Lowell Week in Review: October 1, 2017

This week’s column is devoted entirely to the results of last Tuesday’s Preliminary City Council Election. Although I did check the agenda for the upcoming city council meeting. There is no truth to the rumor that, in response to the results of the preliminary election, several councilors had filed a joint motion to give Belvidere back to Tewksbury.

Back to last Tuesday’s Preliminary. Let’s begin by reviewing the order of finish and vote totals. Turnout was 7680 or 11.7 percent of those registered to vote:

  1. Ed Kennedy – 3266
  2. John Leahy – 3262
  3. Bill Samaras – 3254
  4. Vesna Nuon – 3095
  5. Rita Mercier – 3073
  6. Jim Milinazzo – 3057
  7. Dave Conway – 2834
  8. Rodney Elliott – 2700
  9. Dan Rourke – 2479
  10. Jim Leary – 2466
  11. Corey Belanger – 2262
  12. Karen Cirillo – 2224
  13. Matthew LeLacheur – 2150
  14. Daniel Finn – 2140
  15. Sokhary Chau – 2115
  16. Martin Hogan – 1822
  17. Joe Boyle – 1758
  18. Robert Gignac – 1746
  19. Paul Ratha Yem – 1638
  20. Jose Negron – 1536
  21. Pan So – 1025
  22. Jeffrey Wilson – 636
  23. Robert Merrill – 493

Here are some quick thoughts on the election results:

  • I expected the Cawley candidates to do better, mostly because the downtown supporters had just completed the massive task of collecting 6500+ signatures to get a referendum question on the November ballot. Having just completed that task, I assumed the Downtown supporters would not have had time to organize a big get-out-the-vote effort in time for the preliminary. Conversely, without any signature-collection to occupy them, the Cawley supporters had plenty of time to get organized for a big get-out-the-vote effort for Tuesday.
  • That said, a lot can change in November. It was 22 years ago, but the 1995 election could be instructive here. In that race (see details below), three candidates who finished out of the top nine in the preliminary ended up winning council seats in the general election. However, the trend in recent years has been for the top nine in the preliminary to stay largely intact. It’s also important to remember that Corey Belanger has never finished in the top nine in a preliminary (he finished eleventh this year) yet he’s ended up in the top nine in the two prior general elections.
  • Those 6500+ signatures collected by Downtown supporters could be a big factor in November. I assume the group has captured the names and addresses of all who signed the petition in a database and will make the list available to pro-downtown candidates. In recent years, candidates who have done mass mailings or gone door-to-door typically use a “purged” voter list that targets those who have historically voted in past city elections. Everyone ends up fighting over the same small pool of people and no one spends much time trying to connect with others who could vote but have tended not to in past city elections. If instead of using that same purged voter list which presumably contains many pro-Cawley voters, the pro-downtown candidates target the 6500+ who have signed the petition, they could activate many who do not regularly vote in city elections. If all of those new voters go overwhelmingly for downtown candidates, and the regular city election voters are evenly split between downtown and Cawley, the downtown candidates could do quite well.
  • But the Cawley supporters have their own force multiplier. That would be many of the voters who live in the neighborhoods that are close to downtown and whose children tend to walk to Lowell High. There’s been an assumption by many that people in this category would naturally favor the downtown option. But when I’ve spoken with people in that general category, many of them instead say, “Why shouldn’t our kids have a brand-new high school.” Others feel it will be safer for their children to ride a bus (at city expense) to Belvidere rather than walk to downtown.
  • One of the things that has fascinated me about this issue is that no one on the council is asking in a meaningful way whether the city and its taxpayers can afford a $350 million dollar project with the city picking up at least $150 million of the cost. Yes, the city has the excess levy capacity to afford the bonds that would be necessary, but that’s because we’ve always been so hesitant to raise taxes. It’s not as if we decided a decade ago that we should start saving up for an expensive new high school. While all of the current councilors by their actions over the past month have made building a new school – or fully renovating the old one – a priority over the impact of the cost of this project on the city and its tax payers, many homeowners are very concerned about paying the cost. While it’s true that both options – downtown and Cawley – would cost roughly the same, I wonder if in the absence of anyone on the council screaming for fiscal restraint, voters opposed to a big tax increase have placed the blame for the coming leap in tax bills on the councilors on the winning side – those who voted for Cawley – making the councilors on the losing side – downtown – of the location vote the accidental beneficiaries of the “don’t raise our taxes” cohort of voters.
  • That same dynamic could also work against the pro-downtown referendum. That question simply asks if the voter prefers a new and fully renovated high school downtown. If someone wants Cawley, they will vote No. But what about someone who wants neither? I assume that person will also vote No. So if the No votes prevail on the referendum, is the proper inference that the voters prefer Cawley, or that they prefer neither? I don’t see how either inference could reasonably be made. That is not to blame the authors of the referendum question. They chose wording most likely to yield their desired outcome. Still, since the people are going to vote on this question anyway, it is too bad that the council didn’t step in and place a more basic “do you want a new high school regardless of location?” question on the ballot too.

