Lowell Week in Review: September 14, 2014

18th Middlesex Representative Race

Shortly after 9 am yesterday Erik Gitschier, Lowell’s new water department head and until two weeks ago a member of the Greater Lowell  Regional School Committee appeared on my front porch to leave a flyer for Fred Bahou, the unenrolled candidate for the 18th Middlesex Representative seat left vacant when Kevin Murphy resigned to become Lowell’s City Manager.  Erik served with Fred on the Greater Lowell board so it’s not surprising that he would be supporting him.  Fred was smart to do a literature drop so soon after Tuesday’s primary to remind people that there is a contest for this seat in November.

Rady Mom at Daley School on primary day

The other person on the November ballot, Rady Mom, won a stunning victory in the Democratic primary with 647 votes.  He defeated Jim Leary (595 votes), Brian Donovan (576), Dave Ouellette (345 votes), and Paul Ratha Yem (245 write in votes).  There was a lot of talk after the election that had either Leary or Donovan not been in the race, the other would have won.  If you want to engage in that type of speculation, you’ve got to be consistent so you’d have to give Yem’s votes to Mom and probably Ouellette’s, too, since most of them came from downtown and the Acre, areas in which Mom outperformed both Leary and Donovan by a wide margin.  The day after the election, I did a blog post in which I went precinct by precinct to show where Mom had gained his margin of victory.

If you look at the precinct by precinct totals, it’s pretty clear that Mom won because he had the broadest base of support of all the candidates.  There are twelve precincts in this district.  Mom came in first in 6 of them; Ouellette was first in 3; Leary was first in 2; and Donovan was first in 1.  Consider that in Ward 2, Precinct 2, Mom got 46 votes to Leary’s 18 and in Ward 7, Precinct 2, Mom got 44 votes to Leary’s 13.  Comparing Mom to Donovan, in Ward 3, Precinct 1, Mom got 42 votes to Donovan’s 13 while in Ward 7, Precinct 3, Mom got 62 to Donovan’s 5.  The bulk of the support for both Leary and Donovan came from a single precinct, Ward 8, Precinct 3.  In that precinct (which is one of two at the Daley School), Leary got 219, Donovan got 208 and Mom got 88.

Ward 8, Precinct 3 is of particular interest to me for reasons besides that fact that I live within it.  After the 2013 city council election, I compared the precinct by precinct turnout of that year’s election (in which 11,500 people voted) with the turnout in the 2011 city election (in which just 10,000 people voted).  Despite an overall increase in voter participation from 2011 to 2013, there was only one precinct in the city that saw a drop in turnout and that was Ward 8, Precinct 3.

I’m not sure what caused that but I suspect that the same demographic change that has already occurred in other parts of the city is coming to the upper Highlands.  It’s pretty apparent when you look at the real estate transactions in the neighborhood.  Most of the sales are by people who have owned their homes for two or more decades and the new homeowners, while perhaps not new to the city, aren’t yet as invested in local politics as those they’re replacing.  When they do become more active, it’s unlikely that their voting patterns will duplicate those they’ve replaced.

Another observation involves Vesna Nuon and his performance in last year’s city council race.  Vesna lost his re-election bid, finishing in a disappointing 15th place.  But his loss was caused almost exclusively by Belvidere voters who abandoned Vesna in droves.  Despite the 16% increase in voter turnout, Vesna received far fewer votes in Wards 1 and 11 in 2013 than he received in 2011.  In other sections of the city, particularly those in the Highlands and the Acre, his vote went up substantially.  In fact, despite finishing 15th overall, Vesna won 8 precincts in 2013, more than anyone but Rita Mercier who won 21 (of 33 in the entire city).  Six of the precincts won by Vesna are in the 18th Middlesex District.  Here are the twelve precincts that make up the 18th District and the city council candidate who carried the precinct in the 2013 city election:

