Thoughts on 2011 election results

To say this election yielded interesting results in an understatement. For the council, at least, it wasn’t a wholesale dismissal of incumbents as was the case in 1993. The same cannot be said for the school committee. In fact, I would call this an anti-school committee election. Two challengers, Kim Scott and Kristin Ross-Sitcawich, finished first and second and the third challenger, Robert Gignac finished fifth. Two incumbents, Dave Conway and Jim Leary, did reasonably well in third and fourth place, while the third surviving incumbent, Connie Martin, held onto the sixth and final spot. Two other incumbents, Jackie Doherty and Alison Laraba, finished seventh and eighth and lost their seats on the committee. Had there been more challengers, there may have been even more new faces on the school board.

My “anti-school committee vote” carries over to the city council results. While school committee members who have tried to make the jump to the city council have met with mixed results through the years, when incumbent school committee member John Leahy announced this year that he would run for the council, most observers rated him as a strong contender for a council seat, especially when two incumbent councilors, Bud Caulfield and Franky Descoteaux, chose not to seek reelection. Members of the extended Leahy family have fared very well in Lowell politics, with his father (Dan) and cousins Mike Lenzi and Dave Nangle all winning a variety of tough races. But neither his family name nor his own demonstrated vote-getting ability helped John Leahy today, for he finished in eleventh place.

Further evidence of this anti-school committee theme can be found in the shocking defeat of Jim Milinazzo who as mayor this council term also serves as chair of the school committee. While it hasn’t happened in a couple of decades, councilors losing re-election in the year following a term as mayor is nothing new. For example, Bob Maguire lost in 1969 and Ellen Sampson lost in 1973. In my notes to the 1973 election, here’s what I wrote about Sampson’s defeat: Many attributed Sampson’s electoral plunge to her role as chair of the school committee since, according to the Lowell Sun, “the current school committee has been riddled with controversy almost since its inauguration two years ago.”

The upheaval on the school committee and Milinazzo’s surprising loss were not the only big stories of this election. After two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the school committee, Vesna Nuon won a seat on the city council finishing solidly in seventh place. It will be interesting to scrutinize precinct by precinct results for Vesna, because I suspect that much of his vote came from precincts that have high percentages of Cambodian-American voters. This would be historically significant because it would be the first time that voters of that ethnic group proved decisive in a city election (I say this notwithstanding Rithy Uong’s 1999 election to the city council which was attributable more to strong support across ethnic groups as opposed to a concentrated vote from the Cambodian community).

Rodney Elliott’s strong second place finish is another big story, especially when you consider that he finished in ninth place in the last election. This term, Rodney has become a strong voice in questioning many of the actions of the Lynch administration. While some may see Elliott’s performance as a referendum on the city manager, I don’t think that’s an accurate reading. If that was so, why would two strong Lynch supporters, Kevin Broderick and Patrick Murphy, finish right behind Elliott in the standings. Instead, I think voters have historically desired at least one member of the council who speaks out against the majority which is a role my father often filled on the council. I remember many voters approaching him to say “I don’t agree with you on many issues but I always vote for you because someone has to state the other side.”

Marty Lorrey’s strong fifth place finish is deserving of recognition. All non-incumbents faced a real challenge in trying to separate themselves from the pack of newcomers. Lorrey succeeded in doing that. So did Ed Kennedy who served several terms on the city council back in the 1970s and 1980s. While name recognition always helps, I don’t think that’s why Ed Kennedy won. I think he ran an especially good campaign. His line at one of the candidate forums that “if the council is going to let the city manager drive the car, they should at least be sitting in the front seat and reading the map” was perhaps the most memorable candidate comment of the election. And Kennedy had plenty of signs – the old fashioned wooden backed kind. Finally, as I drove down to the Blue Shamrock tonight at about 7:30, I spotted campaign workers with Kennedy signs at the Pine Street Fire Station and at the Lord Overpass – indicators of a campaign that truly did the work and that wasn’t just going through the motions.

There’s much else to discuss – Armand Mercier’s strong but ultimately unsuccessful bid to return to the council and John MacDonald’s high powered, innovative campaign that yielded only a thirteenth place finish – but that’s enough for now.

