Lowell Week in Review: May 22, 2016

Who votes in Lowell?

After the Transgender Anti-Discrimination Resolution

Last Tuesday’s motion by Councilor Rodney Elliott that the council “vote to adopt a resolution to oppose the transgender bill adopted by the State Senate, which allows access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms” drew a large crowd and many speakers to the city council meeting. In my report on that council meeting, I captured as best as I could what was said by whom. In the end, the council instead passed a substitute motion that endorsed the state senate’s bill. The vote on the substitute motion was 8 in favor and 1 against (that being Councilor Elliott).

The matter is back on the council agenda this week when an actual printed resolution comes back before the council. The resolution says, simply, “The City Council of the City of Lowell wishes to be recorded in support of Senate Bill No. 735, An Act relative to transgender anti-discrimination.” I assume the action to be taken this Tuesday is just a ratification of the vote already taken last week rather than a substantive debate on the topic.

Tuesday’s large crowd, most of whom supported the senate bill, brought to mind the hundreds of Cambodian-American residents of Lowell who filled the council chambers last month to protest the intended meeting between city officials and Hun Manet, a general in the Cambodian Army and the son of that country’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen. The passionate expressions of displeasure by the community that evening persuaded the council to unanimously revoke whatever invitation had been extended to Hun Manet.

I’ve heard both of these advocacy efforts described as democracy in action and I guess that’s true, but I’m left wondering how many of those in attendance in support of the transgender antidiscrimination bill or how many of those who showed up at the April protest against Hun Manet, actually vote in city elections. I suspect not many do which is unfortunate, because in not voting regularly, they cede their control of the city’s decision making process to others. Sure, people can mobilize and show up on a particular issue, but how many issues big and small don’t come to the attention of people who aren’t otherwise engaged in the actions of city government?

Other cities – Boston and Lawrence immediately come to mind – which have adopted a mix of at-large and district councilors have had more diverse candidates win local elections, but I’m not completely convinced the method of electing councilors is the cause of election outcomes that don’t demographically reflect the make-up of the city. I think what causes that outcome is that a lot of people don’t vote in local elections and that those who do vote in local elections tend to be more conservative in their political philosophy (as well as in their outlook of life, in general).

Consider some Lowell numbers: The 33 voting precincts in the city are each drawn to contain approximately 3200 people. That’s everyone, including children, non-naturalized immigrants, and others who might not be eligible to vote. So if your precinct has a lot of kids or immigrants, you are already behind in the political power game because they aren’t even eligible to vote. But if your precinct has few children or newcomers, then a larger percentage of your neighbors would be eligible to vote.

Let’s see how this works in four precincts using numbers from a couple of years ago. The two precincts that have the biggest outcome in local elections (and by extension, in local policy decisions) are Ward One, Precinct Two and Ward One, Precinct Three, both in Belvidere. For 1-2, think Long Meadow Country Club to the Sullivan School then everything from the Reilly School back to the Merrimack River. For 1-3, think Nesmith Street to the boundary of 1-2 described above.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at two precincts in the Highlands, Ward Four, Precinct One, which is in a box formed by Pine-Liberty-School-Powell-Parker-Stevens Streets (think Cupples Square to Callery Park). The other would be Ward Eight, Precinct Two, which is formed by Parker St, the Lowell Connector outbound, the Chelmsford town line, and Stevens Street (think Lowell Catholic High School to Cross Point).

Ward 1, Precinct 2 contained 3091 residents of whom 2435 (79%) were registered to vote. Of that 2435, 49 (2%) had Southeast Asian surnames. The median age of the voters in 1-2 was 52.

Ward 1, Precinct 3 contained 3096 residents of whom 2285 (74%) were registered to vote. Of that 2285, 41 (2%) had Southeast Asian surnames. The median age of voters in 1-3 was 50.

Ward 4, Precinct 1 contained 3369 residents of whom 1730 (51%) were registered to vote. Of that 1730, 602 (35%) had Southeast Asian surnames. The median age of voters in 4-1 was 44.

Ward 8, Precinct 2 contained 3305 residents of whom 1815 (55%) were registered to vote. Of that 1815, 462 (25%) had Southeast Asian surnames. The median age of voters in 8-2 was 46.

(Citywide there were 106519 residents of whom 54955 (52%) were registered to vote. There were 7038 registered voters with Southeast Asian surnames (13%) and the median age of all Lowell voters was 46).

So before the first vote is cast, we know that these two precincts in Ward One have a much larger percentage of residents registered to vote and that those residents are older and less diverse than is the case in the rest of the city and especially in the two Highlands precincts chosen for comparison purposes.

The next question is how likely is it that registered voters in these four precincts will actually vote in a city election? Let’s look at voter turnout by precinct in last fall’s city election:

Ward 1, Precinct 2 – 1010 of 2424 voted – 42% turnout

Ward 1, Precinct 3 ­– 803 of 2285 voted – 35% turnout

Ward 4, Precinct 1 – 384 of 1938 voted – 20% turnout

Ward 8, Precinct 2 – 403 of 1956 voted – 21% turnout

Citywide – 10714 of 59265 voted – 18% turnout

Who did the people in these precincts vote for in this election? Let’s look at the vote totals of Vesna Nuon in these precincts. I choose him because he had already been elected to the city council, had lost his re-election effort in the prior election, and was mounting a comeback attempt in 2015. As someone who already had been elected once to the council, he was the most electable of the minority candidates who appeared on the ballot in this election. Remember that in Lowell elections, every voter votes for up to 9 candidates.

