Any character is a candidate for Mandyville
Like many communities, Cambridge has an election for City Council and School Committee in a little over a month, and it’s a little weird to contemplate ousting the incumbents — especially on the council, where more members have held their seats longer.
That’s partially because the office has a way of consuming the candidate. There are too many Robert’s Rules of Order, traditions and logistical necessities to follow for a firebrand to keep glowing red hot for too long after inauguration. But it’s also partially due to the way this council acts and interacts. After two or four years or longer, you get used to the quirks as though they were characters on television.
There’s Tim Toomey’s surliness and occasionally lacerating wit, or Marjorie Decker’s ability to unleash a (literally, depending on the topic) world-class rant, as though the long-running sitcom called “City Council” just turned into an Aaron Sorkin drama called “City Council.” There’s the tropes the characters return to seemingly every episode (like Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!”) that include Craig Kelley’s formal refusal to entertain late motions and resolutions or, when talk inevitably turns to development and redevelopment, the inevitability that Ken Reeves will mention the disaster that is University Park.
Careful watching also brings out some soap opera elements, including Toomey’s disdain for Kelley, Decker’s loathing of Kelley and Reeves’ valiant willingness to stand by Kelley, and his general tendency to thread the needle on issues to nudge the council toward public comity, even when the vote is symbolic. There are even things to watch for that don’t include Kelley, such as unpredictable Sam Seidel votes, some of which have provoked audible groans from the audience and dismayed comments from his peers. Example: Voting against a sign law he’d shepherded through his own Ordinance Committee.
The most dramatic elements of our politics are shocking because the story arcs on “City Council” are usually so small in scale. Terry Ragon spending $400,000 to beat that sign law is totally out of whack in a place where the top vote-getter in 2009 won all of 1,858 first-place rankings, which is a really strong endorsement from 3.1 percent of all our registered voters.
(For newcomers: Instead of voting for a single candidate, Cambridge voters use a rare form of elections called proportional representation and must rank their interest in seeing each in office. Once a candidate wins enough votes to get in, excess votes are redistributed, along with those going to the lowest-ranked candidates as they are eliminated. The results go cascading down, and up, in a fashion complicated enough that it can look sort of arbitrary for those not smart enough to grasp fully what’s happening, by which I mean me.)
The personally motivated shenanigans also stand out in a city that — at least in the enchanted bubble I live in and see the world from — has all the placid charm of Oslo and extravagant courtesy of the Midwest, without making a big deal of it. Our politicians and citizen activists never waste as much time being gracious as when the stakes are highest, thanking each other and city staff to outlandish extents for going to such extremes as to do their jobs. It’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that if we all stopped thanking each other at the start of our speeches, and I’m not saying we should, our meetings and hearings might be up to a quarter shorter.
In the same way Cambridge has never been a hotbed of anti-incumbent fervor, although some of that sentiment might just get smothered beneath all the data and rules generated by, and for, our voting system.
A flier appeared at the second City Council candidates forum, held Tuesday in East Cambridge, suggesting that to get any of the nine challengers into office and any of the nine incumbents out, voters cannot give any incumbent a No. 1 ranking on Election Day, Nov. 8. That, in fact, to get any challengers on the board, all of an individual voter’s top rankings would have to go to challengers. (There are also 11 candidates for six School Committee seats.)
That isn’t true — Leland Cheung won election two years ago, unseating Larry Ward — but makes more sense when you consider the advantage incumbents have during an election just in terms of name recognition. Two years ago, the incumbents got an average 1,410 first-place votes, with Seidel alone failing to break into the thousands; Cheung got on the council with almost half that, 756.
So it might be worthwhile to remember Mandy Hampton, the fiery political consultant played by Moira Kelly on the first season of Sorkin’s seven-season “West Wing” drama. She disappeared in the break before season two without even a mention she’d existed, basically replaced with the also fiery, smart but sometimes endearingly ditzy Republican Ainsley Hayes, played by Emily Procter. Now there’s a term for where characters go when they disappear from a series: “Mandyville.”
It’s a little weird to contemplate ousting the incumbents, sure, but it can be contemplated. And it is possible.