2-1 – Rita Mercier
2-2 – Vesna Nuon
3-1 – Erik Gitschier
3-2 – Vesna Nuon
3-3 – Vesna Nuon
4-1 – Vesna Nuon
7-1 – Rita Mercier
7-2 – Vesna Nuon
7-3 – Vesna Nuon
8-1 – Rita Mercier
8-2 – Rita Mercier
8-3 – Rodney Elliott & Erik Gitschier tied

This will be an interesting campaign.  Fred Bahou has done well in Vocational School Committee elections and his variety store, the Windsor Shoppe, is a popular stopping place for many active voters in the upper Highlands.  I suspect that many of the Donovan/Leary votes will move his way.  But many in the city, not just those of Southeast Asian lineage, will see in  Rady Mom a historic opportunity to elect the Commonwealth’s first Southeast Asian state representative (maybe even the nation’s first Southeast Asian representative) so I expect Rady to get a push from that.  I also expect the statewide coordinated Democratic campaign will embrace his candidacy as well.  For Martha Coakley to win the governorship, she must run up big margins against Charlie Baker in the gateway cities of the Commonwealth like Lowell.  There’s in excess of 11,000 people with Southeast Asian surnames registered to vote in Lowell.  A joint effort by Mom and the Democratic coordinated campaign to get a large number of them to vote for the Democratic ticket on November 3 could be mutually beneficial.

Maura Healey

One of the most startling outcomes Tuesday night was Maura Healey’s landslide victory over Warren Tolman for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General.  Of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns, Healey won all but three despite Tolman’s higher name recognition, higher bank account, and higher number of endorsements including Governor Patrick and Boston Mayor Walsh.  With Tolman having served in the legislature and state senate, having run for Lieutenant Governor and then Governor, many all but handed this race to him.  But they still have to count the votes.

Maura Healey speaking with Phil Shea in Lowell last February

I first met Maura Healey back during the dark days of the foreclosure crisis.  My register of deeds colleagues and I had a close-up view of the effects of this crisis so we reached out to the Attorney General’s office to find ways to assist local communities in dealing with the abandoned homes that often resulted from foreclosures.  Healey, who was one of Martha Coakley’s top deputies at the time, led the response from the AG’s office.  I always found her to be an extremely competent, no nonsense individual who was truly committed to using the full power of the AG’s office to get these big national banks to pay attention to the disposition of these foreclosed properties.  Through it all, I saw that Maura Healey’s efforts made a bad situation in Lowell a lot better than it could have been.  For that reason, when she jumped into the race to succeed Martha Coakley I was an immediate supporter.  Only after that did I learn of her fascinating biography (Hampton Beach waitress, Harvard, professional basketball player) all of which I wrote about in a blog post back in February.

Besides running a superb campaign, I think a factor in Healey’s victory was her clear message that the Attorney General was the people’s lawyer and that she saw her responsibility should we win that office to be the best lawyer possible.  Tolman, on the other hand, centered his campaign on policy proposals that may have been more appropriate coming from a candidate for governor or the legislature.  Some of these elected offices are about running a competent bureaucracy.  With so few examples of that, perhaps voters welcomed a candidate who embraced that role.

 Violence in Lowell

With last Tuesday being election day, I skipped that evening’s city council meeting and haven’t had a chance to watch the video replay.  It seems that the council spent a good part of the meeting discussing the city’s gun violence with good reason because there’s been so much of it lately.

I didn’t see that discussion but I’ve noticed a tendency of some councilors (and some of the state representative candidates) to blame the problem partly at least on judges not enforcing the state’s mandatory minimum jail sentence for those who illegally carry guns.   Can anyone cite a single case in Lowell where someone who was caught and convicted of illegally carrying a gun was not sent to jail for at least the minimum mandatory year sentence?  I doubt it.  This is one of those urban myths that those who avoid complex thought latch onto.  And it’s counterproductive because it diverts attention from the real problem which is where are these illegal guns coming from?

