A Tuesday political forum drew many candidates for City Council, but only one member of the incumbents’ Unity Slate was present for the whole meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A Tuesday political forum drew many candidates for City Council, but only one member of the incumbents’ Unity Slate was present for the whole meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Unity Slate of seven City Council incumbents got creamed at a Tuesday candidates forum, and its members weren’t even there – in fact, they got creamed largely because they weren’t.

Of the seven, only councillor Craig Kelley was present for the entire 2.5-hour forum, sponsored by the Ward 6 Progressive Democrats. Councillor E. Denise Simmons and vice mayor Dennis Benzan were present for the start, but left quickly for other engagements.

Councillors Leland Cheung, Marc McGovern, Tim Toomey and Mayor David Maher were no-shows, despite moderator Lesley Phillips saying she tried to clear schedules with each before setting a date for the forum. After candidate James Williamson said it was “too bad – but it’s instructive – that only one member of the so-called Unity Slate is here, and I think it says something about their interest,” Phillips explained that the scheduling had failed to take into account Maher’s responsibilities at the School Committee meeting the same night, and that he sent his regrets.

But the School Committee agenda, set days ago, had only a handful of items, and the meeting ended before 7 p.m, roughly when the candidates started taking questions.

Drawing distinctions

City Councillor Craig Kelley produced a public security camera draft policy out of his Public Safety Committee.

City Councillor Craig Kelley surprised many by joining an incumbents’ Unity Slate.

The two council incumbents who are not on the Unity Slate, first-termers Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen, were present for the entire forum. They took the opportunity to note their differences with the other council members on initiatives ranging from whether the city should have an ombudsperson to giant development issues such as examining the size and shape of the Mass+Main tower in Central Square or launching net-zero emissions or a citywide development master plan.

“They are unified in stopping progressive planning and affordable-housing policies in this city, because anytime Nadeem and I brought up issues related to that, the initial response was negative,” Carlone said.

Kelley, meanwhile, spent the meeting largely noting his independence on the council, starting with a vote against a contract renewal for then city manager Robert W. Healy. “I think that was my first time going against everyone else on the council, but it certainly wasn’t my last time,” he said, noting his lonesome no votes against Alewife rezoning (“because I knew we would get car-centered development”), upzonings for Lesley University and a Hyatt hotel and – in line with every other candidate at the forum – unhappiness over the lack of promised public process in appointing Healy’s deputy, Richard C. Rossi, to be the current city manager.

Kelley’s history as the council’s iconoclastic, dissenting voice clashed with his presence on the slate, and his presence at the forum allowed the other candidates to tell him so.

Challenger Gary Mello said he was “quite perplexed” that Kelley joined the Unity Slate, and that he’d “lost his independent vote and he’s lost some of his purity by joining.”

Last to form

The announcement of the Unity Slate had the city buzzing in early September. While ideological slates of candidates have been used in the city’s past when the numbers grow unwieldy, the incumbents’ slate is a first and an especially surprising move for politicians in office for multiple terms, such as 26-year council veteran Tim Toomey and 16-year veteran Maher. Even first-time challenger John Sanzone acknowledged his belief that if the election were held today, all seven members would be swept back into office.

But in the 23-candidate field for City Council, the Unity Slate was slow in forming. First came the Slate for Cambridge, formed of four council candidates (Mazen, Sanzone, Mariko Davidson and Romaine Waite) and a School Committee challenger (Jake Crutchfield) a young and diverse group that banded together more than a month earlier; Carlone, his former aide Mike Connolly and Fresh Pond Resident Association president Jan Devereux say they are not a slate but have similar views on many topics and have held meet-and-greet political events together. Partners Kim Courtney and Xavier Dietrich are running for seats on the council with strong anti-incumbent views; neither could be at the Tuesday event, but had other challengers read their opening statements.

Unlike the Slate for Cambridge or the loose, three-candidate coalition of Carlone, Connolly and Devereux, the mostly absent Unity Slate drew sharp criticism Tuesday.

“The slate is unified in wanting to get back on the council,” cracked Minka vanBeuzekom, who was on the council 2012-13 and said she’d been approached about joining the Unity Slate but turned it down. “You know that they’re not unified on issues.”

She also tweeted about the slate after the forum:

Devereux, meanwhile, chided that its members “say they’re open to different viewpoints, however the two viewpoints they’re not open to are those of Dennis and Nadeem,” and agreed the slate was “a clear move of desperation to hold onto their seats.”

On Tuesday, Kelley confirmed the effect the Slate for Cambridge had on him:

“The slate is a tool to get reelected. I won last time by only 41 votes out of over 17,000 cast, and when Nadeem started his slate, I went back and talked to my wife and said, ‘These guys are organizing. What does that mean for my race?’ It was threatening. So when there was talk of another group that wanted to work together on campaigns – not on policy, but on campaigns – that seemed like a good opportunity to strengthen my chances to stay on the City Council and represent the city that I love.”

“Join us, Craig,” Mazen called out, to laughter from the audience. “Join the other side. Come back.”

“A big, fat target”

The forming of the slate drew an Open Meeting Law violation complaint, filed with the state by council challenger Ilan Levy, that says the members’ vows to “work together” and mention of development policy suggested they had illegally exchanged views on a range of issues; five members had already been rebuked by the state for violating the Open Meeting Law in appointing Rossi city manager without the promised process. Mello publicly stated a rumor that Simmons – essentially the kingmaker in the current term’s twisty mayoral election – had been pre-anointed mayor in the coming term.

Mazen agreed the slate seemed more about reelection than an actual unified vision or set of issues. “It’s not a steamroller. You don’t get all your buddies with political power and make the machine as large and unstoppable as possible,” he said. “It may be having the opposite effect intended. People are realizing that it’s not just my guy I like, or my woman I like, but in fact an entire system that’s colluding to behave a certain way.”

Indeed, Williamson said that “by organizing themselves into a slate they painted a big, fat target on their backs – we now know who they all are, they’re all on board with the commercial real estate plan for Cambridge” and proceeded to run through a $3,500 list of campaign contributions just in the past six month from Anthony Galluccio, a former city councillor who is now lawyer to city developers, to Unity Slate members. (Carlone said he received and returned three donations from big developers.) Connolly noted the visit of Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig to the council during the Mass+Main vote and his assertion that “the pattern of giving by large real estate developers to seven members of this City Council raises a very serious issue.”

Kelley said after the forum that slate was still open to other candidates who were “willing to be collegial,” but confirmed each member’s campaign was paying into the joint costs of the campaign.

That ruled out candidates such as Levy, Mello and Williamson who had vowed to neither raise nor spend money for their campaigns; already aligned candidates (such as Waite, who said, “I’m running on the original slate”); and independents such as Green-Rainbow Party member Plinio T. Degoes Jr. and former firefighter Paul F. Mahoney, who didn’t just reject the idea by expressing his political freedom – “I don’t have to answer to anybody” – but with puzzlement as well, saying of the slate, “I don’t know where they’re going with it.”