Preliminary v General Election changes

How much might the results from Tuesday’s preliminary change in November’s general election? History is usually a good guide, so let’s look at some past results.

Many have already drawn comparisons between 1995 and 2017. Back then the fight was over building the Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Field. Those who opposed both projects did quite well in the preliminary, but slid out of the top nine in the general election. Here’s the order of finish of the top 13 in the preliminary, with annotations of “pro” or “anti” arena and “incumbent” or “challenger.”

1995 Preliminary (incumbents Tarsy Poulios, Laurie Machado & Michael Geary did not seek reelection)

  1. Steve Gendron – pro – incumbent
  2. Rita Mercier – anti – challenger
  3. Bud Caulfield – pro – incumbent
  4. Casey Crane – anti – challenger
  5. Bernard Lemoine – anti – challenger
  6. Richard Howe Sr. – pro – incumbent
  7. Larry Martin – could not vote on arena – incumbent
  8. Eileen Donoghue – pro – challenger
  9. Rodney Elliott – anti – challenger
  10. Matthew Donahue – pro – incumbent
  11. Grady Mulligan – pro – incumbent
  12. Peter Richards – pro – challenger
  13. James Boenis – anti – challenger

1995 Final

  1. Steve Gendron – pro – incumbent
  2. Bud Caulfield – pro – incumbent
  3. Matt Donahue – pro – incumbent
  4. Eileen Donoghue – pro – challenger
  5. Richard Howe Sr – pro – incumbent
  6. Rita Mercier – anti – challenger
  7. Larry Martin – could not vote – incumbent
  8. Grady Mulligan – pro – incumbent
  9. Peter Richards – pro – challenger
  10. Bernie Lemoine – anti – challenger
  11. Casey Crane – anti – challenger
  12. Rodney Elliott – anti – challenger
  13. Charles Caragianes – pro – challenger

But in most years, the change from the preliminary to the general is not so dramatic.

1997

Five of the six incumbents running were reelected: Rita Mercier, Bud Caulfield, Richard Howe, Grady Mulligan and Peter Richards. Incumbent Larry Martin lost. Incumbents Steve Gendron and Matt Donahue did not seek reelection. Newcomers Rodney Elliott, Dan Leahy and Armand Mercier were elected.

The nine top finishers in the preliminary were the nine councilors elected in the general. Here’s what happened to those on the prelim bubble:

  • Armand Mercier finished seventh in the preliminary and eighth in the general;
  • Daniel Leahy finished eighth in the prelim and ninth in the general;
  • Rodney Elliott finished ninth in the prelim and seventh in the general
  • Larry Martin finished tenth in the prelim and tenth in the general

1999

Five of seven incumbents running were reelected: Rita Mercier, Eileen Donoghue, Bud Caulfield, Richard Howe and Rodney Elliott. Incumbent Peter Richards did not run. Incumbents Grady Mulligan and Larry Martin (who had joined the previous council mid-term when Dan Leahy resigned) lost. Challengers Bill Martin, Dan Tenczar and Rithy Uong were elected.

Eight of the nine top finishes in the prelim were elected in the general. Here’s what happened to those on the prelim bubble:

  • Dan Tenczar finished seventh in the prelim and third in the general;
  • Grady Mulligan finished eighth in the prelim and tenth in the general;
  • Rodney Elliott finished ninth in the prelim and ninth in the general;
  • Rithy Uong finished tenth in the prelim and sixth in the general;
  • Joe Downes finished eleventh in the prelim and eleventh in the general;
  • Larry Martin finished twelfth in the prelim and twelfth in the general.

In 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011, there was no preliminary election for city council.

2013

Five of eight incumbents running were reelected: Rita Mercier, Rodney Elliott, Edward Kennedy, Bill Martin and John Leahy. Incumbents Marty Lorrey, Vesna Nuon and Joe Mendonca all lost. Incumbent Patrick Murphy did not run. Challengers Jim Milinazzo, Dan Rourke, Bill Samaras and Corey Belanger were elected.

