Monday, February 26, 2024

City councillor Nadeem Mazen in 2016. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Nadeem Mazen – Muslim-American, 33 years old, two-term councillor – will not seek a third term on the City Council, and now that he’s freed from campaigning, he has critiques of how the council operates and how local campaigns operate.

Mazen has always said he would limit his term. “The commitment was two or three ms, this is the end of the second term, I’m not doing the third term,” he said Wednesday.

It’s not for lack of popularity. In the 2015 election, Mazen got 1,929 No. 1 votes, more than any other candidate, and was elected on the first round. He was followed by E. Denise Simmons, with 1,715 No. 1 votes, elected on the 11th round. It took 1,786 votes to get elected.

“The idea of a self-imposed term limit is very powerful because it draws new and potentially similar people into the race,” Mazen said in a wide-ranging interview. “People were wondering whether it was the four years or six years. It’s not so people can plan on it, it’s so people understand there will be a regular experience of openings.”

Mazen said he would turn his attention to a community discussion around racial and class equity, economic opportunity and encouraging community leadership in Cambridge and Greater Boston.

“Personally, I’ll miss his friendship,” said Dennis Carlone, who sits next to Mazen in the council chamber and is often politically aligned with him. “Even though I’m old enough to be his father, I think of him more as a brother, sharing ideals.”

“I was depressed for a couple of days when I found out,” Carlone said. “Any time you lose a leader, it hurts. There are a number of good people who are going to run. I hope they get in and he is replaced by somebody who thinks like he does – I have to be optimistic.”

 Speaking truth to voters

In the past three or four months, Mazen has been going around talking to citizens about the November municipal elections. He suggested the conversations helped him identify a gap in political understanding and identified a way he could help fill it.

“The people who already support me are excited for the campaign. And the people who are undecided or aren’t usually voters are confused: ‘How do I get into Cambridge politics?’ … I can’t really think of an outlet that’s talking about altruism – who the candidates are that are making the best promises, taking the greatest commitment to service in their job, to putting in a lot of time and energy to do their job, to not taking special-interest donations, for example.”

“I don’t know that one can be a candidate and say, ‘Vote for me, I’m great at this stuff,’ and also say, ‘And here’s the truth about how Cambridge works,’” Mazen said. “It’s very challenging to extricate oneself from that process.”

“When one is not running, even if one has a bias, it’s a totally different ballgame. I have bias – I’m biased toward certain candidates and certain social trends, including real progressivism in the post-Trump age and real conversations about what’s going wrong on the local and state level.”

Mazen said he intended to produce mini-documentaries to educate voters through video storytelling up through the November elections, now that he is free of the need to campaign.

“Now I have this platform to be able to say, not just for this election, but for many elections to come, how can we as a community set a standard for the obligations of elected officials, the promises of progressive coalitions, and the relationship between especially underserved communities and government. If we have those conversations honestly, I think a lot more people will be excited to be involved, and I think a lot more people will come out of the ballot box saying, ‘I think I did something important here,’ instead of what I’ve heard the last couple of times, which is, ‘I just voted for a bunch of people, and you were among them. I thought it felt right,’ which is very hazy and I think a lot of people feel concerned about. They are not sure.”

Council professionalization

Mazen says he wants the council to be “professional.”

“This term, the mayor has been absent from many City Council meetings for very long periods of time for reasons that haven’t been explained to the council,” he said, comparing that with Simmons’ attendance at an “unbelievable number of panels and ceremonies and talks.”

Councillors should also be more diligent, he said, looking back on a term where councillors such as Leland Cheung and Tim Toomey have been absent for some meetings and votes – though until recently Toomey has been a state representative in addition to city councillor, and Cheung has been involved with the birth of his second child. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to take a full-time salary and miss a large number of full city council meetings and a large proportion of proceedings.”

Attendance also matters for council committees, where the fine-grained work on policies is done.

Council subcommittee meetings have a quorum of two, lowered when the council revised its rules at the beginning of the last term. “I think that quorum should be higher,” Mazen said. “I think people should go to every committee meeting that they’re a member of.”

“There’s three or four councillors who go to every committee meeting, maybe four of five if you stretch it, who go to some or all committee meetings. And then there’s four or five who step in to be recorded present and don’t show up. And there’s ones where they just don’t show up at all [to] extremely important, some would say mandatory meetings.”

How to fix it?

“Elect people who take their job seriously,” Mazen said.

In addition, he said, “committees need to have a two-year agenda: Here’s what we hope to accomplish, here’s how thing are going to come together, here are the spaces where we are going to put issues we haven’t defined yet. All of that should all be staked out in advance and scheduled in advance – we know we’re going to need tons and tons of meetings to process all of these issues, and if everyone stuck to one meeting a month, we would have plenty of time for all kinds of issues.”

Campaign commitments

In 2015, Mazen campaigned with a Slate for Cambridge that included from left, council candidates Mariko Davidson and Romaine Waite and School Committee candidate Jake Crutchfield.

He also felt councillors could be more effective by acting more like a team.

“The current majority has not been able to govern like a majority. They ran as a Unity Slate, they made no campaign promises for their collaborative work, and then they governed individually despite the fact that they have this obligation to do things like set the council goals, take a deep perspective and collective position on the budget. Act like a team. Show up like a team.”

“I think the electorate will probably notice that they actually have the opportunity to extract collective promises from different sides of the aisle.”

“I think there’s a bunch of people who will naturally work together. I look at people like Jan [Devereux], Dennis [Carlone], Quinton [Zondervan], Olivia [D’Ambrosio], Vatsady [Sivongxay], maybe Alanna [Mallon], maybe Marc [McGovern]. I’m not collecting these people together, but I think these people could cooperate to actually make aligned promises as a team during election season. As a collective that will plan to govern together.”

“I think it’s really important to have people with various perspectives, and I think that Sumbul Siddiqui, a daughter of Cambridge, is a candidate who will bring great insight into the social equity, diversity, affordable housing and legal aid issues, given her background.”

He then adds: “Olivia D’ambroiso is a leader in arts – arts faculty at MIT – bringing a really dynamic arts exposure to Cambridge, and that’s definitely a voice that we need in the corridors of power.”

“I think that majority could very well change the game for elections.”

Mazen’s successes

Mazen enumerated some of the things he thought were successes during his two terms on the council.

One is the empty Foundry building in East Cambridge , targeted as a center for arts and culture. Initially a single development manager was chosen to operate the building with enough commercial uses to make the building break even financially, but now the process is starting over with the promise of more city funding: “I think we grabbed that back from the precipice and it’s now on its way, in a really good way that’s now going to see tens of millions of dollars more [invested].”

He felt he was able to “bring clarity to complex issues.” Mazen highlighted how the affordable housing linkage fee paid by commercial developers was low and had room to grow, and said he got his colleagues thinking about how it could be raised without hurting development in the city. “Putting it in the context of the actual cost of development, a lot of people after the passage of that said, ‘Now, I understand what was really going on.’”

“So, too, with affordable housing at 20 percent. We campaigned for affordable housing at 20 percent in the 2013 election, and people told us that would collapse the housing economy. The consultants – lo and behold – came back a year later and said this is the way you should do it. All of a sudden everyone was onboard with it. All of that happened because people were able to stake a claim to what was actually accurate, and because the consultant work was bolstered by political support.”

Mazen also cited the hiring of a STEAM coordinator in the Human Services department as a great success for Science, Technology Engineering, Arts and Mathematics education within the city.