Lowell Years in Review: 2019 & 2020

2019 in Review

Lowell changes its method of electing City Councilors. In settling the pending lawsuit which alleged that the system of electing all councilors and school committee members in an at large, winner take all method, violated the Federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the impact of minority voters, the city council agreed to change the method of electing local officials. After much study and a non-binding referendum, the council chose a system that will elect 11 city councilors (two more than there are now) with 8 elected from districts and 3 elected citywide. School committee elections will also change with four members being elected from districts (each school committee district will consist of two council districts) and two members being elected citywide. The mayor will still be elected by councilors by majority vote on inauguration day. This change will take effect in the 2021 city election and districts will be drawn based on the results of the 2020 census.

2019 City Election. This November’s city election resulted in the replacement of one-third of the city council and one-third of the school committee albeit for different reasons. With the council, two incumbents, Ed Kennedy and Jim Milinazzo, chose not to run for re-election and a third incumbent, Karen Cirillo, withdrew after the preliminary because of illness. Replacing them on the council will be John Drinkwater who made his Lowell political debut in 2018 by finishing a strong second in that year’s Democratic primary for state senator; Sokhary Chau, who finished tenth in the 2017 council race; and former city councilor Dan Rourke who lost in 2017 after serving two terms on the council. For the school committee, incumbents Gerry Nutter and Dominik Lay lost. They will be replaced by first-time candidates Mike Dillon and Hilary Clark.

Notable Public Sector Retirements. As mentioned above, City Councilor Jim Milinazzo did not seek re-election this year with his departure being more of a retirement than a “pursue other opportunities” move. Also this year, the Lowell Plan’s longtime director Jim Cook retired. At Lowell National Historical Park, Deputy Superintendent Peter Aucella retired too. I group these three together because they came into public service in Lowell in the late 1970s and early 1980s and all played key roles in Lowell’s renaissance and have stayed involved in city political and public life ever since. Collectively, they provide us with an enormous store of institutional memory. While they have all retired, they are all (I believe) sticking around Lowell so it’s not like they will suddenly disappear. Still, their official departure marks a significant milestone in the city’s history.

New Superintendent of Schools. In May, the Lowell School Committee unanimously selected Dr. Joel Boyd to be the next Superintendent of Schools. Boyd had previously served as superintendent of the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Public Schools from 2012 to 2016 and had worked at public schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Florida before that. His most recent job before coming to Lowell was as an assistant superintendent in the Boston public schools. Boyd hired a number of people from outside of Lowell to serve as his top assistants. He also purchased a house in Lowell shortly after being hired.

Lowell High School. The planning process for the remake of Lowell High School continued throughout 2019 with the selection of Suffolk Construction as the construction manager for the project. Detailed planning by the architects and others continued throughout the year (as did problems with the physical plant of the existing high school).

Lowell Memorial Auditorium Renaissance – The Lowell Memorial Auditorium came under new management late in 2018 and we really saw the benefits of having this new local group in charge during 2019. Led by Peter Lally, Lowell Management Group has brought a steady stream of impressive performers to the Auditorium while also gearing up to celebrate the building’s centennial in 2022.

Mill City Grows Leadership Change – It was 2011 when Mill City Grows burst on the Lowell scene by promoting neighborhood gardens and access to fresh food. The organization has grown steadily in stature, reach and influence. In 2019, it’s cofounders, Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson, officially stepped away from the organization. Because they did a splendid job in planning their departure and organizational succession, Mill City Grows continues to thrive in Lowell.

Elizabeth Warren for President – Fresh off her overwhelming reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2018, Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for President on a cold day in early 2019. On the strength of her detailed plans, her prolific fundraising and her own strengths as a campaigner, she shot to the top tier of Democratic candidates. Conventional wisdom says her standing slipped a bit in recent months, but we’ll have a better sense of her prospects in about six weeks with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

New Representatives in Congress and the State House. Lori Trahan took office as our representative in Congress in January and was immediately immersed in the cauldron of national politics. Whatever she envisioned doing in her 12th month in office, voting to impeach the president probably was not among the acts she imagined. But she’s handled it very well and has asserted strong local leadership in the fight to keep the Spinners baseball team in Lowell and affiliated with the Red Sox. At the statehouse, newly elected State Senator Ed Kennedy drew upon his long experience in local and county government to leapfrog any learning curve and quickly took strong stands on the many important issues that came before the Senate.

