A Lowell-centric view of the year just completed:
The Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest story of 2021, both globally and locally. In March, the number of Americans who had died of Covid topped 500,000. By December, more than 800,000, including one of every 100 people over the age of 65, had succumbed to the disease. Vaccines became widely available by the spring. At first, those anxious to get vaccinated swamped the system in a rush to get the shots. But by summer there were plenty of vaccine appointments available yet many still shunned this protection. By the end of 2021, only 60 percent of Lowell residents were fully vaccinated. Four of the five highest days for positive cases have come since this Thanksgiving: (showing number of cases per 100,000):
- December 6, 2021 – 268
- November 29, 2021 – 259
- December 12, 2020 – 238
- December 20, 2021 – 235
- December 13, 2021 – 228
In mid-December, the Lowell Board of Health enacted a mandate that masks must be worn in all indoor public spaces and the city distributed free at-home Covid test kits to residents who wanted one. The Lowell Public Schools have remained open since September with mask mandates, regular pool testing, a reduced social distancing requirement (three feet instead of six feet), and a “stay and monitor” policy for those who have a close contact with an infected individual.
As the year draws to a close, there’s a new spike of infections and no one talks of “the end of the pandemic.” We’ve experienced that hopefulness before only to have a new surge of infections erase the finish line again and again.
New Election Procedures
In February, the city council adopted new districts for the hybrid election system that emerged from the settlement of the Voting Rights violation lawsuit brought against the city several years ago. The new system increased the number of city councilors from nine to eleven, with three of the eleven being elected citywide and the other eight being elected individually from eight districts. The school committee remains at six elected members with two elected citywide and four elected from districts. Each school committee district is made up of two city council districts.
City Election Results
Although not as many candidates as expected ran in the election, the structural change led to the defeat of three incumbents on the city council (David Conway, William Samaras, and Rodney Elliott) and tow on the school committee (Michael Dillon and Hilary Clark).
Under the new system, a preliminary election is required in any district in which the number of candidates running is more than twice the number of seats to be filled. So in a district that would elect one councilor, if there were just two candidates there would not be a preliminary for that district but if there were three or more candidates, a preliminary election would be held.
On Tuesday, September 21, 2021, preliminary elections were held for council districts 2, 3, 4, and 7.
On Tuesday, November 2, 2021, the general election was held with the following results:
At Large: Vesna Nuon, Rita Mercier and John Drinkwater won. Bobby Tugbiyele, Deb Belanger, and Robert Hoey lost
District 1: Daniel Rourke defeated Rodney Elliott (both incumbents)
District 2: Corey Robinson defeated Robert Gignac
District 3: John Leahy defeated William Samaras (both incumbents)
District 4: Wayne Jenness defeated Ryan Rourke
District 5: Kimberly Scott defeated Tooch Van
District 6: Sokhary Chau defeated Justin Ford
District 7: Paul Ratha Yem defeated David Ouellette
District 8: Erik Gitschier defeated Ty Chum
At Large: Jackie Doherty and Connie Martin won. Michael Dillon (an incumbent) and James Peters lost
District 1: Stacey Thompson defeated Ben Opara
District 2: Eileen DelRossi defeated Hilary Clark (an incumbent)
District 3: Andre Descoteaux defeated Susie Chhoun
District 4: Dominik Lay defeated Cheth Khim
As was the case for the election in the fall of 2020, no excuse absentee voting, early voting, pre-election drop boxes, and in person voting were all available.
This election was also historic by breaking the city’s race barrier: Corey Robinson was the first Black person elected to the Lowell City Council and Stacey Thompson was the first Black woman elected to the Lowell School Committee.
Hoey Resigns; Controversy Over His Successor
In February while appearing on a local cable TV program, School Committee member Robert Hoey used an anti-Semitic slur when referring to a former Lowell Public School administrator. The resulting outrage led Hoey to resign from the School Committee.
When a vacancy on the school committee occurs mid-term, the next finisher in the previous election is eligible to fill the seat. In the 2019 school committee election, Dominik Lay finished seventh, however, the city’s election commission held that Lay did not did not meet the residency requirement and declined to allow him to join the committee. Lay filed suit and a Superior Court judge ordered that Lay be seated on the school committee. Lay joined the committee but the city appealed the decision with the appeal still pending.
Lowell derives many benefits from its rivers and canals but multiple waterways require multiple bridges. Unfortunately, several of those bridges have had their trafficability reduced or were closed entirely. Fortunately, bridges on Pawtucket Street over the Pawtucket Canal and over the Northern Canal both fully opened to traffic late in the year but the outbound side of the Central Street bridge over the Pawtucket Canal remains closed indefinitely due to greater-than-anticipated deterioration and long wait times for the steel beams required to fix it.
Construction continues on the Lord Overpass (which is two bridges adjacent to a canal). In November, Middlesex Street opened so that drivers on that street could cross Thorndike heading in both directions.
The Lowell High renovation and addition project continues. The exterior walls and roof of the new gymnasium were completed and work inside commenced.
At Middlesex Community College, Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs Philip J. Sisson was selected to be the school’s fifth president.
At University of Massachusetts Lowell, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney announced that she would step down as chancellor in June 2020 at the end of the current academic year. Moloney, who has served as Chancellor since 2007, plans to continue teaching at the school.
On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States. Just two weeks before that, on January 6, a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, overpowered police, and invaded the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate in an effort to prevent the certification of the electoral votes earned in the November 2020 national election. Trump has continuously advanced the lie that Biden’s victory was fraudulent and that he – Trump – won the election. In November, polling showed the 68 percent of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump while only 6 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents feel the same way.
However, on January 5, the day before the insurrection, the voters of Georgia elected Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate giving the Democrats a razor-thin majority in that chamber (one dependent on Vice President Kamala Harris to break any ties) to go along with the only slightly bigger Democratic majority in the House.
Biden and the Democratic Congress together passed a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package in March and in November with the votes of some Senate Republicans, passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. However, by December, efforts to pass Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill have stalled.
During the fall and winter, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in cases on religious freedom (taxpayer funding of religious schools in Maine); the Second Amendment (a New York City gun control law); and abortion (a Mississippi law banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy). Although decisions in these cases won’t be announced until 2022, in all three cases, the Conservative-dominated court is expected to reject long-established Supreme Court precedents and rewrite the law of this country.