Lowell Political Year in Review: 2013

With no city council meeting last or this week due to Christmas and New Year’s, there’s not much new to report on politics in the city. That’s good because with this being the final Sunday of 2013, it’s time to review the year in local politics. Here are some observations to consider:

City Council Election: City government is involved in our daily lives in so many ways that anytime four new councilors are elected, it’s big news. The newly elected councilors are Dan Rourke, Jim Milinazzo, Bill Samaras and Corey Belanger. Those who are leaving the council are Mayor Patrick Murphy who did not seek reelection and Marty Lorrey, Vesna Nuon and Joe Mendonca who all failed to win reelection. Returning to the council will be Rita Mercier, Rodney Elliott, Ed Kennedy, Bill Martin and John Leahy.

Violence and Public Safety: Although the police and the city administration assured residents that statistically there was less crime this year than last, many residents felt differently. In some cases this was based on personal knowledge but in others it was a perception that was fueled by a variety of sources with a variety of motives. While the most noteworthy incidents of violence involved shootings in the lower Highlands and Centralville, downtown also became the focus of the public safety debate, first in a search for ways to hold downtown bars accountable for the behavior of unruly patrons and then because of something commonly referred to as “aggressive panhandling.” A vote to enact an ordinance banning panhandling in the downtown will be one of the first orders of business for the new council and strategies for dealing with violence and crime will also be high on the new council’s agenda.

UMass Lowell’s continued expansion: There are almost too many good things to say about the continued growth of UMass Lowell. There are new buildings such as the Health and Social Science Building and the new parking garage both on South Campus and the rushing-to-completion University Crossing on the site of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital. Then there is the increasing recognition of the university for its academic programs and the great value received for the amount of tuition paid. The University continues to raise its profile in other ways, moving its sports teams to Division One, hosting a debate between Ed Markey and Steve Lynch in the Special Senate Primary Election, and presenting a great public interview of outgoing Boston Mayor Tom Menino by former Lowell Sun and Boston Globe reporter Brian Mooney in a Lunchtime Lecture at the Inn and Conference Center. However, lurking just beneath the surface is friction between the University and some elements in the city. Some councilors have latched onto a theme that the University taking ownership of so many properties is a bad thing since it deprives the city of potential property tax revenue. Chancellor Meehan launched a preemptive attack on that notion at the Lowell Plan Breakfast with a detailed presentation and pamphlet documenting all of the economic benefits afforded Lowell by the University but the talk persists and will persist into the New Year.

Change in Lowell Public Schools: Steve Gendron, who served on the city council in the 1990s and on the planning board for the past few years, decided to run for school committee and won a seat. With all six incumbents running for reelection, the odd man out was Bob Gignac who finished seventh. Gignac, who is only in his mid 20’s, certainly has a future ahead of him in Lowell politics and public service despite this slight setback. In other school news, Brian Martin, former city councilor, mayor, city manager, pro hockey team GM and Congressional district director, was hired as the new Lowell High School headmaster and wasted no time in putting his imprint on LHS. In perhaps the biggest news, the school committee embarked on a comprehensive study of all of its facilities including Lowell High School.

Senator Markey: When former Lowell resident John Kerry was confirmed as Secretary of State, it triggered a special election to replace him. Longtime Democratic Congressman Ed Markey defeated Republican nominee Gabriel Gomez in the June 25 special election. Markey beat Gomez in Lowell, 58% to 42%.

Sustainable Lowell 2025: The City Council unanimously adopted Sustainable Lowell 2025, a comprehensive master plan that “establishes long-term policies and a shared vision for smart, responsible development within the city.” A lot of effort went into the creation of this plan, both by the city’s planning department but also by many community volunteers who attended numerous working sessions. Sustainable Lowell 2025 is an amazing document that creates a road map for the city as it moves into the future. Unfortunately, since the council voted to adopt the plan, I can’t recall it being mentioned during council meetings that have occurred since. Perhaps that’s because it’s silent on the issue of double telephone poles and similar issues that occupy so much of the council’s time during meetings.

