‘Fresh set of eyes’: Cheung on campaigning for state Senate, priorities and possibilities
It’s no secret city councillor Leland Cheung is ambitious – he came to the council in 2009 while pursuing dual degrees: a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Masters in Business Administration at the MIT Sloan School of Management. During his three terms in the council, he’s made bids to be mayor and lieutenant governor – winning a 2014 endorsement from The Boston Globe for his potential role as “liaison to the innovation economy” before being beaten in a party primary.
Now former venture capitalist Cheung is running for state Senate, specifically the seat representing the 2nd Middlesex District of Somerville, Medford and parts of Cambridge and Winchester held by Pat Jehlen since 2005. Jehlen was previously a longtime House of Representatives member in the district (where Cheung lives) and, before that, a Somerville School Committee member. She declared her reelection campaign in late April with a list of endorsements and honors drawn from her years in office, while Cheung was rebuked by the Democratic State Committee, which saw his run as a breach of party loyalty.
His ambition has drawn some sharp comments on the Blue Mass Group site as well as a parody Twitter account, as well as support for the process. “Competition’s good for democracy,” said Doug Rubin, of the Northwind Strategies public affairs consulting firm. Good feelings about Jehlen “shouldn’t prevent someone who believes they have something to offer the voters from running against her, and giving the voters in the district a choice.”
We sat down with Cheung, branding himself a “fiscal progressive,” to ask about his Senate race. The conversation has been edited and compressed for publication, and when Cheung seemed to miss an opportunity to reply directly – as on his position on a cap on the number of charter schools in the state – he was given a second chance. (He has not responded, but this post will be updated when he does.)
To improve people’s lives. Like a lot of people, I have been increasingly frustrated at the lack of action, despite decades of talk, by the Legislature. Look at the green line – the MBTA can’t even build the green line extension despite talking for 25 years, or get people to work on time – or the housing crisis, which we’ve been working on in the City Council because the Legislature has pretty much left it up to cities and towns to figure out, although we really need a comprehensive regional solution. Or education, which is chronically underfunded. There’s a ton of things. I have a list a mile long of issues I would love to work on and move forward to make lives better for residents, and there’s only so far I can push in the city.
Tell us more about your top three priorities.
We need to build a green line extension on budget and actually get it done and make sure we’re investing in the infrastructure that people rely on on a day-to-day basis, fixing roads and filling potholes. We still don’t have a clear answer on how much the green line extension would cost, and yet there’s been no calls for legislative oversight of MBTA management and no calls to go after the contractors that have wasted money. Instead, they’re asking residents to accept a bare-bones proposal. The Legislature needs to step in in a much more aggressive role for the residents who have spent literally decades waiting on this issue.
We need to think about a regional housing solution that doesn’t just kick the problem down the road. The City Council has taken some pretty bold steps in terms of increasing inclusionary and incentive figures and yet we have consultants who come back and say well, “You can’t go too far, because this is what Somerville’s doing, this is what Boston is doing.” And what that tells me is that we really need a regional approach that’s going to come only from the state Legislature. Even though we’re doing everything we can think of, because the problem is regional we’re not able – and no city is able – to do it on our own. Housing prices aren’t bounded by city lines. If it’s just left to the cities, we wind up pushing the problem back and forth at the border.
I think education has been underfunded for more than a decade, and we need to double down on our commitment to producing the best and brightest and educating our kids.
I think they’re all related to this idea of economic justice, right? We’re facing it here like no place else. If we’re not educating people, they don’t have access to the economy of tomorrow that we’re building. If we’re not investing in transportation, that means people can’t get to jobs to put food on the table. And if we’re not solving the housing crisis, we’re displacing families instead of helping them stay here. Massachusetts has been a leader going all the way back to our founding … If we can’t do it here, in a state people across the United States regard as one of the most liberal, one of the most progressive in the country, who can?
The City Council had an April 4 vote on supporting a charter school cap, but you weren’t able to be there at that moment. Had you been in the room, how would you have voted?
I know Sen. Jehlen just voted to increase the charter school cap, but I think that’s completely the wrong discussion. Somehow the Legislature has set it up so charter school proponents are criticizing the public schools and the public schools are criticizing the charter schools. They’re both sitting there looking at each other and talking about the money that’s going back and forth or being diverted, when the root of the problem is that the Legislature has chronically underfunded schools, period. That’s what we should be talking about: fully funding education.
You’re coming up against a candidate with a long history in office and a lot of endorsements, and the State Democratic Committee ousted you on party loyalty issues. How will resistance from Democratic leadership complicate your run?
My decision has nothing to do with Sen. Jehlen or her list of endorsements by longtime political figures or the establishment. My decision to run is entirely about what I think Massachusetts needs to do to make sure that our residents have the ability and infrastructure and tools they need to meet their goals in life.
You’ve fought for some innovative technological approaches in the city – pushing not just for a Broadband Task Force and Open Data, but also for street-level things such as parking meters that take credit and debit cards. What technology would you push statewide?
There’s tons of things. Why do Cambridge and Somerville need to negotiate individual contracts with a vendor for smart meters? We need to legislate a way for cities to work together on these kinds of purchases that they all need but don’t benefit from the same economies of scale as large cities. A few years back I brought back Cambridge’s tax base from a big, overseas bank to a local, community bank. Former state Treasurer Steven Grossman did that with $300 million of state money; I did it with our tax base here. I think the commonwealth can go a lot further in terms of making sure we’re depositing in local banks that are turning around and investing in our communities as opposed to just sending it to these big, international banks. Participatory budgeting – there’s certainly a way that can be expanded statewide, to have residents across the commonwealth or across our region be able to weigh in in a more concrete, tangible way how our capital dollars are being spent.
There are certainly ways our state could expand open data, by putting it on the platforms Cambridge and cities around us have done, providing a platform that’s easier for other cities to get on without having to reinvent the wheel. I’ve been on the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, appointed there by Gov. Patrick a few years ago, working on expanding and creating publicly owned broadband across the commonwealth. And we began with Western Mass. and the Cape because we had cities there that did not have access whatsoever to broadband Internet. We’ve built out the backbone of the network in those two places and I think the next natural step is expanding that inward to cover this area – but again, that would require legislative action.
It’s standard to say ‘I’m going to get things done.’ Is there really something you can do, especially as a first-term senator, when it’s typically legislators who have been in office the longest who have the most power and technical know-how to get bills passed?
You could have said the exact same thing when I first ran for City Council. But if you look at my track record over the six years I’ve been on the council, you can point to the fresh set of eyes and the different perspective that I bring to every question that’s come before us; my willingness to work around the clock; my extreme accessibility to resident and willingness to work with them to come up with great ideas; my ability to negotiate with colleagues, and think through issues with the city administration. I know everyone says that – but I have a track record on the Cambridge City Council of doing it. And that is what I’d like to bring to the state Senate.