After a campaign of many months, Lowell voters spoke on Tuesday. Their message was loud and clear: The nonbinding referendum in favor of keeping the high school downtown prevailed by a margin of 61% to 39% which, by any measure, is a landslide; the council’s existing 5 to 4 pro-Cawley majority was replaced by a 7 to 2 downtown super majority; and the school committee’s 4 to 2 pro-downtown lineup will now be 5 to 1.
But when you drill down into the numbers, there is evidence that not every voter made this entire election a referendum on the high school. There should be no doubt from the message from the referendum – the majority of voters favor a downtown high school. However, the council and school committee lineups could have had a much different balance, probably one that favored downtown, but by a much narrower margin than was the case. Ironically, the pro-Cawley forces fell victim to the same vote-dilution dynamic that forms the basis of the Federal Voting Rights Law suit now pending against the city: That our winners-take-all electoral system allows the side with a bare majority to control all, or nearly all, of the seats on the city council.
Let’s look at the numbers. Because there is so much ground to cover, I’ll only touch lightly on the school committee race here and withhold school committee details until next Sunday.
In this election, 13,916 people voted. In 2015, 10,714 voted. In an average gubernatorial race, 22,000 people vote in Lowell; in a presidential race, 32,000 vote. So even though turnout this year rose by 3,000 votes over the last election, it’s still a weak representation of the city’s entire population, especially in light of the intensity of this year’s campaign.
Here are the results from the city council race presented with order of finish; candidate name; incumbent (I) or not; votes received; Downtown (DT) or Cawley (CAW); and place finished in preliminary election:
- Vesna Nuon – 6518 – DT – 4th in prelim
- Edward Kennedy (I) – 6483 – DT – 1st in prelim
- John Leahy (I) – 6114 – DT – 2nd in prelim
- Bill Samaras (I) – 6094 – DT – 3rd in prelim
- Rita Mercier (I) – 5730 – CAW – 5th in prelim
- Jim Millinazzo (I) – 5688 – DT – 6th in prelim
- Rodney Elliott (I) – 5447 – CAW – 8th in prelim
- Dave Conway – 4974 – DT – 7th in prelim
- Karen Cirillo – 4973 – DT – 12th in prelim
- Sokhary Chau – 4756 – CAW – 15th in prelim
- Dan Rourke (I) – 4729 – CAW – 9th in prelim
- Cory Belanger (I) – 4722 – CAW – 11th in prelim
- Jim Leary (I) – 4666 – CAW – 10th in prelim
- Joe Boyle – 4170 – DT – 17th in prelim
- Martin Hogan – 4082 – DT – 16th in prelim
- Matt LeLacheur – 4055 – CAW – 13th in prelim
- Dan Finn – 3920 – CAW – 14th in prelim
- Robert Gignac – 3524 – CAW – 18th in prelim
Here are the School Committee numbers, showing order of finish, candidate name, incumbency, votes received, and whether the candidate supported downtown or Cawley. There was no preliminary election for the school committee.
- Jackie Doherty (I) – 6360 – DT
- Robert Hoey (I) – 6030 – DT
- Connie Martin (I) – 6024 – DT
- Dominik Lay – 5637 – DT
- Andy Descoteaux (I) – 5107 – CAW
- Gerry Nutter – 4799 – DT
- Dennis Mercier – 4709 – CAW
- Noelle Creegan – 4670 – CAW
- Timothy Blake – 4501 – CAW
- Dan Shanahan – 4374 – CAW
Referendum Question on LHS in downtown
Yes – 7254
No – 4629
Breaking Down the Vote
When I broke down the citywide vote and results to the precinct level, the message of the electorate became more muddled. True, the vast majority of precincts voted YES on the pro-downtown high school question, really by an overwhelming margin. But if you look at the top nine council finishers in each precinct, you find that 17 precincts supported a majority of pro-Cawley councilors in the top nine while 16 precincts supported a majority of pro-downtown councilors. Before exploring that contradictory result, let’s look at some number.
