Friday, July 12, 2024

At the Cambridge election season’s fifth forum for City Council candidates at Porter Square’s Lesley University Hall, the moderator asked each candidate the same question: In 2050, how many people do they foresee living in Cambridge? Dan Totten, when it was his term to answer, said that he didn’t have a specific number in mind but would support building as much affordable housing as possible.

There was a minor eruption, with spectators shouting for a direct answer. Totten paused for a moment, tried to continue, but was shouted down again before he could finish. “Pass the mic. You’re done,” someone yelled.

This scene largely captures Cambridge’s present political atmosphere: tense, passionate and polarized.

In the Nov. 7 election, Cambridge voters will elect nine at-large city councillors, who will serve two-year terms. After they take office, the councillors will elect one of their own as mayor.

There are 24 candidates, among which are six incumbents – another three opted against reelection bids,  meaning there will be a guaranteed three new faces on the council.

Many residents feel the polarization has accelerated in the lead-up to Nov. 7 voting. Personal attacks seem more common, many say, and the middle ground is deteriorating.

Candidates have echoed these feelings. “This election cycle has become very polarized and divisive on the issues and personal attacks on candidates,” councillor Paul Toner said in an email. “Very unfortunate.” 

Partly driving it is conflict between two visions for Cambridge on the council. There are candidates who approve of the current political order and, on the whole, support three ordinances that have taken center stage throughout election season: the Cycling Safety Ordinance, updates to Affordable Housing Overlay zoning and the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance.

Others believe the ordinances have fundamental flaws, or have had problems with their rollouts, and have articulated a vision different from the current council.

The groups

The opposing factions largely correspond with the candidate slates of two prominent civic organizations in the city. 

A Better Cambridge, a volunteer group focused mostly on housing policy in the city, published a slate including Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui; councillors Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and E. Denise Simmons; former councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler; School Committee member Ayesha Wilson; and challengers Adrienne Klein, Joe McGuirk and Frantz Pierre.

These candidates are generally friendly to the current council’s agenda. As a whole, the group approves of the CSO, AHO and Beudo.

“I think this election season is a lot more about being against something than standing for a change,” Azeem said in an email. “I think we’re moving the city forward and I’m excited to continue the work.”

McGovern agrees with Azeem that the current council has moved Cambridge forward. “This council has passed some of the most progressive environmental policies in the country this term,” McGovern said at the Porter Square forum. “I actually think this is a pretty darn good city to live in.”

Cambridge Citizens Coalition, a group of local leaders and activists, endorsed a very different group of candidates: councillors Patricia Nolan and Paul Toner; Wilson, the only candidate to appear on both lists; and challengers Doug Brown, John Hanratty, Federico Muchnik, Carrie Pasquarello, Joan Pickett, Hao Wang, Robert Winters and Cathie Zusy – a slate with more challengers and fewer incumbents.

This group is generally more critical of the CSO, AHO and Beudo, though it has more ideological diversity than the ABC slate. Whereas nearly all ABC candidates support the three  key ordinances, CCC candidates are more split: Zusy, for example, is skeptical of Beudo, whereas Nolan supports it. But many CCC candidates are suspicious of the current council’s direction.

“As I campaign, I see widespread distrust of the City Council. The feeling is that the City Council has abandoned the community and pursued their own agenda,” Hanratty said at the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association’s candidate night.

This year’s campaign season has added to the historic conflict between ABC and CCC. Before the previous municipal election in 2021, Cambridge residents linked to the two groups feuded publicly online over an incident involving a member of the East Cambridge Planning Team board and former Cambridge resident Loren Crowe.

Although these two groups are the largest and have drawn most of the attention, there are some smaller factions. 

The most notable is the slate of Our Revolution Cambridge, a progressive political organization sparked by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which includes McGuirk, Sobrinho-Wheeler, Ayah Al-Zubi, Dan Totten and Vernon Walker. These candidates generally support the CSO, AHO and Beudo but have, in some cases, emphasized a need to go further than these ordinances.

On Beudo, which excludes residential buildings, Al-Zubi said, “We need to actually sit down and talk through what [Beudo] looks like for residential buildings and also continue to push on those commercial developments that are below 100,000 square feet.”

The issues 

Addressing the city’s housing crunch is the top priority for many candidates. The AHO, as a result, has become the most controversial issue.

Coinciding with most of the election season, the council debated whether to amend the AHO, which originally passed in 2020. In mid-October, it passed these amendments with a 6–3 vote, increasing the by-right height of buildings with 100 percent affordable units to 12 stories along the city’s main corridors and to 15 stories in some squares. Nolan and Toner, the only incumbent candidates on CCC’s slate, were among those, with councillor Dennis Carlone, who voted against the amendments.

The widely publicized debate over these amendments has put the AHO in the crosshairs of some candidates. Winters, who served on the committee that drafted the original version of the AHO, has come out strongly against the ordinance.

