Lowell Years in Review: 2011, 2012 & 2013

Reposting past Years in Review.

2011 in Review

The local political lineup changed considerably in 2011. Steve Panagiotakos, who was elected to the Lowell School Committee in 1989, the Massachusetts House in 1992, the State Senate in 1996 and had most recently served as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chose not to run again in 2010 and so spent his final days in the State Senate in January 2011. He was replaced by Eileen Donoghue, a former six term Lowell City Councilor (1996-2008) and two term mayor (1998 and 2000), who won the 2010 State Senate race after running unsuccessfully for Congress in 2007. The Lowell City Council lost its longest serving member when Bud Caulfield, who had been elected to twelve consecutive terms beginning in 1987 (with two – 1995 & 2007 – as mayor), chose not to run for re-election. The Council also lost Jim Milinazzo, who had served four terms beginning in 2003 (mayor in 2009) but who was defeated in 2011, and first-term Councilor Franky Descoteaux, who did not seek re-election. John Leahy, who was elected to five terms on the Lowell School Committee beginning in 2001, lost in an effort to join the City Council. Jackie Doherty, who was elected to four terms on the School Committee beginning in 2003, lost re-election as did first-term committee member Alison Laraba.

Weather was a major story throughout 2011. Major snowstorms hit Lowell on January 12, January 18, January 21, January 27, and February 1. A fall snowstorm at Halloween knocked down countless trees and electrical wires, leaving many residents without power for five or more days. Many other experienced similar power outages at the end of August when high winds from Hurricane Irene caused extensive damage.

The once-per-decade Congressional redistricting substantially altered the map and the lineup in Massachusetts. The historic, Lowell-centric Fifth Congressional District is now the Third, gaining Fitchburg and a number of other communities in northern Worcester County while keeping the core Merrimack Valley portion of the district largely intact, aside from Billerica and Tewksbury which are now part of the Sixth District. Outside of our area, redistricting caused two long-time incumbents, John Olver and Barney Frank, to announce they would not seek reelection this year.

The UMass Lowell physical renaissance continued with substantial progress apparent in the construction of two new buildings, the Health and Social Science Building on South Campus and the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center on North Campus. In January, UML purchased the former St Joseph’s Hospital and the revitalized Tsongas Center and UML Inn & Conference are drawing more and more folks to downtown Lowell.

After a contentious and controversial period of negotiations with the School Committeee, Lowell Public Schools Superintendent Chris Scott decided not to seek a renewal of her contract. She was succeeded by Jean Franco.

Lowell City Clerk Rick Johnson was charged with taking money and resigned from office. Former City Councilor Mike Geary was elected to succeed him.

Mike McLaughlin, whose strong ties with Greater Lowell include past employment with the Lowell Housing Authority, the Dracut School Department and who was formerly a candidate for Lowell City Council and Lowell City Manager, was the subject of a Boston Globe expose on the astounding salary and benefits he received as Director of the Chelsea Housing Authority. The negative publicity surrounding McLaughlin may have tainted the future political prospects of Lt Governor Tim Murray, who had close contacts with McLaughlin and perhaps even Scott Harshbarger, who allegedly sought to intervene with Governor Patrick on McLaughlin’s behalf.

Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch and 19 city unions reached an agreement on the future of health insurance coverage for city employees. This is a huge, long-term accomplishment that has yet to receive the positive attention it deserved.

UMass Lowell became a player in national politics with the creation of its Center for Public Opinion, the polls of which are frequently quoted by media outlets around the country. And UML’s Massachusetts Democratic Senate debate gained national acclaim as the initial debate appearance of Elizabeth Warren whose strong performance at Durgin Hall cemented her standing as the front-runner in the Democratic race, caused the strongest of her Democratic opponents to drop out, and allowed the focus to shift to a Warren v Scott Brown race next November.

It was a great year for what I might clump together as local and regional entertainment. Leymah Gbowee, who resided at UMass Lowell as a Greeley Scholar for Peace was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In Hollywood, “The Fighter” won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup and the Red Sox collapsed, losing Theo Epstein and Terry Francona in the process. Billy Joel and the Dropkick Murphys played at UML venues. The legislature authorized casinos. Lowell celebrated the 175th anniversary of its incorporation as a city and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.


2012 in Review

Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown for the United States Senate, 54% to 46%. Warren won Lowell by nearly 6,000 votes. Many of those who voted for Warren have not regularly participated in city elections. Whether these voters can be persuaded to vote in city elections or whether they just show up for Presidential election will have a substantial impact on local politics.