I’ve crammed a lot of information into the following table, so first, here is an explanation of the data fields in each line of the table:
- Ward and precinct number
- Polling location
- Relative size of precinct in terms of total votes cast in this election (e.g., Ward 1, Precinct 1 was 22nd in terms of votes cast whereas Ward 1, Precinct 2 was 1st, casting more votes than any other precinct in the city)
- Voter turnout for that precinct
- How many Downtown candidates in top nine versus how many Cawley candidates
- How many incumbents in the top nine in that precinct
- Percentage voting for YES and NO on the referendum
1-1 Immac Conc Church (22) 15% to, 7 DT v 2 CAW, 6i, 64%/36%
1-2 Reilly School (1) 58% to, 9 DT v 0 CAW, 4i, 74%/26%
1-3 Reilly School (2) 53% to, 9 DT v 0 CAW, 4i, 77%/23%
2-1 LHS (33) 7% to, 6 DT v 3 CAW, 6i, 68%/32%
2-2 LHS (29) 11% to, 6 DT v 3 CAW, 6i, 65%/35%
2-3 LHS (12) 16%, to, 9 DT v 0 CAW, 4i, 73%/27%
3-1 Bailey School (16) 19% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 7i, 53%/47%
3-2 Bailey School (24) 14% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 7i, 67%/33%
3-3 Morey School (20) 18% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 6i, 64%/36%
4-1 Morey School (10) 23% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 6i, 60%/40%
4-2 Morey School (30) 11% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 7i, 61%/39%
4-3 Rogers School (25) 12% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 6i, 69%/31%
5-1 McAvinnue School (15) 19% to, 1 DT v 8 CAW, 6i, 49%/51%
5-2 St Louis School (28) 12% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 7i, 53%/47%
5-3 St Louis School (13) 19% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 9i, 53%/47%
6-1 McAvinnue School (5) 25% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 8i, 51%/49%
6-2 Pawtucket Memorial (4) 26% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 8i, 57%/43%
6-3 Pawtucket Memorial (9) 23% to, 1 DT v 8 CAW, 6i, 46%/54%
7-1 Senior Center (26) 14% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 7i, 59%/41%
7-2 Senior Center (21) 14% to, 7 DT v 2 CAW, 5i, 81%/19%
7-3 Senior Center (27) 15% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 7i, 68%/32%
8-1 Daley School (18) 18% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 7i, 51%/49%
8-2 Daley School (8) 24% to, 2 DT v 7 CAW, 6i, 53%/47%
8-3 Daley School (3) 40% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 8i, 49%/51%
9-1 St Louis School (23) 14% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 8i, 58%/42%
9-2 Robinson School (6) 25% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 6i, 54%/46%
9-3 Robinson School (14) 18% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 7i, 49%/51%
10-1 Rogers School (19) 17% to, 5 DT v 4 CAW, 7i, 53%/47%
10-2 Rogers School (31) 11% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 9i, 57%/43%
10-3 Rogers School (32) 9% to, 7 DT v 2 CAW, 5i, 72%/28%
11-1 Butler School (17) 17% to, 4 DT v 5 CAW, 8i, 57%/43%
11-2 JG Pyne School (11) 23% to, 3 DT v 6 CAW, 7i, 57%/43%
11-3 JG Pyne School (7) 27% to, 8 DT v 1 CAW, 5i, 68%/32%
Some observations from all of these numbers:
Pro-Downtown voters showed more ballot discipline when it came to voting for their slate than did their pro-Cawley counterparts. Look at precincts 1-2 and 1-3, the two largest in the city. Both were overwhelmingly pro-downtown (or perhaps just anti-Cawley). Whatever their motivation, they exercised great ballot discipline, placing all nine candidates who favored downtown in the top nine, only four of whom were incumbents.
Contrast those two with two of the top pro-Cawley precincts, 8-3 in the Highlands and 6-3 in Pawtucketville, the third and ninth largest precincts in the city. In both precincts, the NO side prevailed on the referendum. In 6-3, voters did put 8 pro-Cawley councilors in their top nine, with Mayor Ed Kennedy the only pro-downtown candidate to crack the top nine. But in 8-3, the voters only put 6 pro-Cawley candidates in the top nine (the 5 pro-Cawley incumbents plus Dan Finn) while also supporting pro-downtown candidates Vesna Nuon, John Leahy and Bill Samaras.
