Thursday, June 13, 2024

Campaign signs for City Council incumbent Paul Toner are vandalized in North Cambridge in a Sept. 14 post to social media. (Photo: Paul Toner via Facebook)

Since recent forums for City Council candidates, groups across Cambridge have released their candidate endorsements – and the lists can look very different.

Cambridge Citizens Coalition, a group of local leaders and activists, was the first to release its candidate slate, basing its selections on a questionnaire and a forum it hosted Sept. 10.

The coalition endorsed 11 candidates in four categories. In its “neighborhood leaders” category, it chose Doug Brown, Joan Pickett and Cathie Zusy. It identified John Hanratty, Federico Muchnik, School Committee member Ayesha Wilson and Robert Winters as “Cambridge civic leaders.” Carrie Pasquarello and Hao Wang were singled out for their “international work,” while councillors Patty Nolan and Paul Toner rounded out the list as “incumbents.”

A Better Cambridge, a volunteer group focused mostly on housing policy in the city, released its slate shortly afterward. It also had a questionnaire, and hosted a forum Sep. 12.

Its endorsements included Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillors Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and E. Denise Simmons. It also featured former councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler; Wilson, the only candidate to appear on both lists; and challengers Adrienne Klein, Joe McGuirk and Frantz Pierre.

Our Revolution Cambridge, a progressive political organization, was the third group to endorse. It joined ABC in endorsing McGuirk and Sobrinho-Wheeler. Its slate also included Ayah Al-Zubi, Dan Totten and Vernon Walker.

In a press release, Our Revolution explained why it picked these five challengers.

“We believe that Cambridge should reset its priorities by ending displacement and supporting policies and practices for housing, jobs, education and social and environmental justice,” Our Revolution wrote. “We are confident that ORC’s candidates have the experience, knowledge and passion to achieve these goals.”

Finally, the Cambridge Residents Alliance announced its eight endorsements Tuesday. Endorsed challengers were Al-Zubi; Brown; Sobrinho-Wheeler; Totten; Walker; and Wilson. Incumbents it wanted to see return were Siddiqui and Nolan. All were chosen for being “committed to a Cambridge which prioritizes affordable housing and homeownership for low- and moderate-income people and the unhoused instead of luxury housing or commercial construction,” the group said, as well as to “upholding human rights and public safety through community-led programs and increased accountability through charter reforms,” being environmentally conscious and transit oriented. “They care deeply about the economic and racial diversity that is the core strength of Cambridge,” the CRA said.

Ultimately there were no candidates appearing on all lists, but two who appeared on three: Sobrinho-Wheeler and Wilson.

History of differences

A Better Cambridge and Cambridge Citizens Coalition are seen by many as opposite, competing organizations. The year’s endorsements could support that feeling, given how different they are, though before the coalition was founded it was the Cambridge Residents Alliance and A Better Cambridge that clashed most directly.

Leading up to the previous municipal election in 2021, Cambridge residents linked to CCC and ABC feuded publicly online over an incident the previous year that saw a member of the East Cambridge Planning Team board make an inappropriate comment about outspoken Cambridge resident Loren Crowe, now a New Yorker.

Though the incident did not initially involve the CCC, the group became involved after Crowe accused president Suzanne Preston Blier of “victim-blaming” in a blog post.

The controversy spiraled when Nolan, who also got a CCC endorsement in 2021, said that several people affiliated with A Better Cambridge had promoted Crowe’s criticism of the group and its endorsed candidates. When Cambridge Day asked about Nolan’s accusation at the time, a representative from A Better Cambridge did not address it.

Developer contributions

When CCC released its slate, some Cambridge residents were surprised that the group endorsed candidates who had taken money from real estate developers, including Pickett, who accepted $1,000 from the principals of Laverty Lohnes, a self-described real estate management and development firm, and Toner, who lists multiple developers among his contributors.

Derek Kopon, an astrophysicist who ran for City Council in 2019, was displeased.

