Thursday, June 20, 2024

The City Council Candidate Conversation at Cambridge Community Television in Central Square on Friday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge’s City Council candidates value teamwork, collaboration and collegiality, though there is some strife among them, viewers learned from a Friday conversation.

The City Council Candidate Conversation was co-sponsored by Cambridge Community Television and Cambridge Day. The hosts were Niko Emack, a journalist, educator and student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Marc Levy, editor of Cambridge Day.

The conversation looked much different from a traditional candidate forum. After asking a question, the hosts opened the floor to the candidates, letting them discuss and bounce ideas off of each other. The hosts’ questions also focused on candidates’ values and temperaments rather than on their policy positions.

Eleven candidates participated: councillors Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and Patty Nolan; School Committee member Ayesha Wilson; and challengers Peter Hsu, Joe McGuirk, Gregg Moree, Federico Muchnik, Dan Totten, Cathie Zusy and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, who previously served a term on the council.

From the start, candidates said they valued reaching across the aisle, especially during what many have called a polarized election cycle.

“The key is that you don’t hold grudges,” McGovern said. “We’re going to have some tough conversations. It’s not all going to be holding hands. It’s a question of what do you do after that – do you let that get in the way of working together? Do you let that get in the way of moving the city forward? I don’t think we do, for the most part.”

Adding to McGovern’s point, Sobrinho-Wheeler said that small disagreements draw outsized attention for council candidates because Cambridge residents have so much in common. “The small differences get magnified because we agree so much on the big things, but at the end of the day, there is a lot of common ground, and we can focus on that,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

McGuirk, though, said charged public discourse partly motivated him to run for council. He compared Cambridge’s polarization to that in Washington, D.C., and said it’s time for residents to start resolving some of their arguments.

“Sometimes watching public discourse, it did feel really divided,” he said. “The truth is that arguments are productive for revealing the source of our conflict. It is, ultimately, what we do after that that resolves it.”

Back-and-forth

On one of the conversation’s only policy-related questions, candidates sparred over the Cycling Safety Ordinance and the rollout of the city’s bike lanes.

Wilson said that, as a resident of Garden Street, she knew nothing about a bike lane until right before it was installed. “It’s causing a lot of disruption and stress,” Wilson said. “Across our city, we need to be doing a better job around communication and around process.”

The bike lanes conversation is about opportunity cost, though, and there is no solution that could satisfy everyone, Azeem responded.

“It is about tradeoffs. I think everyone in this room would love to save all of the parking, all of the protected bike lanes, and everything if you could, but politics is about how do you allocate the resources that you have. We have to make tough decisions. There is no perfect answer where everyone ends up being happy,” Azeem said.

McGuirk nodded along as Azeem spoke.

Nolan responded quickly, “I totally disagree in some ways because, as Ayesha said, it’s not either-or. That’s the problem: It’s been defined as either-or and totally polarized.”

Partway through Nolan’s response, Totten interjected, asking if those were the reasons she didn’t sign the bike pledge. At that point, a few of the other candidates interjected to disagree with Totten.

Nolan retorted, “I didn’t sign the pledge because it was polarizing. And I know you’re telling people I’m against it, but I have a solid record … Dan, you are totally bad-mouthing me on the trail, and I’m sick of it.” Nolan also accused Totten of campaigning negatively on multiple issues and of targeting her regularly. 

“The pledge is a commitment not to vote to undo [the CSO]. So when somebody doesn’t sign the pledge, what I have to assume is that if that question is posed to the next council, they will vote to undo it,” Totten said.

“That’s bologna salami,” Muchnik responded.

Azeem agreed with Totten that pledges indicate how candidates will likely vote if elected to the City Council. 

To watch the conversation, residents can find the full video on CCTV’s Vimeo page.