Lowell Week in Review: November 10, 2013

City Council Election

Tuesday’s city council election is the top story of the week with four new councilors selected to take office in January. The newcomers (and their order of finish) are Dan Rourke (4), Jim Milinazzo (5), Bill Samaras (6), and Corey Belanger (7). They join re-elected incumbents Rita Mercier (1), Rodney Elliott (2), Ed Kennedy (3), Bill Martin (8), and John Leahy (9). With Mayor Patrick Murphy not seeking re-election there was already one vacancy but the three other seats that changed hands are those now held by Marty Lorrey (10), Joe Mendonca (11), and Vesna Nuon (15). Other challengers who were unsuccessful were Derek Mitchell (12), Erik Gitschier (13), Stacie Hargis (14), Van Pech (16), Fred Doyle (17), and Genevieve Doyle (18).

By most standards, 2013 would have to be labeled an historic election because the last time four or more new councilors were elected was exactly two decades ago. In 1993, six new councilors were elected. They were Laurie Machado (now Laurie Elliott, the spouse of Rodney Elliott), Steve Gendron (just elected to the school committee), Matt Donahue, Michael Geary (current city clerk), Grady Mulligan and Larry Martin. Only three incumbents were re-elected that year: Richard Howe (my father) Tarsy Poulios and Bud Caulfield. Incumbent Ray Rourke (no relation to new councilor Dan) did not seek re-election while incumbents Gerry Durkin, Bernie Lemoine, Kathy Kelley, Curtis LeMay and Dick O’Malley were all defeated.

So what exactly happened on Tuesday? Leading up to the election, some tried to make the central issue a contract extension for City Manager Lynch. I certainly thought it was. However, the candidates, particularly incumbents, most supportive of that did poorly with Lorrey, Mendonca and Nuon losing and Martin dropping from third place in the primary to a precarious eighth place in the general election. Those who most often opposed the City Manager on the floor of the council (Elliott and Kennedy) did best and those challengers who were either perceived to be opposed to the manager or at least opposed a contract for him (Belanger and Rourke) were elected. Whether he intended to or not, incumbent John Leahy was made part of this group, at least by the voters, since in the precincts in which the other four did well, he did well and where they did poorly, he did poorly. (By the way, Rita Mercier is excluded from this discussion since she wins everyone’s vote).

The success of challengers Jim Milinazzo and Bill Samaras runs contrary to this anti-city manager trend. Neither Milinazzo nor Samaras hid or downplayed their support for Lynch or for a contract for him yet they both did very well in the election.

The central issue in this election was not the city manager’s performance; it was public safety. In retrospect, the turning point was the public safety subcommittee meeting on October 8, 2013 when the message to the citizenry from the police and by extension the administration was that statistically there was more violence last year than there is this year. While that fact is probably correct and while the police and by extension the administration sincerely believe that any violence is too much violence, the “statistically things aren’t that bad” assertion has a certain “who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” quality to it, especially to those living in the neighborhoods that are home to the many acts of violence that have occurred this year.

This dynamic caused many who do not oppose Lynch outright and may even support him, to look to candidates most willing to challenge Lynch. Those candidates tended to do well not necessarily in the precincts most affected by violence, but in the precincts immediately adjacent to them. Add to that the influence of the Lowell Sun which excelled this fall at following the traditional newspaper rule of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Many days the only story about Lowell amidst the many from Groton, Acton and the rest of suburbia featured gunfire or other acts of violence. The typical Lowell newspaper subscriber lives far from the scene of these violent acts, but with the Sun bringing it so vividly into those households day after day, public safety became an outsized issue for many who were otherwise unaffected by the violence.

Public safety may have been the most important issue but it wasn’t the only issue. Endorsements seemed to help. Ed Davis endorsed Bill Samaras and Samaras finished sixth (and this may have also helped Samaras on the public safety issue); Tom Golden endorsed Dan Rourke and he finished fourth; and Bud Caulfield endorsed Corey Belanger and he finished seventh. On LTC on election night, Belanger identified endorsements by Caulfield, the Lowell Sun and by WCAP as factors in his strong showing.