Ward 1, Precinct 2 – 265 of 1010 (26%) cast one of their 9 votes for Vesna

Ward 1, Precinct 3 – 208 of 803 (26%) cast one of their 9 votes for Vesna

Ward 4, Precinct 1 – 193 of 384 (50%) cast one of their 9 votes for Vesna

Ward 8, Precinct 2 – 172 of 403 (43%) cast one of their 9 votes for Vesna

Citywide, 3550 of 10714 (33%) cast one of their 9 votes for Vesna, who finished 461 votes out of ninth place and the final seat on the council.

As for my comment that the voters in Ward 1 tended to be more conservative in their politics than the typical voter in the rest of the city, let’s look at the results of the 2014 gubernatorial race won by the Republican candidate Charlie Baker over the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley.

Ward 1, Precinct 2 – Baker got 862 votes (57%) to Coakley’s 601 (40%)

Ward 1, Precinct 3 – Baker got 720 votes (53%) to Coakley’s 601 (44%)

Ward 4, Precinct 1 – Coakely got 361 votes (56%) to Baker’s 237 (37%)

Ward 8, Precinct 2 – Coakley got 352 votes (50%) to Baker’s 327 (46%)

Citywide – Coakley got 10364 (51%) to Baker’s 8915 (44%)

I don’t have other recent statewide elections broken down by precinct yet, but I’m working on it. I’ll report back in the coming weeks with further evidence that I suspect I will corroborate my theory that voters in Belvidere are not only more likely to vote, they are also more likely to vote for the more conservative candidate. This voting tendency doesn’t disappear in city elections. It persists not only in the candidates who receive the votes, but in the message that it sends to all candidates in local elections: if you want to win, you must adopt and support policies favored by more conservative voters in the city even if those views do not represent those held by the majority of the city’s residents. This dynamic has a profound impact on decisions big and small by city government.

Hamilton Canal District News

Some Hamilton Canal developments: The Commonwealth has allocated $31.5mil in this year’s capital budget for the Lowell Judicial Center which should allow ground to be broken this fall the seven-story, $200mil structure that is expected to take 30 months to build once construction starts.

Also, this Tuesday the city council will vote on City Manager Murphy’s recommendation that WinnDevelopment Company Limited Partnership be designated the master developer of the Hamilton Canal District. The selection requires a two-thirds vote of the council, but there is no indication of any opposition on the council. The actual “master development” agreement that the council will be voting on is not contained in the online version of the council agenda (of if it is, I can’t find it), so it’s not clear what the terms, conditions, and timelines for Winn will be.

Rourke Bridge Replacement

In the “motion response” portion of this week’s city council agenda are copies of a letter sent you State Senator Donoghue and Representatives Golden, Nangle, and Mom to Stephanie Pollack, Secretary of Massachusetts Department of Transportation (it’s actually two letters but they both have the same language so let’s treat them as one). The letter refers back to the November 2013 feasibility study for a Rourke Bridge replacement done by the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments and funded with a Federal grant. That study identified three alternatives acceptable to city government leadership. They are:

–construct a four lane bridge in the same spot as the existing bridge;

–construct a four lane bridge just to the west of the existing bridge;

–construct a four lane bridge further to the west so that it aligns at grade level with Pawtucket Boulevard and Old Ferry Road.

The letter, written in response to a recent city council vote asking for advocacy help for a new bridge, urges Secretary Pollack to “initiate the design and environmental permitting process for the construction of a permanent river crossing” in accordance with one of the alternatives mentioned above.

Upcoming City Council Motions

Here are the motions on this coming Tuesday’s City Council agenda:

By Councilor Elliott, request City Manager work with Superintendent of Lowell Public Schools to determine cost of out of district students;

By Councilor Samaras, request City Manager establish a commission in order to best plan the future use of the Auditorium to ensure that it becomes a successful venture;

By Councilor Samaras, request City Manager work with Lowell Police Superintendent to establish a dialogue with the supervisors of the Nesmith Street group home regarding security and supervision of youth under their trust;

By Councilor Leary, request City Manager provide a report to the City Council outlining the financial and infrastructure impact that the Ameresco has had for the city. The report should include savings or increased costs achieved to date by project, savings or additional costs expected in the future and any recommendations for the future as it relates to this program;

By Councilors Belanger, Leary, and Samaras, request City Manager reopen dialogue between the city and local business Unwrapped regarding the potential purchase or lease of city building at 268 Mt. Vernon Street.

By Councilor Rourke, request city manager explore establishing a 5 year property study and to create a formal living document of abandoned properties and their five year progress into healthy homes. The study would chart the progress from troubled to good properties.

Lowell Library Visioning Session on Monday

The Pollard Memorial Library will hold a community “visioning session” this coming Monday at 7pm at the Senior Center at 276 Broadway. According to a Facebook event, “The Community Visioning Session is an opportunity for participants to contribute to an ideal vision for Lowell in the years to come and to help the library set priorities to help make a difference with Lowell’s vision.”

The event is open to everyone but if you plan to attend, the organizers have asked that you rsvp to Sean Thibodeau, Coordinator of Community Planning at sthibodeau@LowellLibrary.org.