“In years past, CCC has made refraining from developer money a central plank in their platform, so it was disappointing this year to see them endorse some of the biggest grifters in the field,” Kopon said.

During the 2019 council election, the group made a point of endorsing only those candidates who refused to take money from developers.

“All CCC (CCC-AC) Endorsed Candidates have agreed NOT to take donations from developers and others doing commercial business with the city,” the group wrote on its website.

In 2021, it seemingly weakened its stance, writing, “When candidates take sizable funding from real estate interests it suggests that on some issues they may be more inclined to vote in a manner that benefits these individuals’ interests.”

Blier said it bases its endorsements partly on the funding criteria of the Cambridge Civic Journal, a newsletter on civic affairs written by Winters – now a candidate.

“This year Cambridge Civic did not post developer funding, so we have not focused on that issue,” Blier said. “The closest category to developer funding this cycle is union donations – sometimes building trades – but as a group, we support union work.”

The Cambridge Residents Alliance said it maintains a standard for endorsed candidates that “they do not accept campaign donations from large developer and corporate interests seeking benefits from the City Council and public boards.” Similarly, Our Revolution Cambridge says its supports only candidates “who do not accept developer, corporate or police organization donations.”

During this term, the council voted to limit the contributions of developers to candidates, a step forward that the work of CCC helped bring about, Blier said.

“More important to us is where the donations are coming from,” Blier said. Her group’s independent expenditure political action committee donations “are 100 percent from Cambridge; some of the other PAC donations go as low as 16.7 percent local Cambridge donations, which means that their funding is not coming from people who actually live in Cambridge.”

Overall, Blier said, the response to the CCC slate has been positive, “regarding not only the breadth and diversity of interests and accomplishments of this group, but also how much their active civic and professional work dovetails with key issues important to Cambridge.”

Candidate-to-candidate contributions

Blier noted that the candidates on CCC’s slate have been cooperating. “This is also a group that already seems to be working together well – supporting each other,” she said. “This kind of collegiality also will be important once they are on council.”

Based on records from the commonwealth’s Office of Campaign and Political Financing, some of CCC’s candidates have supported each other with more than just kind words: They are linked by a web of campaign contributions.

Either personally or through his committee, Toner has contributed money to Hanratty, Pickett, Winters and Zusy. Winters and Zusy returned the favor to Toner, while Zusy contributed to Winters and Pickett. Blier joined this network by contributing to Pickett, Pasquarello, Toner and Zusy.

Regarding her campaign contributions, Blier said, “All of CCC’s endorsement decisions are made after considerable deliberation and by our larger citywide leadership team, regardless of one or another person’s relationship to an individual.”

Candidate contributions to ABC arm

Justin Saif, a co-chair of ABC, said that his organization has received “extremely positive” positive feedback on its endorsement slate.

“Housing costs are the No. 1 issue raised repeatedly by Cambridge residents, two-thirds of whom are renters, and we are the only local group pushing real plans to address the skyrocketing cost of housing,” he said.

According to Saif, the group’s steering committee considered questionnaire answers and forum performances when selecting endorsements, looking for candidates who addressed the group’s greatest concerns.

“We look for candidates who we feel will best focus on our top housing priorities, ending exclusionary zoning and addressing what UCLA housing policy expert Shane Phillips refers to as the three S’s – stability, supply and subsidy,” Saif said.

Like the candidates on the CCC slate, the candidates on the A Better Cambridge slate share some interesting financial transactions.

According to data from the Office of Campaign and Political Financing, of the nine candidates endorsed by ABC, eight contributed to its independent expenditure political action committee in the months leading up to the endorsements. Klein was the only candidate who did not. The contributions ranged from $1 to $100.

“The IEPAC is a separate volunteer entity, and nothing related to the IEPAC has any role in the ABC nonprofit’s endorsement decisions,” Saif said when asked about these candidate contributions.