On the same LTC program incumbent Marty Lorrey said one thing that contributed to his defeat was his vote last October against a proposed housing development on Westview Road after which the unsuccessful developer, David Daley, vowed to bring about some changes to the city council in this election. I’ll give Daley credit; he succeeded. Because it was a zoning change, it required six votes: Elliott, Kennedy, Lahey, Mercier and Nuon voted for it; Lorrey, Mendonca; Martin and Murphy voted against. Murphy didn’t run again; Martin was re-elected but slipped significantly; and Lorrey and Mendonca lost as did Nuon, who supported the project. It will be interesting to scan the campaign finance reports in the coming weeks to see to whom and how much Daley and his supporters contributed. As most of you know, I live on Westview Road and joined my neighbors in speaking against a like proposal back in 2006 when it was defeated and again in opposition to Daley’s proposal in 2012 which was also defeated. Because of a technicality in the law, Daley can bring the proposal back any time he wants. I’m guessing early January, shortly after the new council is seated. I look forward to speaking against the proposal for a third time and watching the new councilors navigate their first neighbor versus developer confrontation for all the city to see.

The same councilors roughed up over the Westview Road vote also took a pounding from the Lowell Sun and it’s cousin, WCAP, over a variety of controversies that were peripheral to the city’s well being but inflammatory nonetheless. But as the saying goes, if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it is bound to stick. We had the Lowell Housing Authority; Mayor Murphy and the Greek Community; Gerry Nutter to the Election Commission; and backyard chickens to name just four. The Sun’s editorial endorsements may have been balanced; its news coverage was not and that extracted a toll on its targets at the ballot box.

Besides scrutinizing the campaign finance reports, I’ll also be analyzing the voting data which should be available in a few weeks. That will provide an abundance of demographic and geographic data about everyone who voted so there will be plenty of posts forthcoming on that topic. In the days after the election, I also wrote about the top vote getters in each precinct; changes in turnout in each precincts; and the “Cambodian vote.”

Mayor Elliott

Congratulations to Rodney Elliott who, according to the Lowell Sun, has already secured the commitment of sufficient votes to be elected the city’s next mayor on inauguration day. According to the story, Elliott has the votes of Corey Belanger, Rita Mercier, John Leahy, Dan Rourke and his own. Given that, I assume the other four councilors (Ed Kennedy, Bill Martin, Jim Milinazzo and Bill Samaras) will also vote for Elliott making his selection unanimous. Historically, bitter disputes over the mayoral race have shattered the ability of many councils to work together before they’re even sworn in. The city is better off avoiding such a mess. The council will also select its vice chair on inauguration day. Often it’s a newly elected councilor, almost always one who supports the winning mayoral candidate. That formula would make Dan Rourke and Corey Belanger candidates and maybe even John Leahy, who actually won a seat for the first time in this election, since he had finished eleventh in 2011 and had joined the current council in midterm due to the resignation of Kevin Broderick and the death of tenth place finisher Armand Mercier.

The School Committee

This was the third consecutive election in which every school committee challenger won. Thankfully for incumbents there haven’t been that many challengers.

In 2009, Alison Laraba was the only challenger. She won; incumbent Regina Faticanti lost.

In 2011 there were three challengers: Kim Scott, Kristen Ross-Sitcawich and Robert Gignac. All three won; incumbents Jackie Doherty and Alison Laraba lost and incumbent John Leahy ran for the city council.

In 2013, Steve Gendron was the only challenger. He won; incumbent Robert Gignac lost.

Thank you to Robert Gignac for his service. He’s only about 25 years old and he’s super-committed to Lowell, so I hope he stays active in civic life and considers running for elective office again in the future.