Personnel Turnover: Chief Financial Officer Tom Moses recently left Lowell when he was hired to be town manager in Hudson. He has not yet been replaced. Ken Lavallee retired as superintendent of police in March. He was immediately replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Superintendent Deborah Freidl and in November, the city manager choose veteran captain Bill Taylor to be the new superintendent. Although not based at City Hall, the company that had run the Lowell Memorial Auditorium for decades, Mill City Management, did not seek renewal of its contract and was replaced by a company called Global Spectrum which may have lacked the local political connections of Mill City but which already manages the Tsongas Center for UMass Lowell. Other personnel changes with Lowell connections included Ed Davis resigning as police commissioner of Boston; Dennis Piendak retiring after 28 years as town manager of Dracut; Tom Menino not seeking reelection as mayor of Boston and state representative Marty Walsh winning the election to replace him; and Dan Rivera beating Willie Lantigua to become the new mayor of Lawrence.

Greater Lowell Vocational in the news: The Greater Lowell Vocational School Committee had much difficulty agreeing on a new superintendent for the school (although they did ultimately select one who has already started work) but the school faces a more significant challenge from a dispute with the city of Lowell over the Constitutionality of the current method of selecting vocational school committee members.

No Slots: Our Tewksbury neighbors rejected a proposed slot parlor when 61% of the 2500 residents who participated in an August town meeting voted against the proposal. The Tewksbury outcome seemed to empower other communities around the state to stand up to the pro-slots momentum.

Counter Revolution in Lowell: I’m convinced that much of the political conflict in Lowell flows from deeply held philosophical differences between those who embrace change and those who embrace the past – progressives and conservatives to use the common labels. In that the city is just a microcosm of the entire country. It’s been this way for a long time and will continue to be so well into the future with momentum constantly shifting from one side to the other. The pendulum swung dramatically in the progressive direction in November 2012 when Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown to win the election for US Senate. In Lowell, Warren beat Brown by 17% despite much of the city’s power structure, Democrat, Republican and unenrolled, being firmly behind Brown. Warren’s victory in the city was the result of a lot of hard work by people young and old, many of whom were either immigrants or just new to the city. Few of those who were most active in that campaign had ever participated in city politics. In the aftermath of Warren’s trouncing of Brown in Lowell there was much speculation that the city had pivoted politically in a new, much more progressive direction. That caused a reaction, a counter revolution if you will, by conservative elements in the city led by the Lowell Sun and radio station WCAP. Mayor Patrick Murphy, one of the few elected officials in Lowell who had vigorously campaigned for Elizabeth Warren but also the foremost proponent of progressive policies for city government, became the prime target of the conservative struggle to regain dominance in city politics. The attacks reached their peak on April 2, 2013 with Rita Mercier’s motion of “no confidence” in Mayor Murphy and then tapered off with the knowledge that Murphy would not seek reelection to the city council. But there were many others skirmishes in this struggle: backyard chickens, bike lanes, disdain for “professional” management, Jack Mitchell and the “Taliban”, Gerry Nutter and the Election Commission, the list goes on and on. There are many explanations for why the city council election ended as it did, but part of the outcome, at least, was attributable to the conservative elements in the city fighting hard to strengthen their long time grip on city government, a grip they feared was slipping away after the Warren victory in Lowell in 2012. That 2012 election, just like the 2013 city council election, was just another chapter in a long and ongoing struggle over the city’s direction. The length of time someone has lived here has nothing to do with this conflict other than the fact that many of the people who have been drawn to Lowell by its embrace of the arts, its higher education opportunities, and the high value placed on its immigrant culture and heritage are progressive in their politics and their outlook on life. This is all about change. It’s a struggle between those who embrace change and see it as a positive thing and those who resist change and look to the past for comfort and guidance. That’s what it’s about in Lowell and that’s what it’s about across the United States.