While the precincts most adamantly in favor of downtown were almost militant in voting for the full slate of downtown supporters for both the council and school committee, it seems that the precincts that most favored Cawley placed more emphasis on voting for incumbents than they did on voting for a slate formed purely on the basis of the high school location question.
Many precincts that placed a majority of pro-Cawley councilors in their top nine had a clear tendency to also vote for some or all of the pro-downtown incumbents rather than for challengers who supported Cawley.
As hard as it might be to believe in this divisive, binary, “you’re either with us or against us” election, perhaps many voters in these precincts didn’t cast their votes solely on the high school issue. In a normal election, people tend to vote for most or all of the incumbents. That’s what many of these people did.
This view is corroborated by the overwhelming number of precincts in which the YES vote prevailed. It seems that many voters like the present council, but still don’t want the high school to move to Cawley Stadium. That’s the only explanation I have for why a majority of the precincts (17) supported Cawley majorities in their top nine finishers while voting in favor of downtown on the referendum by pretty unassailable margins.
True, the referendum did not provide a choice of locations, but the wording of the referendum and the question it asked were quite clear, as was the result. It’s a real stretch to say that the referendum did not express the will of the people who voted in the election.
As for the makeup of the next council, the willingness of voters in precincts to put at least some pro-downtown candidates in their top nine, when combined with the militancy of a couple of large precincts to support no one who favored Cawley, is the difference between a new council that favors downtown by a 7 to 2 margin, rather than one that favors downtown by just a 5 to 4 margin. And that’s a huge difference.
The “Cambodian vote”
Lowell has the second largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the United States. Some say that it’s nearly 30,000 people although official census figures show somewhat fewer. Back in 2013, I reviewed the entire Lowell voting list, then 54,955 names long, and identified all with Cambodian surnames. I found 7,038, or 13 percent of the electorate. I suspect those numbers and that percentage have gone up since then.
As last Tuesday’s ballots were counted, it became clear that the three Cambodian-Americans on the ballot, Vesna Nuon and Sokhary Chau running for council, and Dominik Lay running for school committee, were doing very well, better than any of the pundits had expected.
From the first precinct reported, Vesna Nuon was in first place. He stayed there all night and led second place finisher Ed Kennedy by a healthy margin. This was especially true given that Vesna had been defeated as an incumbent four years ago, and failed to win back a council seat just two years ago.
[Note: previous paragraph edited since initial post to correct typo in Vesna Nuon’s vote total].
The second indicator that something was going on came with School Committee candidate Dominik Lay who made his initial run for elective office two years ago, finishing twelfth in a field of twelve in that year’s school committee race. Back this year in a field of ten, no one I knew expected Lay to crack the top six and win a school committee seat. But like Vesna, Dominik Lay showed strength throughout the night, grabbing fourth place early on and never relinquishing it.
Now a possible explanation of the strength of both Nuon and Lay would be their presence on the pro-downtown slate of candidates. All on that list improved their performance from the preliminary, and the final makeup of both the council and school committee was dominated by downtown candidates.
Then came Sokhary Chau. A first-time, Cambodian-American council candidate, Chau finished fifteenth in this year’s preliminary. He was a clear supporter of Cawley Stadium as the site of a new high school. But in the November electoral tidal wave that washed nearly everyone who supported the Cawley option from office, Chau surged from fifteenth in the preliminary to tenth in the general election, losing out on a council seat by 117 votes. This put him ahead of pro-Cawley incumbents Dan Rourke, Corey Belanger and Jim Leary, who all lost their seats on the council, and far ahead of the rest of the pro-Cawley challengers who finished 16th (Matt LeLacheur), 17th (Dan Finn), and 18th (Robert Gignac).
