Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dennis Benzan is the Cambridge City Council’s first Latino member.

When the City Council starts its two-year term Monday, it’s true there will be only one woman among nine members, when in the past term there were four.

But the council is gaining a different kind of diversity: its first Muslim and Latino members, Nadeem Mazen and Dennis Benzan.

In the voting Nov. 5, Mazen wasn’t the only Muslim; Mushtique Mirza was also on the ballot. And Benzan wasn’t the only Latino; Luis Vasquez was running. But Benzan and Mazen ran strong campaigns that amassed 1,302 and 984 No. 1 votes, respectively, and survived a recount challenge from Minka vanBeuzekom – who lost her bid for reelection and departed Dec. 31 with Mayor Henrietta Davis and Marjorie Decker, both opting not to run again. Decker will focus on being a full-time state representative for the 25th Middlesex District, which includes parts of West and North Cambridge as well as Riverside, Cambridgeport and Mid-Cambridge.

That leaves E. Denise Simmons as the only woman on the council, where she has served since 2002. She was mayor in the 2008-09 council term and vice-mayor last term, and does triple duty in terms of council diversity: She is a woman of color and a lesbian – historically the nation’s first black openly lesbian mayor, and her years leading the council came immediately after the equally historic run of Ken Reeves, the nation’s first black openly gay mayor.

Women on the council

E. Denise Simmons is Cambridge’s only female city councillor in this two-year term.

E. Denise Simmons is the only female city councillor in this two-year term.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting term,” said former city clerk Margaret Drury, recalling the early 1990s as the last time there had been such a large turnover in council members, as well as anywhere near this few women. “It’s been a really long time – I believe that in the time I was with the council, since 1992 there have been at least two women.”

Correct: It was in that term that Alice Wolf and Sheila Russell were the only two female councillors.

As times there was even less female representation, while Florence L. Whitman was Cambridge government’s sole alderwoman for two terms between 1926 and 1941, City Clerk Donna Lopez said in November that when Cambridge switched to its current form of government, voters waited until 1956 to elect its next female official: Pearl Wise. Cornelia Wheeler served alone in the 1964 and 1966 terms and Barbara Ackermann was the only woman in the 1970 term. Saundra Graham served alone on the 1980 and 1982 terms.

Simmons could be mayor again in the coming term, if a majority of the council votes it, but chatter also has Leland Cheung and David Maher as strong candidates for the position, which would result in either the city’s first Asian-American mayor or another term for Maher, who is gay.

Still, the arrival of Mazen and Benzan has resonance in a city that is 7.6 percent Hispanic,  according to the 2010 U. S. Census, and might have around 2,500 or 3,000 Muslims, according to candidate estimates.

A Muslim moment?

Nadeem Mazen is the council’s first Muslim member.

Nadeem Mazen is the council’s first Muslim member.

That two Muslims were running for office brought out more Muslim voters, Mirza said, adding perhaps 400 in November to result in about 1,500 voting. Among other candidates that could have ranked especially high with voters concerned about Muslim issues were Ken Reeves, he said, and Marc McGovern, who helped bring an Eid holiday to city schools while serving on the School Committee.

But Mazen wanted to be clear: “There’s never been a Muslim voter bloc – you can’t just go and talk to one community leader or 10 community leaders and get this done. What we did was truly grassroots. When we say we got a lot of young people and artists and entrepreneurs and Muslims and Haitian [voters], these things all happened because we talked to one person who brought five. Or one person who brought two. Or who had to be reminded up until 7:55, which happened in every voting precinct,” he said, referring to the polls closing five minutes later, at 8 p.m. “When minorities and other groups vote as blocs, we will have a Portuguese-speaking councillor, a Haitian councillor and several women councillors – for example.”

Nor did Mazen go into the campaign thinking of himself specifically as a Muslim candidate, he said. “It’s not that it wasn’t part of my thinking when I went in, it’s just that it wasn’t especially more a part of my thinking when I announced I was running than anything else about me. I had already been [active in Muslim community issues]. It didn’t increase in importance; it’s already got this kind of pervasive urgency in my mind. Now I’m just able to have a laser focus – for just Cambridge, just these two years, just to these communities.”

He also had no specific policy goals in mind of benefit specifically to Cambridge’s Muslim community, he said. “I promised on the campaign trail that I will take a third of my after-tax salary and hire community organizers in various communities, and there is no sense in which I will prefer the Muslim community over other communities in Cambridge,” Mazen said, describing a plan that would get workers seeking out problems he could help resolve, likely with existing municipal solutions. “It’s not a proposal or an ordinance. It’s just a matter of hard work and communication.”

He was happy to be part of a perceived generational shift in Muslim thinking, having found the Greater Boston Muslim community “short on participation,” he said.

The Muslim leaders of yester-generation did so much – building mosques and schools, struggling to educate against discrimination and community building – but when it came to politics, leaders often came in with an attitude that almost the best we can do is get a photo op or have a good relationship with whoever’s in power. This may be the time that represents a shift, with Muslims actually representing a political and civic force for good rather than being sideliners who are queried for response after major political events.

“This is so exciting for me,” he said. “My group nationwide needs to understand what a turning point we’re at – not this election, but this time in history when we’re allowed to be creative and we’re allowed to be civically engaged.”

Benzan, who spoke on the campaign trail of Cambridge being the “city of dreams for my parents when they migrated here from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the 1960s,” didn’t respond to messages seeking comment for this story. The evidence suggests he is indeed Cambridge’s first Latino leader, though, Lopez said.

“At least going by last name, there have been no Latino councillors before,” she said.