In Search of a Progressive Definition
[This column appears in the April edition of The Alewife, which went to press before City Councillor/State Rep. Timothy J. Toomey Jr., D, announced he would not run for the state senate.--Editor.]
It's a municipal election year and already the grapevine is ripe with rumors about who's running, who's not running, and whether any "slates" of candidates will emerge in time for the November election. With Senator Travaglini's recent exit from the State Senate and the possibility that Tim Toomey may seek the seat, it makes the game of musical chairs so much more interesting.
At last count, there were already 6 challengers ready to gather signatures to get on the City Council ballot and at least one challenger (so far) for School Committee. If a vacancy should arise, the numbers will grow.
Things used to be much simpler in the days when the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) was in the business of building and supporting slates of candidates for the City Council and School Committee. Though imperfect (to say the least), it was possible for a Cambridge voter who wanted to vote "progressive" to know who to vote for without actually having to pay attention - a real convenience for Cambridge's sociopolitical upper crust.
It also served to let many Independent voters know who NOT to list on their ballots. The choice of Us versus Them couldn't have been simpler. But wait! You say it wasn't so simple to tell the good guys from the bad guys? Surely, the CCA was the very essence of "progressive" and, by exclusion, everyone else was "regressive". Having walked both sides of the line, I've long been fascinated by the slipperiness of the Cambridge definition of "progressive".
If this was a battle for a seat at the state house, you might look to issues like abortion, marriage rights, and universal health care to craft a progressive definition. At the federal level, you might look at the Iraq war or campaign finance reform to draw the lines. But in Cambridge sans rent control, and with no major issues to distinguish the candidates, the progressive slope couldn't be more slippery.
There are plans underway again to assemble a "Progressive Democrats of Cambridge" slate (PDC), and the sponsors are searching for a progressive definition to determine who will be on and who will be off the slate.
Their first stab at a definition was that a candidate had to endorse the firing of the city manager in order to gain endorsement, but that proved to be a bit restrictive. The latest word is that being a non-incumbent (or nearly so) will send you to the head of the class - as good a definition as any from where I stand.
Many of us know that until 1994, being a "progressive" in Cambridge meant, with few exceptions, that you were in favor of rent control. You might have advocated the annihilation of polar bears, but as long as you vowed to keep the rent cheap for potential voters, you were a bona fide progressive. During the late 1980's, I used to laugh when I'd see the banner in the window of the Cambridge Civic Association office that read "Progressive Government - That Works!".
Never mind the fact that most of the working class residents of Cambridge were voting for the other guys.
My theory is that the definition of "progressive" in Cambridge is most closely tied to socioeconomic status. If you have an advanced degree or if you went to prep school or a major university, or if you just believe you're smarter than all those Joe Six-Packs out there, then you have a leg up with the progressive crowd.
If you're a cop, a firefighter, or work at Public Works, or if you even know anyone who works "on the City," chances are that you aren't hanging with the progressives. Many decades ago, being progressive meant you were one of the "goo-goos", i.e. the "good government" crowd. That included many of the old guard Republicans who brought managed government and the Plan E Charter to Cambridge and who founded the CCA back during the FDR administration. Progressive Republicans you say? Well, that's the way it was back then.
The Democrats saw government as a jobs program for the politically connected, and the Republicans lobbied for better managed government and restraint in municipal budgets. Political party designations don't exist in our municipal elections today, but it's pretty safe to say that every elected official in Cambridge today is a social and economic liberal eager to support and fund a broad range of programs.
Are they all progressives?
It all depends on your lack of a definition. Cambridge's municipal election system tries to represent its residents in proportion to their fraction of the electorate. It works well when there are clear definitions of the electorate - neighborhood, race, ethnicity, gender, position on some pivotal issue (like rent control), or whether you support of some well-publicized candidate slate.
During the rent control days, you might have seven of nine councillors living west of Harvard Square because rent control trumped geography on the list of definitions.
In the absence of significant issues, geography and personal identity now define the electorate and the candidates more than any issue. But why let these factors decide the election?
Why not be more creative with candidate slates? Here are some suggestions for candidate slates for 2007:
DZ Slate: Candidates who would downzone Cambridge to farmland if they could.
TB Slate: Candidates who will support anything that grows the tax base.
CRED Slate: Candidates with credibility. Now there's a concept.
NEW Slate: Anyone but incumbents, preferably with credibility.
JOB Slate: Candidates who actually work for a living.
DD Slate: Candidates who hold (or want to hold) two elected offices (double-dippers).
SLACKER Slate: Candidates who can't do their job without a personal assistant.
BIKE Slate: Candidates who get around by bicycle.
KIDS Slate: Candidates who have children.
SSS Slate: Candidates who say the same stuff over and over again.
FOR Slate: Candidates who believe the City Council should be a foreign affairs forum.
TIN Slate: Candidates from the fringe who wear tin foil hats and receive alien messages. We always get one or two in every election.