by Santiago Rodriguez Rey
Lynne invited me to participate here regarding the latest elections. But who am I? Well, besides making all those funky looking maps populating the Lowell forum on Facebook casting an eye on the results, let me tell you a couple of things as to give you an idea on who’s writing. I lived exactly two years in Lowell, until December 2015. During that time, I had some radio shows at WUML, UMass’s radio station, and participated in many local activities as a volunteer. My background is in politics and campaigning, so I have always been inclined to pay attention to those things (besides Lowell and my native Buenos Aires, I have lived in Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and Denver, where I finished High School); in most places I participated somehow in campaigns and/or elections. I have had the chance to speak to many city councilors and the current city manager, and both Marty Meehan and Jacqueline Moloney; all interviewed at my show. The same goes for Evan Falchuk when he run for governor. You could take this as a small, short, not so deep or impression lasting piece of observation like De Tocqueville did back in the day when he visited young America. I am just observing, not taking sides, but my background does weigh in. Let’s get to my “On Democracy in Lowell”.
Candidates and Turnout
It is sad to see how deep of a divide the high school issue has caused. Like Dee Tension mentioned on a thread, “we are all friends here,” or at least you ought to be. It does happen, everywhere, this certainly is not a Lowell exclusive, that political discourse ignites passions; it is interesting and encouraging that people stand their ground on what they believe in. The divide could also be the result of a lack of participation in the past and, yes, only one issue surfacing as a deal breaker as a consequence of limited knowledge of everything else. As I have also read before, LHS was just one issue, and Lowell has plenty to look at; just to quickly mention some tangentially related to LHS, public transportation, bike lanes and bridges. But, in the end, once ballots were counted and although improving relatively, turnout remains a major issue. We can discuss extensively if an at large system disenfranchises participation or if when 4/5 of the registered population of voting age don’t do so that is even relevant. Any way you take it, you have an issue at hand. I understand it is a general situation across the United States where local election numbers, with multiple systems, are about the same as Lowell’s. It is interesting to see that Belvedere, the neighborhood one could argue is the most somewhat homogeneous in town, is where turnout is the highest. There is something to look at there as well.
I also think that the lack of a clear party enrollment on behalf of the candidates presents a nebulous stand on other issues. Yes, for those involved in the local political discourse it might be clear where many do stand, but for the casual voter, the one that goes to the polling station for presidential and gubernatorial elections, that link might be an attractive hook to participate. I am still trying to understand who stands where on general issues. Enrollment does not guarantee results or positions, but it helps to place them in relation to oneself. I mean, when you see that some supposed Democrat candidates appear at Republican rallies alternatively it creates a vacuum of confidence; at the very least it is confusing.
I celebrate that there will be a bit more diversity on this coming city council, 2 women this time around at least and Vesna Nuon. No hispanics or latinos though. Anyways, the truth is that, although they make up a very big chunk of what Lowell is, those categories are huge issues within themselves and worth another article.
It is always very interesting to read Richard Howe’ site. His take on the election is great (read it here if you haven’t). It is interesting how he pays close attention to which position each candidate took in each precinct. He thinks forward on how those candidates come in the final result. Where, on my evaluation for these maps, I paid attention to the amount of votes overall.
Let’s start at the beginning. Although Lowell is divided in wards and precincts, this means nothing in the ultimate result. Silly thing to clarify maybe, but when a referendum is at play it is important to do it. Referendums are always at large, whatever system to distribute seats that district might have. Wards and precincts are there to organize the elections. I highlight this because a lot of fingers point towards Belvedere like if they are doing something fishy or shady, but nothing seems to indicate that. They just have a systematic higher participation than the rest of the city.
Here are the wards ordered by how much turnout improved from the primary to the general election. Look at Belvedere, they are among the ones with the least improvement, meaning that they are also closer to its participation ceiling. 6-1 has an interesting improvement. In average participation almost doubled over all.
Now that is clear that whoever has Belvedere on their side is playing with a loaded dice, how do you undo that power? Well, you break down the election into issues. Not diluting the weight of the LHS issue was probably the Pro Crawley camp’s biggest mistake. Thinking that just on the sheer might of their idea, people would join in, not counting that in a broken issue people need other incentives, worked against their candidates. The intention to vote for non LHS issues was still there.
Even though the referendum question favored Downtown, if we count all votes (for the candidates that won a seat and the ones that didn’t), the candidates that favored Cawley openly came on top in 19 of 33 wards. Considering the city as a single district, the result was 54.09% for DT candidates v. 45.78% for Cawley’s, which is half the referendum’s difference.
The same can be said by the number of newcomers. Even though new faces will arrive to city hall, when positioning all incumbents vs newbies, incumbents came out healthy on top (54.73%).
Earlier I mentioned political identity as something that could draw more turnout. Some candidates were endorsed as Progressives. The ones that make up this list are Nuon, Kennedy, Samaras, Cirillo and Boyle. Out of this five, the first four made it to city hall, with an overall 31% of the vote all together. Lowell’s 9 vote system complicates things a bit for a very deep analysis here. But, all things considered, less than a third considered a progressive. Nonetheless, they were somehow cohesive, succeeding with 4 appointees, 44,5% of the Hall.
At the end of the day I believe that what is happening in Lowell is an identity crisis of sorts. This crisis is a consequence of the sudden University expansion on one hand and the unsettling perspective of what I would call “what will happen now?” on the other. The once-industrial city, not yet “university city,” momentary Wang headquarter, coalesces to not fitting a town profile, while being threatened by the incoming gentrification from the east expanding west. No wonder the “crisis,” previous to LHS, was the townies vs the blow ins. No wonder “the future,” “the best school for our future,” was both side’s motto. Was it just because kids will go to those schools? I don’t think so. I believe the same underlying question stands, “what now will Lowell become?”.
Becoming a city, even a satellite one, demands expensive infrastructure and far more public transportation investments than Lowell is capable of doing. The thing is that Lowell has already become that city, and it is experiencing those growing pains, all while transforming into something else. The bigger UML grows, more pressure for Lowell to transform to that it fears: an actual city and not a just a bunch of loosely connected neighborhoods. LHS is a significant piece of Lowell’s unity and identity, at least that is the picture these discussions, and my time there, gave me. My first impression of Lowell was, as soon as I arrived, “Shouldn’t there be another school? Ain’t (after all I Learned English from Texans) that school just too big and over populated?” I understand a second school demands a second school body, and that is seriously expensive in the long run.
I don’t have an answer to what Lowell should aim to be. It certainly needs to attract some sort of businesses to gain a profile. Currently it has a reputation, one that the Folk Fest, a thriving university, better security rates, etc. are turning. It might not have the money, but it does have the numbers; it is the largest city in the area. If it is going to attract people, its differential is its walk ability. Does that mean it needs services to cater to people coming from work then?. Does it want to become a work hub, does it have the infrastructure to welcome those workers during the day?.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a hard question to answer when you are small. It is a harder one when you are already there.