Eight of the nine top finishers in the prelim were elected in the general. Here’s what happened to those on the prelim bubble:

  • John Leahy finished eighth in the preliminary and ninth in the general;
  • Marty Lorrey finished ninth in the preliminary and tenth in the general;
  • Joe Mendonca finished tenth in the preliminary and eleventh in the general;
  • Vesna Nuon finished eleventh in the preliminary and fifteenth in the general;
  • Corey Belanger finished twelfth in the preliminary and seventh in the general.

2015

Eight incumbents ran and all eight were reelected: Rita Mercier, Rodney Elliott, Ed Kennedy, John Leahy, Bill Samaras, Jim Milinazzo, Dan Rourke and Corey Belanger. Incumbent Bill Martin did not run. Challenger Jim Leary was elected.

Eight of the nine top finishers in the preliminary were elected in the general. Here’s what happened to those on the bubble:

  • Jim Leary finished seventh in the preliminary and ninth in the general;
  • Bill Samaras finished eighth in the preliminary and fifth in the general;
  • Vesna Nuon finished ninth in the preliminary and tenth in the general;
  • Corey Belanger finished tenth in the preliminary and eighth in the general.

To review, since 1995, there have been five preliminary elections. In three of those five, only one candidate who finished out of the top nine in the preliminary won a seat on the council; in one election no one who finished out of the top nine won; and in one election, three who finished out of the top nine in the preliminary ended up winning council seats in the general.

The “Belvidere Vote”

It’s been amusing to read the comments of those who suddenly discovered that the voters who live in Belvidere have an outsized influence in the outcome of city elections. That’s been obvious for at least twenty years, but since that neighborhood tends to vote for conservative candidates and causes, most of those complaining now were never bothered before.

Back in 2013, I did an analysis of the city’s precincts that included the geographic boundary of each precinct and also some demographic data. I’ve reproduced the demographics below. If you want to learn about the boundaries, check out the original post (although some of the polling places listed may be different now).

The key to understanding city politics is this: Precincts are drawn to contain the same number of people, whether those people are eligible to vote or not. In 2013, that number was somewhere between 3000 and 3400. Not all of those 3000+ people are even eligible to vote. Some are too young, others are not US citizens. So in a neighborhood that is younger and more diverse, fewer people are eligible to register to vote than in an older, mainstream neighborhood.

So in Ward 1, Precinct 2 in Belvidere, you have 79% of the people living in the precinct registered to vote. That’s 2435 registered voters. Compare that to Ward 10, Precinct 3 in Back Central where you have just 38 percent of those living in the precinct registered to vote. That’s 1160 voters. If both of those precincts have 50 percent turnout, the Belvidere precinct would have 1218 votes; the Back Central precinct would have just 580. But they don’t both turnout at the same rate. The registered voters of Belvidere turnout and much higher rates than elsewhere in the city. That higher turnout is magnified by a much higher percentage of precinct residents who are registered to vote.

Here are the numbers for every precinct in the city as of 2013. I doubt they’ve changed much.

Ward 1 (Belvidere)

Ward 1, Precinct 1 – Population – 3117; Registered – 1540; %-Reg – 49%; Age – 46.
Ward 1, Precinct 2 – Population – 3091; Registered – 2435; %-Reg – 79%; Age – 52.
Ward 1, Precinct 3 – Population – 3096; Registered – 2285; %-Reg – 74%; Age – 50

Ward 2 (Downtown/Acre)

Ward 2, Precinct 1 – Population – 3373; Registered – 1221; %-Reg – 36%; Age 33
Ward 2, Precinct 2 – Population – 3342; Registered – 1760; %-Reg – 53%; Age 49
Ward 2, Precinct 3 – Population – 3081; Registered – 1944; %-Reg – 63%; Age 47

Ward 3 (Middlesex Village/Highlands)

Ward 3, Precinct 1 – Population – 3171; Registered – 1518; %-Reg – 48%; Age 45
Ward 3, Precinct 2 – Population – 3187; Registered – 1390; %-Reg – 44%; Age 42
Ward 3, Precinct 3 – Population – 3125; Registered – 1422; %-Reg – 46%; Age 45

Ward 4 (Highlands)

