When Elizabeth Weinbloom was running for Ward 6 Alderman last fall, she called herself “the U-Haul version of an ambulance chaser.” As hoards of renters set upon their new (and likely temporary) homes, she was eager to introduce herself and suggest they register to vote. Somerville is a city of renters, with up to two-thirds of its housing units designated “renter occupied.” Weinbloom was running on a platform that listed “affordable housing” as one of the top three issues she aimed to focus on, so that ratio would presumably work in her favor.
Weinbloom would ultimately lose the uphill battle she was fighting. Somerville might be a majority renter city, but these more transient residents have proven to be less likely to vote or be civically engaged. Add that to the challenge of being a political outsider in an incumbent-favoring city, and it’s no wonder that we’re ringing in the new year with the same politicians. In every race that had an incumbent, there wasn’t so much as a challenger, save one candidate who ran for alderman-at-large (and lost). In Ward 6, Weinbloom was defeated by Lance Davis, who had been endorsed by the mayor, several aldermen and pretty much everyone else you could call “the establishment.”
“I don’t remember the last time an alderman-at-large, an-incumbent at-large lost an election,” says Ben Echevarria, president of the board of The Welcome Project, a nonprofit that aims to advocate for and give voice to immigrant communities in Somerville. In fact, he says it’s been a long time since he’s seen an incumbent in general be displaced. He chalks it up to many factors, but particularly to the time it takes to really embed yourself in a community. A lot of voters are homeowners and people who have lived here for a decade or more.
“I think that’s reflected in our city politics,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of rent increases, things like that. A lot of it is based on the fact that renters aren’t voting.”
A larger issue for Echevarria (who himself was once appointed to the school committee) is that immigrants aren’t getting appointed to boards, which have a heavy hand in shaping city policies. A report released early last year found that, despite the fact that 10.6 percent of Somerville’s population is Latino, only 1.7 percent of board and commission appointments were given to Latinos. That’s just accounting for one demographic in the city of 52 languages, and Echevarria says it has a huge impact on who can get elected.
“You have to have a pedigree of being involved in the community, being on certain high-level commissions or boards, so … you have some sort of public record that people can trust,” he says. “And that’s what makes it hard.”
Weinbloom takes issue with the relative lack of representation of renters and millennials on the Board of Aldermen.
“The city goes out of its way to court millennials … The city is designing itself to draw this population in terms of housing, in terms of the businesses that open up,” she says. “It’s ironic that the city is presenting itself as this desirable option for people like me, and then doesn’t actually have any people like me in leadership positions.”
On the campaign trail, Weinbloom says she often found herself giving civics lessons to the people she reached out to. She described phone calls from residents who had received her materials but who didn’t know or understand what a “board of aldermen” is, or how Somerville’s government is even structured. As a renter herself, she didn’t get any kind of outreach from the city that might give her the proper resources to be civically engaged.
“I just don’t see any city or any state really pushing hard to get people to vote,” says Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin, “because the people who do vote are hard enough to please as it is.”
McLaughlin says this despite the fact that he puts a lot of work into registering voters in his ward, which, though it has the same population as other wards, has half as many voters. That’s why he’s held voter registration drives at the local Stop & Shop and canvassed the neighborhood to find people to register, and why he always has a voter registration form tucked in his pocket. Even so, he admits that he can understand why other aldermen and the city aren’t hitting the pavement in the same way.
“A lot of times you’ll find local officials are focused on the ‘super voter,’ the person who consistently votes in municipal elections, because they’re guaranteed to vote,” he says. Even if you register 500 voters, there’s no guarantee that any of them will vote. With only so many hours in the day, McLaughlin says it makes sense that candidates are interacting with constituents who are already actively involved.
He understands the voter’s dilemma, too. Many young people coming from out of state might choose to stay registered in their hometown, whether that’s because they want to continue to vote there or, more often, because they their state is a heavier hitter in presidential elections. McLaughlin has been this person. He submitted his absentee ballot when he was deployed to Iraq and again when he was working on the Obama campaign in Colorado, where his peers urged him to change his registration so his vote would “count more.” He declined.
“There’s a feeling that you’re not going to be there in a few years,” says McLaughlin.
As for solutions, McLaughlin says that it comes down to the squeaky wheel getting the grease. There’s nothing more silent than a nonvoter, so the city isn’t tripping over itself to get people civically involved. But if a group were to, say, start a petition or a phone call campaign surrounding a certain issue, he says that’s something that will get attention.
“A big part of it is, the people have to be engaged,” he says. “When people civically engage, when they’re active, when they do voter registration and they mobilize people under a cause, that’s probably the best way to get someone to vote in the city election.”
Your move, Somerville.