In a front page article by Grant Welker in Wednesday’s Lowell Sun, Police Superintendent Bill Taylor stepped forward and became the adult in the room by placing blame squarely where it belongs.  Here’s what Taylor said according to the article:

The broad plan for tackling gun violence reflects the varied nature of the incidents.  Many are gang-related, Police Superintendent William Taylor said Wednesday, but others appear to stem from drugs, domestic issues or mental illness. That has prompted police to focus more on how guns are being brought into the city and how law enforcement can stop them from being used. “It doesn’t fit into one particular category,” Taylor said of recent violent incidents, adding that too many illegal guns are ending up on the streets.  . . Gun use has been on the rise since last year. Year-to-date incidents of shots fired have totaled 54, compared to 30 last year through the same time period, according to police. The number of guns seized has also risen, from 25 to 38.  Of those seized guns whose origin has been determined, a majority have come from New Hampshire, where gun control laws are looser.

This is a national problem that yields casualties here in the streets of Lowell.  I don’t blame Congresswoman Niki Tsongas who, along with our US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, favor stricter Federal controls on gun sales.  The gun lobby intimidates most elected officials into silence.  Until those of us who want a rational gun policy on the national level start being more vocal in making our wishes known, nothing is going to change.

As for the bad guys in Lowell, guess what?  They’re not afraid of going to jail.  It’s not a deterrent to them.  It’s a badge of honor.  So when we all stamp our feet and throw a tantrum about locking them up, don’t forget that at some point they’ll wrap up their sentences and be back on our streets, rested and ready to continue their criminal activity.  It’s only with intense, coordinated supervision by parole and probation officers and decent jobs and housing for former inmates can we hope to break this cycle with the current offenders.

Sun For Sale?

Since mid-summer it seems everyone I’ve spoken with has heard some version of the rumor that a local group is trying to buy the Lowell Sun.  These are all short on specifics and could be wishful thinking among those who would prefer a new direction for the local newspaper but there were some developments just this week that give some credence to these rumors.

Some background: Back in 1997, the Costello family, descendants of the 19th Century founders of the Sun sold the newspaper to MediaNews Group whose CEO, Dean Singleton, was in the midst of a buying spree of newspapers that made his company one of the leading publishers of daily newspapers in America.  All of those purchases used borrowed money, however, so when the bottom dropped out of the newspaper business, the same thing happened to the budget sheet of MediaNews.  In 2010, MediaNews filed bankruptcy and was allowed to write off $750 million in debt.  Of the debt that remained, Alden Global Capital, a private equity firm based in New York City, owned most of it.  Alden Global put a company called Digital First Media in charge of MediaNews’ papers.  Digital First had bold ideas for merging old newspapers and new media but that didn’t work out.  Earlier this year, the company pulled the plug on one of its big (and expensive) innovations, a centralized news gathering operation called Project Thunderdome.

As the New York Times and other media outlets (outside of Lowell) reported just this week, news broke that Digital First had hired UBS Securities to “evaluate and consider strategic alternatives, including selling all of Digital First Media, just some of its newspapers or doing nothing.”  Hopefully, the “selling just some of its newspapers” option will materialize, at least here in the Merrimack Valley.  If the potential buyers of the Sun need a bit more cash to put them over the top, they might consider selling lottery tickets with the top prize being the right to announce personnel changes by the new management.  I suspect there would be plenty of tickets sold.

What’s Up with Prince Spaghetti?

If you’re a regular reader, you might recall this portion of my week in review post for June 29, 2014:

In other real estate news, Friday [June 27, 2014] was the foreclosure auction of the old Prince Spaghetti plant in South Lowell. The property owner was Prince Avenue Associates LLC and the foreclosing lender was the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank which held a mortgage of $8 million on the property. It’s been reported that the high bid at the auction, $3.55 million, was made by Sam Poulten on behalf of Jerrold Kaplan.

While Poulten was the high bidder, shortly after I wrote the above I was informed that Sam was not acting on behalf of Mr. Kaplan but for someone else.  Well here it is eleven weeks later and no foreclosure deed has been recorded.  There’s no time limit on doing it, but if there are no complications it usually gets recorded 30 days after the auction.  So what’s up with this deal?  Is it stalled for some reason?  Has it fallen apart?  Since this is such an important property in the city’s economic development orbit, perhaps someone on the council will file a motion asking for a report on the matter.

