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.