Patrick Murphy was elected mayor of Lowell by a five to four margin at the City Council inauguration. He received votes from himself, Kevin Broderick, Marty Lorrey, Bill Martin, and Vesna Nuon. Councilor Rodney Elliott voted for himself and received the votes of Ed Kennedy, Joe Mendonca and Rita Mercier.

Changes in city government: Kevin Broderick resigned from the city council and was replaced by eleventh place finisher John Leahy (tenth place finisher Armand Mercier passed away in January). Mike Lenzi resigned from the Vocational School Committee after moving to Dracut. He was replaced by Ray Boutin who received the most votes at a joint meeting of the Lowell city council and school committee.

John Kerry was nominated by President Obama to serve as Secretary of State. Lowell has had a love/hate relationship with John Kerry for 40 years beginning in 1972 when he moved to the city to run for the Congressional seat formerly held by Brad Morse. Kerry won a tough Democratic primary, beating such established Lowell figures as John Desmond, Helen Droney, Fred Finnegan, Robert Kennedy and Paul Sheehy, but then he lost the general election to Andover Republican Paul Cronin. In 1984, Kerry defeated then Fifth District Congressman Jim Shannon for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Tsongas. In 1996, Kerry held onto that seat in the face of a strong challenge by then Governor Bill Weld, who had the support of much of the Lowell establishment. Kerry’s departure will cause a special election in early summer of 2013 to fill the Senate seat.

UMass Lowell continued the amazing reinvention of its campus and its own emergence as a nationally recognized institution of higher education. The Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center opened on the North Campus; construction of a new parking garage began on the South Campus; and the demolition of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital to make way for the University Crossing student center was well underway. UML became a major player in state and national politics with its polling and political analysis operation and with its hosting of a crucial debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren from the Tsongas Center. 6. The cultural life of the city remained vibrant throughout 2012 with appearances by Stephen King and Michael J. Fox; another successful Folk Festival; and musical performances at the Lowell Summer Music Series by musicians such as Kenny Loggins, Lyle Lovett and KD Lang. A major exhibit on “Dickens in Lowell” hosted by UMass Lowell, the National Park and others with related programming was held to celebrate the 1842 visit to Lowell by Charles Dickens and the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike had a big Lowell component thanks to UML’s Professor Bob Forrant. The Angkor Dance Troupe celebrated its 25th anniversary with the world premiere of “Apsara Dancing Stones” at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. A tribute to Mary Sampas in April had an overflow crowd at the Whistler House Museum and the first annual Lowell Area book publishers roundup was held at the Old Court in January. At the National Park, Celeste Bernardo succeeded Michael Creasy as superintendent and “the father of the National Park, Pat Mogan, passed away in December.

Unruly behavior by patrons of downtown drinking establishments became a major issue in 2012, set off by what was described as “a riot” at Fortunado’s in February. Criticism of the Lowell License Commission’s handling of this issue led to the departure of two of its members but the problems persist with a major altercation occurring at Brian’s Ivy Hall in December. A tradition of rowdy behavior in downtown bars that was tolerated by an old Lowell that vacated the downtown at the end of the business day has clashed with the reality that the downtown is now a residential neighborhood whose residents are rightly intolerant of such behavior. The resolution of this conflict is critical to the continued success of downtown Lowell.

United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) opened its new headquarters on Warren Street, combining a vintage church building with a modern addition to create a fabulous example of environmentally friendly reuse of a century old downtown structure. UTEC also let the community response to a wave of shootings that struck the city with a Rally Against Violence in September.

Mill City Grows burst on the scene, promoting the ability of Lowell residents to grow, purchase, distribute and consume healthy, locally produced food on land within the community. Its September Harvest Festival was a great success but the organization remains active year round. Mill City Grows is certainly forward looking, but it also taps into Lowell’s agricultural heritage: most who came here arrived from farming communities and while their primary employment in Lowell was in the mills, anyone with a spare plot of earth, no matter how small, immediately began farming it, both to supplement the family food supply but also to remain connected to the farming heritage from which they had came.

Social networking and new media continued to thrive in Lowell. Howl in Lowell launched in March and continues going strong. New blogs that were launched include Jen Myers’ “Room 50” and Paul Belley’s “Captain’s Log.” A “Tweet-Up” at LTC in March attracted a large crowd interested in refining their skills on Twitter which along with Facebook continue to grow as channels of community engagement. Also in 2012, Comcast switched the city’s government access channel from 10 to 99 without any apparent difficulty.


2013 in Review

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.