5 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: September 14, 2014

  1. Joe says:

    Tuesdays council meeting involved a discussion about bringing the shot spotter system to Lowell. From what I heard it doesn’t sound like it is going to pass because of the cost. To me this is the perfect example of tough talk vs making real tough decisions. We are the forth largest city in Mass. The three biggest cities already have this system in place. This isn’t some crazy idea. It’s a proven tool that helps police respond quicker and leads to more arrests. This is a public safety emergency. We are heading towards the point of no return. With the amount of bullets flying around Lowell it’s only a matter of time until something so terrible happens that it sets back all the progress the city has made in the last 20 years.

  2. Joe says:

    It’s time we start judging each of these councilors based on what they do and not what they say. The grandstanding in the face of such harsh reality has to end. I think I am going to puke if I have to hear another 30 minute discussion about a crosswalk on Clark road. How long until this violence finds its way to Cawley stadium on a Friday night? Now I like councilor Rourke and I like what he is trying to do,but just trying is no longer good enough. A great politician will find a way to make this happen. No more points for effort.

    And what is the point of free cash? Free cash should have a warning sign that says only break in case of emergency. The fact that a majority of this council do not think this is an emergency is frightening.

  3. Gail says:

    I find it worrisome when politician feel they have a better understanding of a problem or solution than professionals in the field, this includes the police, social workers, and the legal system. Did anyone else think of certain city councilors and the reporting on the 30th anniversary of crime bill with Republican Senators complaining that no one told them that mid-night basket ball would lowered crime rates and saved money on incarceration, and the discussions of mandatory sentencing not working? It created a large privatized prison industry and helped to satisfy the punitive nature of many people and falsely assuage the fear of others. I suspect that many guns used in crimes come from states with looser gun laws are or have been stolen from their legitimate owners. I have lived in a other parts of the country and there is such a huge cultural gap regarding guns. Even if the NRA and its funds were to disappear tomorrow, I would not foresee stricter federal gun legislation enacted anytime soon. If I had a magic wand, I would want to see more respect for human life. Clearly those who resort to solving problems with guns have little respect; but, I do not feel that having a city councilor declare that social services are killing downtown Lowell is conveying respect for the people and the place. Why should they expect anyone to be respectful of what they themselves are disrespecting?

  4. Fred Faust says:

    I’d like to weigh in on the Lowell Sun’s desire to have the Lowell Historic Board be hit by lightning. I am only exaggerating slightly. Here is the response to Jim Campanini’s editorial comments criticizing the Lowell Historic Board which deserves to be pilloried for explaining to Sal Lupoli that perhaps Lowell’s most visible mill should undergo an architectural design process in keeping with our nationally significant status. This revealed itself in a childish rant and demonstrated a failure to understand Lowell’s basic commitment to historic preservation as economic development. Here were my comments.

    This is a fairly vindictive and unbalanced opinion for a newspaper that in a May, 2013 special edition called the result of historic preservation “Miracle in Mill City.” It continued on to describe “the magnificent rehabilitation and rebirth” of Lowell and its mills. Lowell made a compact back in 1978 with the federal and state governments to provide standards to preserve nationally significant assets. The National Park delivered $40 million in development and preservation funds with its founding. A billion dollars followed over the years with new investment in older buildings. Wouldn’t a hundred other cities make this trade off? Wishing lightning strikes on city agencies is hardly responsible and does not encourage a dialogue regarding more flexible standards. If economic development is responding to the loudest and most uncooperative critics, I choose the quality of standards epitomized by the Lowell National Historical Park. I choose to preserve our heritage and culture. Please wake up and appreciate the assets and teamwork that mark Lowell as one of the best middle sized cities in America. Jim, the baby does not need to be thrown out with the bath water.

    Fred Faust
    Former Aide, Paul E. Tsongas
    Former Director, Lowell Historic Preservation Commission
    Present Business Owner, Lowell MA