Hand-held cell phone ban. The state legislature finally voted to outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones while driving a motor vehicle. The law was enacted in 2019 but does not take effect until February 23, 2020. Offenders are entitled to one warning; after that the fines escalate from $100 to $250 to $500. Although this is a statewide measure, given the quite visible propensity of many Lowell drivers to pay more attention to their phones than the road, this new law will have a definite local effect.


2020 in Review

Covid-19 Pandemic – No review of 2020 can begin with anything but the Covid-19 pandemic. At the start of the year, news reports from China told of a spreading virus. Soon, the virus was racking Italy and then other countries around the world. In early February, the first US case to be diagnosed appeared in Washington state. Throughout this phase, life here seemed completely normal. How did we not see this coming? But we did not. And then it was here. On the weekend of March 14-15, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts. Schools, courts and many businesses suddenly closed, some temporarily, others for the duration. People began stocking up on critical supplies and things such as pasta and toilet paper became scarce. Later in spring, the infection rate in Massachusetts soared and state government mandated the wearing of masks when in public and imposed limits on how many people could gather and where. Through the summer, the virus persisted but the infection rate subsided in Massachusetts. While mask-wearing continued, other limits were relaxed and by the fall, many experienced “pandemic fatigue.” The return to normal impulse peaked at Thanksgiving. Many congregated and in the following week the virus surged to the highest rates experienced through the pandemic. In December, regulators approved vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna for general use. By the end of the year, it was a race between infection and inoculation. Although there was enough vaccine available in December to vaccinate 20 million people, by the end of the month only 2 million had received shots. The infection was winning.

Presidential Election – Donald Trump joined George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford as recent presidents who failed to win a second term. Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. Biden also won the popular vote, 81 million to 74 million. The election was not “called” until the Saturday after the election, and Trump and his supporters have still not acknowledged his defeat, persisting in his claim that Biden was the beneficiary of widespread electoral fraud. But as one of the many judges who dismissed Trump’s efforts to reverse the outcome wrote, “allegations of fraud are not evidence of fraud” and of that – evidence – there has been none, at least none that has been presented in nearly 80 lawsuits brought on Trump’s behalf. Biden only emerged as the Democratic nominee after a long primary process. Early on, Elizabeth Warren was a strong candidate, but by Super Tuesday (March 3, 2020), her candidacy had faded, and she finished third or fourth in most of that day’s primaries including in Massachusetts. She dropped out a few days later. Also in February, the U.S. Senate acquitted President Trump of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in his impeachment trial.

17th Middlesex State Rep Election – In the Democratic Primary, Vanna Howard defeated incumbent Dave Nangle. Howard received 2,724 votes to 1,986 for Nangle with Lisa Arnold receiving 1,495. Nangle had been elected to this seat in 1998, however, in February, he was indicted by the U.S. Attorney on multiple counts of wire fraud, bank fraud, and related charges. The case against Nangle is still pending in the U.S. District Court in Boston at the end of the year.

U.S Senate Election – In the September 1, 2020, state primary election, incumbent U.S. Senator Ed Markey overcame a challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Markey received 782,694 votes to Kennedy’s 629,359. Markey went on to defeat Republican Kevin O’Connor in the general election.

Charter Change in Lowell – In December, the city of Lowell published a map of the proposed City Council Districts to be used in the 2021 city election. The eight districts attempt to retain historic neighborhood boundaries while also designing two of the districts in a way that made a majority of their residents members of minority groups. The districts will be finalized in 2021 once the results of the 2020 census have been released.