23 Responses to Thoughts on 2011 election results

  1. deb says:

    I thnik the voters who watch and are invested in the community have spoken, I also think most people are working so hard, long hours and far away it is hard to get to the polls. I almost did not make it due to a work issue that I could not leave undone. I waited two years to vote. I had a 2 hour window and I almost lost the opportunity.I think a Saturday or a two day window is needed. If I did not have candidates that i felt so strongly about I would have probbaly stayed at work.

  2. Joe S says:

    The biggest issue in this election looking ahead is probably the low voter turnout.

    The immediate effect may be some surprising finishes as the loss of ballots from the not-too-involved citizens colored the results. If another 3000 of those voters went to the polls yesterday, Jim Millinazzo would likely have picked up a large percentage of those to regain his seat, based on name recognition by those without a specific agenda item that would be important to them.

    Some of the decline may be due to the loss of some of the older, reliable voters. However, the larger issue is the question why the younger generations are not filling that gap (except as you point out the uptick in Asian voters). In this local election, which could have the most influence on their futures, why is there such a dismal turnout? Is it the drop-off in home ownership? Is it because people are so overwhelmed by the everyday trees that have become their obstacles, they have lost their way in the forest of our community?

    Whatever the reason, it is not a good sign for the future. It is something that we should all try to turn around starting on 11/9/2011, and not wait until the next election season.

  3. Lynne says:

    I agree on the fiasco that is our Tuesday work-day voting electoral system. I remarked on it several times yesterday. It needs to be a national holiday! Forget Saturdays, it should be a day as sacred as our biggest holidays and with all the retail (with only skeleton crews working essential jobs like maybe gas stations and). It’s ridiculous that we don’t take voting seriously in this country and use a schedule that has to do with a totally agrarian society that hasn’t existed for a 100 years.

    deb – my husband, thank GOODness, voted in the AM first thing, because he got home past 8pm due to a work issue., The polls should open at 6 am, too. IMHO.

    And, why doesn’t the city post huge banners around the place that say “Vote on Tuesday Nov __”? Just REMIND people. There are a lot of disengaged people in the city especially in local elections, and a percentage of them are just not even aware there IS an election. Maybe we could bump up those #s a few percentage points. If you don’t listen to WCAP or read the Sun or the blogs, how would you even KNOW??

  4. Lynne says:

    That should read: “with all the retail shut down” – sorry, I often don’t finish a thought midway through and forget to go back to it. ;)

  5. Bob Forrant says:

    Back in the day people voted whether they owned a home or not. Mill workers did indeed vote in high numbers. My guess is many residents of Lowell do not fully grasp the impact the Council and School Committee have on their daily lives and esp. the city’s quality of life. If you have children in the schools you are probably going to be thinking about the composition of the School Committee, but this was a campaign where many of the issues related to MCAS, quality education, lack of a union contract for teachers were missing from much of the discourse I witnessed.

    As for the Council, issues came a bit clearer and the large number of votes for Rodney Elliot are indicative of upset in the city over a variety of issues, though the problems inside City Hall were never fully clarified during the election (at least in my opinion).

    Now, the challenge becomes what to do in a city that relies heavily on outside funding for its schools and many essential public safety services. If voters want cuts – those in the ‘cutting camp’ need to move beyond campaign rhetoric and be specific as to what should be cut back. Should trash pick-up go to every other week? Should the parks and pools be closed for lack of a maintenance budget? Should we take a pound of flesh from public safety and lay off more police and close more fire stations? Should we curtail the city’s marketing and branding campaigns? Should we gouge the schools still further, attack teachers’ wages and benefits?

    The economy locally and nationally is not going to improve any time soon. The new Council and School Committee have a delicate balancing act to perform in the context of declining outside revenue streams, likely drops in sales tax and excise tax revenues, and most likely mean-spirited cuts in social spending at the federal level.

    Young people do not vote because the case has not been made well to them that who their leaders are actually does matter. When they listen (if they do at all) to politicians they see their mouths move but the usual pap that comes out is uninspiring and empty of any meaning at all to them as potential voters.

    Last, the state legislature and council had an opportunity to make a statement to young people in the city that indeed their political participation did matter. Yet, when the seventeen vote issue reached a culmination point before the election, they essentially all took a pass and let it die on Beacon Hill, where far too many good ideas expire.


