080513i-Dennis-Benzan

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Benzan grew up in Columbia Terrace, graduated from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 1990 and went to Howard University and the Roger Williams School of Law. He worked his way through college as a carpenter and builder while squeezing in time to direct the City of Cambridge Youth Summer Jobs Program in the early to mid-’90s. He is a lawyer at Altman & Altman in Cambridge and local homeowner. He is the father of 8-year-old twins, India and Matteo, and the husband of Tanya Bacci-Benzan, an upper school vice principal in Cambridge. He has a brother who is a Cambridge police officer, and another brother managing restaurants in the Boston area.

He has been a community organizer for the Cambridge Algebra Project, which promotes math literacy, but his first experience organizing was in high school, when he formed Students Against Violence and for Equality in response to the violent death in the community of two young men, Jessie McKie and Rigoberto Carriòn.

He was elected to his first council term in 2013. His fellow councillors elected him vice mayor.

Compiled from the candidate’s words in publicly available sources

Alignment

Benzan is running with the Unity Slate with fellow council incumbents Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley, David Maher, Marc McGovern, E. Denise Simmons and Tim Toomey.


Top three priorities:

bullet-gray-smallIncreasing the supply of affordable housing, while lowering the minimum income limit for access to it
bullet-gray-smallScience-, technology-, engineering-, arts- and math-based education coordinated by a city office
bullet-gray-smallMaintaining and improving Central Square and controlling the opiate crisis, including installing a police substation


Ward 6 Democrats endorsement?

Profile YESThe Ward 6 Democrats endorsed nine council candidates this year, choosing only from among registered Democrats and saying it “sought to recommend candidates who would bring the vision, skills and experience most needed to govern Cambridge at this time, regardless of slate affiliation.”


Profile development and affordable housingScore from ABC:

ABC score 2015 BenzanThe residents group A Better Cambridge rated 19 out of 22 candidates for City Council (all who responded to a comprehensive questionnaire) measuring their level of agreement with the group’s “smart growth” platform of development- and transit-focused priorities and goals. In the words of the group, “higher-rated candidates demonstrate a strong understanding of the complex housing and development challenges facing Cambridge [and] are best prepared to make Cambridge a more affordable and livable city for all residents, especially low-income families.” There is a maximum score of 45 points.


CRA endorsement?

Profile NOThe Cambridge Residents Alliance endorsed five council candidates this year. The residents group is focused on development and housing affordability issues and opposes projects it feels will gentrify neighborhoods or add to traffic and transit congestion. Its endorsed candidates were those it felt would “allow real planning”; refused campaign donations from “large developers”; and vowed to work for a citywide development master plan that prevented “overdevelopment and displacement.”


Profile one view of the candiate

Benzan is doing a lot of good for his community by focusing attention on pressing problems such as the opioid drug crisis, decline of conditions in Central Square and need to build housing, including on publicly owned parking lots, but his approach to governing is narrow and sometimes oversimplified, and it leads him into hypocrisy that is, frankly, disturbing.

On the council, he is willing to call out his peers for filing zoning policy orders without conferring properly with other officials, calling it not “collegial” and even saying such actions create “toxicity” on the council, then follow it up with a direct, public accusation of deception by one of those peers. He could have just made a phone call to ask with no violation of Open Meeting Law; he instead chose to accuse a fellow official in public of lying.

In recent months and on the campaign trail he has repeatedly decried the toxicity of local politics without realizing his role in it, by portraying policy discussions as attacks. “You have a candidate that’s attacking our form of government, you have other candidates that are attacking the [city] manager’s administration – it’s been happening over the past year and a half,” he said in a brief Oct. 26 interview, seeming to not understand that a suggestion to switch Cambridge away from a Plan E charter form of government and instead have a strong mayor is a conversation, not sedition, no matter how strongly worded. It is the right of every citizen to be critical of an administration, because citizens are allowed to have different priorities. (And it’s been going on far longer than a year and a half.)

These are the examples Benzan gives to explain why he feels entitled to tell residents that other candidates for City Council “would lead you to believe that Cambridge is one of the worst” cities in the world. This is a bid to portray critics as unpatriotic just because they have criticisms, and it is wrong of him to do.

Benzan’s power of metaphor fails him when he again cites “a very high level of toxicity that relates to who we accept donations from,” saying that intense criticism over donations from large real estate developers (and their lobbyists and lawyers, such as former mayor Anthony Galluccio) are unfounded because “This is not the federal government where we’re accepting donations from corporations in exchange for support for those corporations … Bernie Sanders is talking about donations and the influence of corporations on the government. That’s not what’s happening here. Anthony Galluccio was my mentor. You’re telling me I’m somehow susceptible to Anthony Galluccio’s influence on Mass+Main [project zoning in Central Square] because he represents them and he happens to donate to my campaign? That’s ridiculous.”

It’s fine for a politician to assert that their decisions are free of bias, and Benzan is sincere and passionate about the need for more housing to be built no matter what. He is deadly serious about the need for more housing, as quickly as possible, and certainly doesn’t need to be convinced, let alone bribed or coerced.

But it is also odd for a politician not to understand that developers and their dollars are to Cambridge as those “corporations” and their dollars are to America – that’s a concept kids deal with on PSAT practice tests.

He did it again Sunday, expressing this in an email:

“We can talk about the small donations, of course, but we cannot lose sight that one of the reasons this conversation about campaign contributions is being mobilized is to obscure the records of those who voted against creating more housing in Cambridge during the greatest housing crisis that we’ve seen in memory. We set a standard with 20 percent inclusionary zoning for the country with Mass+Main.”

This is a politician who refuses to believe citizens’ concerns about campaign donations are as sincere in Cambridge as they are on a national scale, or to be reflective about why some citizens worry about how development decisions are made. To him, any expression of concern is “to obscure the records” of people he feels are doing the right thing and voting the right way.

This lack of understanding or refusal to acknowledge resident concerns on the topic may be why, when presented with a proposal to study having publicly funded “clean elections” in Cambridge, Benzan voted “present” with no further comment, helping kill a study that could have ended this conflict forever. Because he doesn’t see the problem, he rejects that there might be a solution. That’s a firm personal belief that rejects those who feels differently, no matter how strongly they have expressed it over and over again, and it inevitably leads to the suspicion that this is a politician whose mind is made up – and closed.

This all came together after Cambridge Day posted a letter from him and his campaign Oct. 19. “After knocking on thousands of doors and participating in candidates forums, I’m more convinced than ever that we live in the greatest city in the world,” he said, echoing language used frequently in City Hall and on the campaign.

Asked about what seems like gross hyperbole – the kind that seems to cut off the notion of improvement, because why would the greatest city in the world need to change anything? – Benzan simply rejected the idea he’d said it: “I said ‘one of the greatest.’”