Racism protests – In May, a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, knelt on the neck of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd causing Floyd’s death. A widely viewed video of the incident led to protests across the country and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout the summer, millions of people participated in demonstrations against police violence. In Lowell, residents and the leaders of many nonprofit agencies urged the City Council to declare racism a public health crisis, however, the council defeated that motion by a 5 to 4 vote. Voting against the declaration were Rodney Elliott, Dan Rourke, Rita Mercier, Dave Conway, and Bill Samaras. Voting in favor of the resolution were Vesna Nuon, John Drinkwater, Sokhary Chau, and Mayor John Leahy. A month later, the Lowell School Committee reached the opposite result with Leahy, Jackie Doherty, Connie Martin, and Hilary Clark voting for the proposal. Voting against were Andy Descoteaux, Mike Dillon, and Robert Hoey.

New Construction – Some important building projects were completed or commenced despite the pandemic. In March, the new Lowell Justice Center at 370 Jackson Street was occupied and began operations albeit with limited public access due to pandemic restrictions. The three courthouses vacated by this move – Superior Court on Gorham Street, District Court on Hurd Street, and the privately-owned Juvenile Court on Appleton Street – remain vacant, although there was talk during the year of demolishing the District Court to create more parking. In November, the new 900-space Hamilton Canal District parking garage opened for business. Now, parking for Lowell National Historical Park will shift to this facility which should allow the National Park’s surface lot on Dutton Street to be developed. Also in the Hamilton Canal District, Winn Companies began construction of two new apartment buildings on Canal Street. Nearby, the remake of the Lord Overpass has made substantial progress with the old overpass entirely filled-in and the new intersection of Jackson Street and Dutton Street opened to traffic. However, much work remains for 2021. Finally, the new Market Basket on the Pawtucket Boulevard at Old Ferry Road opened late in the fall.

Lowell High School Addition – The city demolished the office building at 75 Arcand Drive which had been taken by eminent domain for the Lowell High renovation project. That will be the site of the new gym with a formal groundbreaking ceremony expected early in 2021. Detailed planning for the entire project has continued through the pandemic and everything seems on schedule.

Remote Learning – In March, most schools and colleges closed to in-person instruction which was replaced by “remote learning.” Many schools attempted to return at least some students to in-person instruction in September, but the post-Thanksgiving surge in infections caused almost all to revert to all-remote learning in December.  A consequence of remote learning that will outlast the pandemic is the end of “snow days.” From now on, if the weather prevents in-person instruction, students will be expected to shift to remote learning.

Sports – Most years during this century this review has included an inventory of championships won by Boston professional sports teams. Not so in 2020. This was a year characterized by departures. The Red Sox traded superstar and former Lowell Spinner Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers; Tom Brady left the Patriots as a free agent and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That team is heading to the playoffs while the Patriots will head home with one of the rare losing seasons during the Bill Belichick era. And just a few days ago, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who began his professional career in Lowell with the Lock Monsters, signed with the Washington Capitals, a hockey team owned by Lowell-native Ted Leonsis. Finally, the Red Sox announced that they would end their 25-year long affiliation with the Lowell Spinners as part of Major League Baseball’s mandated contraction of minor league teams.

Books and Local Culture – The pandemic forced the shutdown or curtailment of much of the local cultural scene. An ambitious schedule of Lowell Walks in partnership with Lowell National Historical Park held only one walk – Women’s Activism in Lowell – on March 7, just before everything shut down. It was a fruitful year for local authors. In March, Atlantic Currents: Connecting Cork and Lowell, an anthology of writers and poets from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Cork, Ireland, was published by Loom Press. Other books published this year by Loom Press were The Power of Non-Violence: The Enduring Legacy of Richard Gregg by John Wooding; On Earth Beneath Sky: Poems and Sketches by Chath pierSath; Cummiskey Alley: New and Selected Poems by Tom Sexton; The Blue in the Eye of the Girl at La Jolla by Eric Linder; and North and South Ireland: Before Good Friday & The Celtic Tiger by James Higgins (a photographic portfolio). Then for those interest in local politics, I wrote State Elections in Lowell: 1970-2020 which is available as a print-on-demand book from Lulu.com.