Election Night Coverage

State Senator Eileen Donoghue and former State Senator Steve Panagiotakos teamed up to make live election night TV coverage happen for the first time in many years in Lowell. Due to the skill of those at Lowell Telecommunications and advances in technology, a live election night remote broadcast was achieved this year. I was fortunate to join Eileen, Steve, and the Lowell Sun’s Chris Scott as the co-hosts of this coverage. We went on the air at 8 pm, prepared to fill 45 minutes with chatter and speculation until the results started to arrive. That 45 minutes shrunk to 10 and the results arrived fast and furiously with the unofficial outcome in hand by 9 pm. The program has received much praise but with the (valid) criticism that the numbers-containing spreadsheet that appeared on everyone’s TV screen was impossible to read. We have two years to discover a more readable way to bring viewers the numbers and I’m sure we will.

City Council Meeting

Since the city council meeting fell on election night, I wasn’t able to watch it and record what happened. I’ll try to find time to watch a replay on LTC. Check back this Tuesday night for my coverage of the first post-election meeting.

The Next Election

I’m leaving soon for Lenzi’s for the annual breakfast of the Greater Lowell Area Democrats. At least two Democratic candidates for governor – Steve Grossman and Martha Coakley – are scheduled to attend. I’m sure many other notable elected officials will be there, as well. Check back later for a blog post about the event.

2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: November 10, 2013

  1. Bob Forrant says:

    On one of my walking/exercise trips around Lowell I thought a lot about Lowell’s election result and what they could mean.

    1. One thing that is apparent is citywide elections for councilors will make it very tough for new immigrant populations in the city to crack the code and get onto the City Council in any consistent numbers. Several cities like Lowell have actually moved to a ward and citywide combination to affect greater leadership diversity.

    2. The coded language lots of candidates use to indicate that they are ‘from Lowell’ and ‘stayed in Lowell’ seems to me to be a way to close ranks against the possible election of folks are ‘outsiders’; that is, folks who were not born and raised here and have at least a couple of generations to lean on for their Lowell credibility.

    3. What this does, I think, is create a city that on its exterior claims it is proud of its immigrant heritage – but then persists in voting otherwise. Much the same is done when considering candidates who grew up elsewhere in the U.S. and for a variety of reasons chose to live and make their way in Lowell.

    4. I am trying to figure out what impact this insularity might have on the city going forward. Does anyone know what the city’s population would be without the many UMass Lowell grads and folks from around the globe who’ve settled here? Does anyone have any idea how many stores would be empty absent the immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs living in Lowell? Is their a count of how many teachers would’ve been laid off absent the influx of newcomers’ kids into the schools? Surely otherwise, enrollments would have dropped. I could go on – but I’m getting a headache trying to figure out how to answer these and other questions.

    The city council that meets on Tuesday evenings beginning in early January will look so unlike the city’s rich neighborhood diversity. In my opinion this is not a good thing. For Lowell’s long term good, the new council needs to make concerted efforts to make its deliberations and decisions in ways that reflect the city’s diversity and the viewpoints of its ever growing number of newcomers. If not, the infusion of new energy and vitality from the wide world outside of Lowell by people who chose to be here – – a big part of its modest turnaround – – might decide to go elsewhere.

  2. Greg Page says:

    @Bob great points about the coded language. It’s got no place in a world-class city. How much do you think New Yorkers cared that Mike Bloomberg, one of their most popular, longest-serving Mayors, grew up in Medford? How much do you think Cambridge residents care that their longest-serving City Manager is from Lowell?

    I won’t give the nativists credit for much, but I will note that in their peculiar logic, they’re careful to not let their provincialism cross streams with xenophobia, at least in polite company.

    Someone can “blow-in” from anywhere else in the U.S. — even just a town or two away — but generally someone coming to Lowell from an entirely separate country (preferably not a G7 country, though) won’t be pinned w/that moniker.

    We’re not the only place like this. If I moved to Nantucket tomorrow, I’d be a “wash ashore,” for the rest of my days, but someone who moves there the day after from Brazil doesn’t get called that.

    Even my fellow ‘grow-ins’ play into this. We’ll fetishize a 5th-Generation Lowellian just as quickly as we will a Burmese refugee, all the while throwing a Heisman-style stiff arm to subsequent blower-inners.

    New Lowell? Everyone I talk to seems to know what it is, but we’re all convinced that it’s in reference to someone else.