  6. Renee Aste says:

    Last year, Sam Meas really made an effort in the Cambodian community to register. I would like to think those individuals that help Sam last year in the Republican primary, was that extra push for Vesna to get him elected. I hope we have a new set of regular the voters. Vensa is spot on for what we need in Lowell.

    Also we learned robocalls are ineffective. You can’t learn anything from a candidate from one. I can’t figure why they work in any type of race.

  7. Shawn says:


    Wouldn’t it be cool to run the election over 2 days, and providing the preliminary results at the end of the first day… that would change the whole game.

    Would people wait for the second day to see what happened the first? Would they get out early on the first to try to influence the second?

  8. DickH says:

    On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, 31,905 voters went to the polls in Lowell. That was 61% of the registered vote. So excuse me if I disagree with all the talk of changing election day to a Saturday. That’s just a search for an easy answer to a very complex question: why do people who regularly vote in presidential elections not show up in municipal elections? They are registered. They know where the polling place is. They found time in their busy schedules in 2008; why not in 2011?

    Rather than spend more time trying to change the system with new election days or new rules for electing candidates, why don’t we try to get the 21,959 who voted in one Tuesday election but not in another to be more consistent in their electoral participation.

  9. Renee Aste says:

    Dick, As a child, even though my parents voted locally, we really only brought up the discussion of ‘an election’ during Presidential races. I still remember having the ‘mock vote’ in second and sixth grade. We think of terms of voting, for the average voter as someone who votes every four or two years, not every year. Plus it is non-partisan, so we’re forced to actually have to think. Each candidate is a real person, and not just on your favorite team. Voting for state or federal offices is merely a yay or nay of approval, voting locally means really taking time to form a government.

  10. Pierre says:

    I really find it fascinating that a low voter turnout would so drastically change this election.
    This is curious because from what I’ve read, the conventional wisdom points to the fact that incumbents always do better when there is low voter turnout.
    If in fact there is some truth to this, are we witnessing a shift in the thinking of your Every Election Voter?
    Seems as though they want to be taken seriously-

    That being said, I think we did lose a good man in Mayor Milinazzo.
    I Thank him and his wife for their grace and tremendous service.

    Proud citizen of Lowell

  11. Shawn says:

    ” If you don’t listen to WCAP or read the Sun or the blogs, how would you even KNOW??” — Lynne

    Now, in Dracut we do put signs up all over town for about a week prior to an election. Not sure how effective it is, numbers seem the same.

    However, if people aren’t reading the paper, or listening to the local talk, and don’t know enough when the election is, then I really don’t care if the do vote.

    Let the informed, who care about the community make the decisions. If the masses don’t care enough to learn the issues to the point where they can just be swayed by the latest celebrity candidate or neato marketing campaign….. forget them. Its they’re own fault.

  12. Righty Bulger says:

    Couldn’t agree more with what you just said about all the excuse making for those who don’t vote. If you made election day a holiday, you’d get less of a turnout as these folks couldn’t be bothered to take time away from their day off. Assuming of course, they work in the first place.

  13. James says:

    I agree with Dick, there is nothing inherently wrong with a Tuesday election day, although I would support a holiday (implausible for odd year elections that are only held in certain communities). Although the turnout is definitely a problem, I dont think holding city council elections on the same day as presidential or gubernatorial elections solves the problem at all. Sure you would have higher turnout but people almost certainly would care less about the city council if it was way down ballot. Given the fact that obviously less than a third of the populace who voted in the presidential year cared enough to vote in a city council year, why would they suddenly take the time to learn anything about the candidates. Party identification has a huge impact on down-ballot races on the state-wide elections. How would people vote ina nonpartisan race if they really only intend to vote for President?

    I don’t think changing the rules is the solution. A lot of people thought a minority candidate would struggle to get elected if we didn’t adopt choice-voting, and yet Vesna Nuon was able to pull through in pretty solid fashion even in the vote for 9 at large race.

    There has to be more engagement for sure. But that has to be focused. The issue isn’t why don’t they vote…its why don’t they care enough to vote. There’s no shortcuts to making people care about the democratic process.

