high-tech companies exploring where to lease U.S. lab and office space.

He has also pushed for improvements in the city’s everyday technology, such as in the streaming of meetings online, and for the city to bid for Google’s ultrafast Internet project (the winner, it was announced in early April, was Kansas City, Kan.); fought for more amenities from developers in exchange for relaxing zoning restrictions, including from Boston Properties; and pushed for buy-local commitments from government.

In terms of policy orders requesting action or investigation from the city manager or other branches of city government, he has been the clear leader since his election. Last year he issued 37 policy orders, with the closest runner-up (vice mayor Henrietta Davis) having only 22, according to Winters’ site, and he has 20 so far this year — literally double that of Tim Toomey, the closest runner-up.

As a first-generation American (who told the crowd his father went from the People’s Republic of China to the People’s Republic of Cambridge), he also has an inspiring story of parents sacrificing so he could pursue the American Dream.

And he has an effective incentive for anyone willing to host one of those 10-person, meet-the-candidate house parties.

“My mom will bake cookies,” Cheung told the crowd. “She used to be a baker. Whatever we bring, it’ll be fantastic.”

This post was updated May 1, 2011, to clarify the academic degrees Cheung is seeking.