“I was opposed to it then, and I’m opposed to the current revisions,” Winters said at a forum hosted by Harvard and MIT graduate students unions. “The proper way to have done this, which I said back at the Housing Working Group, was to have done this more as a special-permit process just like we do in Central Square.”

Other candidates, however, have defended the AHO as an important tool for starting to solve the city’s housing shortage. When asked at CNA’s candidate night about his proudest accomplishment, Sobrinho-Wheeler gave the following response: “It’s hard to choose a proudest accomplishment, but if I have to, it has to be co-sponsoring and helping pass the Affordable Housing Overlay when I was on the council previously.”

The second-most contentious issue of this cycle has been the CSO. Passed in 2019 and amended in 2020, the CSO requires the city to build some 25 miles of separated bike lanes within the next few years. Because of a perceived lack of community input as the city has rolled out the lanes, the ordinance has become the center of a debate about the council’s transparency.  

Many candidates have said that bike lanes are important but got too little community input. 

“I do believe that bike lanes are really important to our community,” Wilson said at the forum hosted by the graduate students unions. “I’m also a resident who lives right on Garden Street, who was greatly impacted by the challenge of the implementation of bike lanes and not included in the conversation.”

Another group of candidates has defended the CSO as crucial to protecting cyclists and pedestrians on the city’s streets. 

“I was the lead sponsor on the first [version of the Cycling Safety Ordinance]. I stand by that,” McGovern said at the graduate students’ forum. “Ultimately, I want people from 8 to 80 to be able to get around this city safely, and I think the Cycling Safety Ordinance does that.”

After the AHO and CSO, Beudo has been this season’s third-most important issue, though it is a distant third.

Beudo was passed by the council in 2014 and amended in 2023. 

It requires that large commercial buildings reach net zero emissions by 2035 and small commercial buildings do so by 2050. The ordinance excludes residential buildings. 

Similar to the CSO, many candidates support the intentions of Beudo but not its rollout. Much of the Beudo debate has centered around its timeline, which some candidates see as too restrictive.

“I’m generally against forced conversion. We can save 50 percent to 70 percent of energy used without conversion. Let’s do that first,” Wang said at the forum hosted by CCC and a few other organizations. He added at the graduate students’ forum, “I support wholeheartedly the Beudo disclosure clauses. I don’t support the rigid timeline.”

Other candidates see strict deadlines as necessary to incentivize practical change against the effects of climate change. Totten noted that Cambridge’s climate policy is one of the most ambitious in the country.

“[Beudo] is 15 years faster than Boston. 2035 is the compromise. We have to be clear about that,” Totten said at the graduate students’ forum.

Polarization

Supporters of these different visions for Cambridge haven’t constrained their conflict to forums and policy debates – the polarization has, at times, spilled into the streets.

In early October, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, including Totten, picketed a CCC candidate celebration because they felt some of the group’s candidates had hate speech in their social media feeds. CCC asked police to watch over the event. 

Around the same time, Election Commission staff asked for a larger police presence at polling locations, citing increased aggression. They also asked for a full-height, lockable door to replace the half-door at the Election Commission office. 

Vandalism of candidate posters has been a problem throughout the cycle.

Feeling that centrifugal forces threaten to rip apart Cambridge, a few candidates have publicly opposed polarization itself.

Nolan has taken the lead. Throughout her campaign, she has spoken against what she sees as divisive “either-or” thinking.

“What stands out is the overly simplistic either-or, for or against positioning on complex issues – on affordable housing, bike lanes, climate, governance – which is distressing and hurts our community and prevents collaborative solutions,” Nolan said in an email. “I reject this polarization as corrosive to our community and instead seek a balanced, nuanced approach to issues.”

Wang has struck a similar note, describing himself as a “do both” candidate. 

“My candidacy is not about ‘either-or.’ My candidacy is about ‘do both,’” Wang said at a forum at the YWCA in Central Square. 

In his closing statement at the Porter Square forum, Brown summed up the division in Cambridge and his solution for it.

“The main reason I’m running is to end the divisiveness in this city that seems to be pervasive,” Brown said. “Ninety-four percent of the people in Cambridge voted for the current president, and yet we seem to fight over the 6 percent we disagree about … To use a math analogy, I think we need more addition and multiplication, and less subtraction and division.”

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The challengers

In alphabetical order

Ayah Al-Zubi


Doug Brown


John Hanratty


Peter Hsu


Adrienne Klein


Joe McGuirk


Gregg Moree


Federico Muchnik


Carrie Pasquarello


Joan Pickett


Frantz Pierre


Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler


Dan Totten


Vernon Walker


Hao Wang


Ayesha Wilson


Robert Winters


Catherine Zusy

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The incumbents

In alphabetical order


Burhan Azeem


Marc McGovern


Patty Nolan


Sumbul Siddiqui


E. Denise Simmons


Paul Toner