  14. Publius says:

    I agree with you. It is not that difficult to plan ahead. If you have a work schedule that is always up in the air, just vote absentee,

  15. Joe S says:

    The problem goes deeper than the apathy on election day – it is the disassociation with community year long, and it exists even with some regular voters. If more people were aware of how local government indirectly affects their lives, they may pay more attention to what is going on around them. And that attention would lead to having a better handle on the issues of the day, and how various candidates would address those issues. That would be enough to get them to the polls, no matter what day of the week the election were held.

  16. Fred Faust says:

    Dick, interesting to see your comments and I think, much on the mark. I also believe we saw that credible candidates that pounded the pavement and reached out to the voters did well. Both the City Council and School Committee will likely have more independent and diverse voices in this upcoming term. The key to being successful will be finding ways to work together rather than splinter based on personal priorities. Obviously, that will make the selection of the brave soul aspiring to be Mayor even more important.

    Please publish the precinct break outs when they’re available to you.

  17. Fred Faust says:

    A couple of other thoughts to contribute on turn out. With people so disillusioned and suspect over their government’s ability to perform and struggling to deal with today’s economic hard times; the low turn out for a local race isn’t surprising. In fact, the reason many people seemed to come out in Lowell was to change the status quo. This was unlike Obama’s ‘hope and change’ message which motivated a younger generation typically not involved in politics. Unfortunately, the President’s lack of skills at building consensus and coalition is tragic. And the negative nabobs on the Republican side are complicit as well. I go back and forth between lamenting the lack and participation and being grateful that those who do are better informed. I also agree with Dick that Vesna will be proved to have benefited from the low turnout, because every motivated Southeast Asian voter increased his chances of winning by making their votes count. However, in the SE Asian community it is wrong to assume future voting blocks will now go with the territory. The leadership skills, respect and capacity that a Vesna Nuon and Rithy Uong brought to their campaigns were and will continue to be prerequisites for community participation and success.

  18. PaulM says:

    I wonder if Lowell isn’t in some kind of transition period as a community with lots of newer residents who chose to live here for personal and practical reasons but who may not feel fully invested in community life yet. And the key is “yet.” And there’s an older generation of lifelong Lowellians with deep roots and strong loyalty that is moving on in years. Those of us of a certain age see it day to day within our families and among colleagues of long-standing. That extra 21,000 people who voted in the last state and federal election is a big number. People all have their own reasons for opting out of local voting. On LiL, someone suggested that we need exit polling to better understand what it going on out there. Maybe that’s a logical next step for the new UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion, taking a closer look at attitudes on local elections. Post-election focus groups could help also. This is a serious issue that is worth trying to understand better. We can all sit around Brew’d Awakening, Fuse, the Owl Diner,or Blue Shamrock and offer thoughts about why we think this or that heppened. We need a little scientific inquiry and data gathering at this time to help us out. Does choosing not to vote signal contentment, a stressful life pattern with other priorities, disgust with the system, or lack of awareness?

  19. DickH says:

    There are 33 precincts in the city. Rita Mercier was the top vote-getter in 22 of them. Next was Vesna Nuon, who received more votes than any other candidate in 8 precincts. Patrick Murphy, John Leahy and Joe Mendonca won a single precinct each.

    The precincts won by Vesna were 2-3. 3-2, 3-3, 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, 7-2 and 7-3 which are in the lower Highlands and the Acre, places where many Cambodian-Americans live. While many of that ethnic group have been registered to vote, few exercised that vote in prior city elections.

    History shows that almost every other group of immigrants that arrived in Lowell ultimately elevated itself in the community by seizing some degree of power through the ballot box. While it’s true that Rithy was the first elected, I believe his support was more widespread. Vesna, on the other hand, won because he received a large amount of votes from one particular neighborhood. For example, despite getting the most votes in 8 precincts, he finished 12th in 11-3, 13th in 1-3, and 14th in 6-2.

    Years from now when people look back at the 2011 election, it might best be remembered as the year that Cambodian-Americans emerged as a force in local electoral politics in Lowell. But as Fred said, that vote, like any other, can’t be taken for granted. Each candidate must earn it.

  20. Gardner says:

    Dick – If it is true that Cambodian-Americans turned out in this election in much greater numbers than past elections, that must mean that the turn out of other voters really collapsed. Does this make sense? I will be interested in the precinct by precinct turn out comparison between 2009 and 2011.