Cambridge City Council race draws plenty of candidates vying for incumbent seats

A man bikes on Mass. Ave in Cambridge on Nov. 15, 2018. (Photo by Noelle Fallacara/BU News Service)

By John Walsh
Boston University News Service

CAMBRIDGE – When Joe McGuirk started bartending in the early 1990s, he thought it was just another summer gig. He could never have predicted that 30 years later, he would still be mixing and serving drinks in his hometown of Cambridge.

“Anytime I tried to do a different career, entry-level pay just wasn’t equal to what I was making as a bartender, and it became de facto my career,” McGuirk said. 

Eventually, his customers took notice of his people skills and encouraged McGuirk to run for office. But he was hesitant at first. 

“I had a lot of doubts and some insecurities and, frankly, imposter syndrome,”  McGuirk said. “I would never have thought about running for office.”

When COVID-19 hit, McGuirk watched many of his restaurant friends lose their jobs and their businesses. For him, that was the wake-up call. Now, the first-time candidate is running with a focus on blue-collar workers like himself. He feels they are underrepresented in Cambridge politics.

“I think that it’s important when the working-class people are so threatened by the changes, especially the ability to stay local, that voices from lower-income people and voices from the working class shouldn’t just be heard, but be represented,” he said.

McGuirk is one of 11 non-incumbent candidates vying for a seat on the Cambridge City Council. However, the political hopefuls, bringing their own backgrounds and visions for Cambridge, face a strong wall of incumbent opponents who may prove difficult to dislodge. Out of nine seats on the city council, eight are held by incumbents.

Paul Toner, another incoming candidate, is a lifelong Cambridge resident who likes to quote the late U.S. House Speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. Among those quotes is O’Neill’s take that “all politics is local.”

“I’ve always been interested in running for political office,” said Toner, who first gained political experience 23 years ago as former Cambridge Mayor David Maher’s campaign manager. “My life just took kind of a detour. I ended up pursuing a life as a teacher union leader, so that got me busy for the next 15 years.” 

Toner, an attorney and former Cambridge Public Schools teacher, was head of the Cambridge Teachers Association, then later president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Having worked as a union leader, he said he has experience when it comes to making tough decisions about everything from “employment to legislative decisions to taking stands on public issues.”

For fellow candidate Nicola Williams, politics provide another means to help the less privileged and underrepresented.

“This is not something that I intended to do as a career, it is something that I found myself led to do because of the need,” said Williams. “In a city that prides itself on diversity, inclusivity and equity, it’s not happening for everybody in our city, many people are being left behind.”

Born in Jamaica, Williams has spent over 20 years organizing community events in Cambridge. Those events include the Boston JerkFest and the International Cambridge Carnival, and focus on giving back to the people who live in the city.

“I organize events that matter, that are mission-driven,” she said. “The events are drivers for social issues and causes that I care about.” Her political vision is in the same vein. “I have always been rooted in my community,” she said.

Burhan Azeem, a Pakistani immigrant and recent MIT graduate is the youngest challenger (24) and, given that almost one-third of city residents are between the ages of 18 and 29, he said that might factor into his chances, given the data he pointed to.

“In gubernatorial elections, we saw that the highest turnout election is about 48,000,” Azeem said. “But in municipal elections, it is around 20,000, and the median age increases from mid-30s to about 60.”

Burhan, who experienced housing insecurity as a child, sees affordable housing as the number one concern for residents, given the rising costs that do not seem to be ending anytime soon.

“Rents have gone up by 8% this last year, and it’s very difficult even if you make a decent income to afford to live here,” he said. “A lot of people are struggling to get a home.”

In addition to these four candidates, Frantz Pierre, Theodora Skeadas, Gregg J. Moree, Ilan Levy, Tonia D. Hicks, Dana Bullister and Robert Eckstut will all be running as non-incumbents for the Nov. 2 election.

Editor’s note, 10/25/21: A previous version of this article referred to the late, former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill as a senator. The article has been updated to correct this.

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