With midnight looming, it was still standing room only at the vote-count for Cambridge’s municipal elections — if largely because there were only about a dozen chairs.
“Where are all the other candidates?” asked Gary Mello, himself a third-time candidate for City Council this year. He had a point: with twenty-two candidates in the race for the nine-seat City Council and eleven candidates for the city’s six-member School Committee, one might have thought the place would be crawling with electoral hopefuls.
But that’s not to say the race wasn’t an important one, or a contentious one either — and the night had surprises to come.
The election for the city’s Council and School Committee, held every two years, tends to draw little media attention outside of Cambridge, and that was true this year — especially compared to the hotly contested battle in neighboring Boston for that city’s 4th District Councilmanic seat.
Cambridge is a small city, its population is roughly 102,000 — but one with big things going on. Between Harvard, MIT, and booming biotech, tech-tech and other major industries it’s home to, Cambridge has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States, and has seen residential and commercial development in recent years on a scale that’s hardly small-town.
And with those big projects has come soaring rents as well as a great deal of money flowing through the city — even, as many have observed, into the humble race for Cambridge City Council.
One of the main ways Cambridge’s City Council exerts influence over the city is in zoning — approving or not approving uses of land. Big real estate developments often depend on zoning approval, and the many campaign donations those real estate interests have made to Council members have dogged many incumbent councilors this year, and fueled the campaigns of insurgents.
Cambridge Mayor David Maher, who arrived on the later side of the evening to see the vote tally, said the issue had been overblown:
“I think it’s quite honestly much to do about nothing,” Maher told WGBH. “I think it’s a non-issue … I think it’s a way to have a smokescreen for some people, to try to find a campaign issue.”
Overblown or not, Maher was one of seven of the nine Council members to form, for the first time in this election, a “Unity Slate,” — an unofficial ticket of incumbents, and which became the target of challengers criticizing the role of developer money in city politics.
Leading that pack was Jan Devereux, a first-time candidate who pledged not take donations from donors with interest before Council in her bid to run.
“The nub of the question is transparency, so in the interest of greater transparency, that’s why I said I wouldn’t take any campaign donations from real estate, special interests,” Devereux said arriving at a still-sparsely-populated vote talley. “I wanted to be transparent in saying they don’t have any influence over my decisions.”
It was, apparently, a winning message: the first, unofficial vote tally, released close to midnight, showed Devereux coming in third, and handily winning a seat on the Council. Dennis Benzan, seeking a second term on the Council, was not re-elected.
City Councilor Nadeem Mazen, one of two incumbents not part of the “Unity Slate,” and who was re-elected yesterday with the most powerful vote of the lot, said Devereux’s victory had larger implications.
“Each of the members of the slate have their own machine … to see them unify that machine and to still have it falter, is a powerful message for candidates.”