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.