So on a night when everyone else associated with Cawley lost ground, why did Chau jump ahead? I believe it was due to an emerging Cambodian-American block of votes that was cast without regard to a candidate’s position on the high school.
To test that theory, let’s look at the results in the precincts with the highest percentage of Cambodian-American (for which I’ll use “SEA” for Southeast Asian”) voters based on my 2013 study.
7-3 – 48% SEA voters – Nuon, Chau, Elliott (Lay #1 on SC)
4-2 – 41% SEA voters – Nuon, Chau, Elliott (Lay #1 on SC)
4-1 – 35% SEA voters – Nuon, Chau, Elliott (Lay #1 on SC)
3-2 – 32% SEA voters – Nuon, Elliott, Chau (Lay #1 on SC)
3-3 – 32% SEA voters – Nuon, Elliott, Chau (Lay #1 on SC)
Rodney Elliott’s presence in the top three places in each of the five precincts with the most Cambodian-American voters helps confirm this hypothesis. While Elliott is certainly not of Cambodian descent, he has embraced the Cambodian-American residents of Lowell, visiting the country, learning the language, and leading the city through the deadly and tragic Branch Street fire back when he was mayor. Elliott’s seventh place finish in this election came with a healthy 500 vote cushion over eighth place finisher Dave Conway, but that sequence of finish might have been a lot closer had Elliott not received such strong support from the Cambodian-American voters of Lowell.
Others who witnessed this surge in Cambodian-American voting and the strong finishes by the three candidates from that group on this year’s ballot have asked if this would undercut the premise of the Voting Rights case now pending against the city which is that the current winner-take all method of electing councilors dilutes the power of the vote of a minority group. I don’t think that’s the case. And as I mentioned earlier, the outcome of the citywide council vote in which the militantly pro-downtown voters of the two largest precincts, both in Belvidere, changed what might have been a 5 to 4 pro-downtown result to a 7 to 2 super majority, illustrates the very outcome complained of in the lawsuit. In that way, this election might even help prove the plaintiff’s case.
The Road Forward
It’s nice to say that the voters have spoken and the path forward is clear, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. It’s certainly true that if the seven individuals elected to the council as pro-downtown candidates stick together and move aggressively starting at their first meeting in January, they have the margin of votes on both the council and the school committee, backed by the moral strength of the pro-downtown referendum landslide, to push any one of the downtown options, including the one that takes the dentists’ office by eminent domain, through the city and state process at a rapid pace.
But whether that is what will happen is an open question. For instance, at least one of the seven pro-downtown councilors is interested in revisiting the South Common as a compromise site for a new school. Will the two survivors of the SS Cawley, Rodney Elliott and Rita Mercier, seek to regain their status as guardians of the taxpayer? As I’ve written often in the run up to this election, I have serious questions about whether a substantial number of this city’s taxpayers can afford the tax increases that will come with a new school, regardless of where it is to be built. With two councilors asking pointed questions about the cost of a downtown high school, the process will be made more difficult (just as it was made more difficult during this current council term with four councilors closely questioning the cost of the Cawley proposal).
City Councilor Dan Rourke, who was defeated on Tuesday, is promoting an online petition addressed to the Executive Director of the MSBA, Jack McCarthy, that advocates an entirely new high school, as opposed to a renovated one, for Lowell. When I last checked, there were nearly 500 names on the petition. So while pro-Cawley supporters lost on the referendum and with the outcome of the council and school committee races, it’s unlikely that they have been won over to downtown, or that they are going away, just as the downtown supporters continued the fight after the June 2017 vote of the council that endorsed Cawley by a 5 to 4 margin.
The saga of Lowell High School continues . . .
Lord Overpass Public Meeting
If you’re interested in discussing something other than Lowell High, please come to the Pollard Memorial Library ground floor meeting room tomorrow night, Monday, November 13, 2017, at 6 pm, for a public meeting on the Lord Overpass project, which will be hosted by the Department of Planning and Development.
Please note that this meeting is at the POLLARD LIBRARY, and not at the Lowell Senior Center, where previous Lord Overpass meetings have been held.