8 Responses to Lowell Political Year in Review: 2013

  1. Joe S. says:

    Let’s hope that “counter- revolution” is tempered with some common sense so that it doesn’t set back the progress that the city has made in recent years. Anyone who thinks protecting their territory from change is a good long term strategy will be left behind as the world advances.

  2. Joe says:

    Let’s hope that “counter- revolution” is tempered with some common sense so that it doesn’t set back the progress that the city has made in recent years

    Some would argue that the progressives are the group that would benefit most from some common sense. I like and respect Mr Howe and Kendal Wallace. They are two of the biggest promoters of our city and they do a great job of selling Lowell. But the hardcore reality is we do not live in whoville. We live in Lowell. The voters of our neighborhoods chose to vote public safety over chickens and bike lanes. Was this the people choosing conservatives over progressives or was it just common sense?

  3. DickH says:

    Chickens and bike lanes both took on an outsized importance when they became codewords for the conservatives. They represented a “different” way of life and were used as rallying cries to mobilize opposition to policies that would bring change to the city. In the universe of issues affecting Lowell, bike lanes were far down the list and chickens barely warranted a footnote aside from their symbolism.

    Public safety was certainly an important issue. I’ve said several times that there was a public safety subcommittee meeting just weeks before the election at which the police and the administration sought to put the level of violence in some kind of historical and societal context. To those living in the neighborhoods most affected by the current violence, I think that came across as somewhat uncaring. I think that influenced a chunk of voters.

    Even with the slight uptick in participation (9900 in 2011 to 11500 in 2013), I still believe the electorate for city elections is disproportionately older and conservative and is therefore significantly influenced by the Lowell Sun and WCAP. The passage of time won’t be kind to traditional newspapers and AM radio stations so the influence of both of those entities will dissipate and the makeup of the core city electorate will evolve in a more progressive direction over time.

  4. Joe says:

    I agree with most of what you write but I disagree with the sun/ wcap angle. On the surface it seems logical that the next generation of lowellians with get their information from other sources besides the sun and wcap. But the problem with this type of political forecasting is that is entirely based on the age of the voter and not on the type of voter. Lowell has always been and may always be a blue collar town. The progressive candidates simply do not connect with the blue collar voters the way they need too. Cool and hip ideas will win you some headlines but a true connection with the voters will win you an election.

  5. PaulM says:

    There are plenty of blue-collar progressives. But everything isn’t overtly political. Take a look at who is digging in the dirt in the community gardens in the Acre and Back Central. The Mill City Grows gardeners look like Lowell to me. It took some ambitious younger people who chose to live and work here to imagine what was possible. They connected with people all over the city. They envisioned a project that could improve the quality of life here. They are productive. How will this type of activity translate politically? It’s early to know that answer.

  6. joe from Lowell says:

    That’s an awfully white definition of blue collar you’ve got there. It didn’t look to me like the city’s blue collar Asian and Latino residents are falling all over themselves to find the next Bud Caufield.

    The progressive candidates connected with blue collar voters just fine in 2009 and 2011, so that’s clearly not the answer.

    Progressives like Niki Tsongas, Eileen Donoghue, Franky Descoteux, and Mayor Murphy consistently do well in Lowell elections when they run. The voters couldn’t put Jim Millinazzo back on the council fast enough.

    But in 2013, the SAC Club faction of Lowell politics had more candidates who were well-known, so they won. Most people vote for the good fella they know who took care of that thing with their aunt’s check at City Hall.

    Interpreting the 2013 elections as a broad ideological mandate is probably a mistake.

  7. Joe says:

    Interpreting the 2013 elections as a broad ideological mandate is probably a mistake.

    After reading my post again I think that you are…….correct. But is it possible that you just made the same mistake? The majority of voters in the last election voted against the city managers faction. Saying that the good old boys at the SAC club got some names elected is equally as unfair as me saying that the young progressive candidates do not connect the way they need too with blue collar voters. Just know that we disagree but I respect your opinion joe. I surrender my broad brush.