Ward 4, Precinct 1 – Population – 3369; Registered – 1730; %-Reg – 51%; Age 44
Ward 4, Precinct 2 – Population – 3081; Registered – 1279; %-Reg – 42%; Age 42
Ward 4, Precinct 3 – Population – 3082; Registered – 1629; %-Reg – 53%; Age 46
Ward 5 (Centralville/Pawtucketville)

Ward 5, Precinct 1 – Population – 3361; Registered – 1618; %-Reg – 48%; Age 45
Ward 5, Precinct 2 – Population – 3310; Registered – 1433; %-Reg – 43%; Age 44
Ward 5, Precinct 3 – Population – 3374; Registered – 1833; %-Reg – 54%; Age 47

Ward 6 (Pawtucketville)

Ward 6, Precinct 1 – Population – 3380; Registered – 1960; %-Reg – 58%; Age 49
Ward 6, Precinct 2 – Population – 3301; Registered – 2073; %-Reg – 63%; Age 48
Ward 6, Precinct 3 – Population – 3324; Registered – 1924; %-Reg – 58%; Age 49

Ward 7 (Acre)

Ward 7, Precinct 1 – Population – 3341; Registered – 1416; %-Reg – 42%; Age 46
Ward 7, Precinct 2 – Population – 3300; Registered – 1516; %-Reg – 46%; Age 41
Ward 7, Precinct 3 – Population – 3158; Registered – 1243; %-Reg – 39%; Age 42

Ward 8 (Highlands)

Ward 8, Precinct 1 – Population – 3354; Registered – 1504; %-Reg – 45%; Age 45
Ward 8, Precinct 2 – Population – 3305; Registered – 1815; %-Reg – 55%; Age 46
Ward 8, Precinct 3 – Population – 3124; Registered – 2162; %-Reg – 69%; Age 50

Ward 9 (Centralville)

Ward 9, Precinct 1 – Population – 3326; Registered – 1684; %-Reg – 51%; Age 45
Ward 9, Precinct 2 – Population – 3317; Registered – 1941; %-Reg – 59%; Age 47
Ward 9, Precinct 3 – Population – 3334; Registered – 1726; %-Reg – 52%; Age 45

Ward 10 (Ayer’s City/Back Central)

Ward 10, Precinct 1 – Population – 3109; Registered – 1590; %-Reg – 51%; Age 46
Ward 10, Precinct 2 – Population – 3087; Registered – 1170; %-Reg – 38%; Age 45
Ward 10, Precinct 3 – Population – 3074; Registered – 1160; %-Reg – 38%; Age 44

Ward 11 (Belvidere/South Lowell)

Ward 11, Precinct 1 – Population – 3120; Registered – 1551; %-Reg – 50%; Age 44
Ward 11, Precinct 2 – Population – 3267; Registered – 1780; %-Reg – 54%; Age 47
Ward 11, Precinct 3 – Population – 3138; Registered – 1703; %-Reg – 54%; Age 47

Oh, and for those who are saying that all of the votes in Belvidere were already cast in the primary, remember that Ward 1, Precinct 2  had 2435 registered voters and Ward 1, Precinct 3 had 2285.

Upcoming Candidate Forums

The Citywide Neighborhood Council has organized four candidate nights with the first one this Monday:

#1 City Council Candidate Night
When: Monday, October 2nd 6:30-8:30pm
Where: An Wang School Auditorium -365 West Meadow Rd
Hosted by Pawtucketville Citizens Council

#2 School Committee Candidate Night
When: Wednesday October 11th 6:30-8:30pm
Where: Sullivan School – 150 Draper St
Hosted by Belvidere Neighborhood Association

#3 City Council Candidate Night
When: Monday October 16th 6:30-8:30pm
Where: Dom Polski-10 Coburn St (enter parking on Lakeview Ave)
Hosted by Centralville Neighborhood Action Group

#4 City Council Candidate Meet & Greet Social (final night of the series)
When: Thursday October 26th starts at 6:30
Where: 101West Forest St
Hosted by the Highlands Neighborhood Association

As much as everyone has been sucked into this debate on the location of a new high school, there are many other issues that the next city council will address that will have a far greater impact on the future of the city than will that single issue. Don’t ignore all those other things in choosing the next council, but make that choice in an informed way, so try to make it to one or more of these forums.

2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: October 1, 2017

  1. Peter Richards says:

    Dick, as someone who was intimately involved in the ’95 election, this one brought those thoughts back. In 1995, the paper weighed in heavily in favor of proponents of the arena and ballpark and the city manager even editorialized about it. It will be very interesting to see if the reversal of 1995 repeats itself.

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