3 Neighborhoods, 5 Candidates, 18th Middlesex Lowell

The primary election for representative of the 18th Middlesex District is only a little more than a week away, and five people are running for the democratic nomination. The winner of that election will run against unenrolled candidate Fred Bahou in November.

The 18th district contains the Lowell Highlands and the Acre, a district that was nearly 70% nonwhite or Hispanic in 2010, an increase of 10% proportionately from 2000. It’s a growing district, but it also faces some challenges related to crime: although neighborhood scout rates the Upper Highlands as the safest neighborhood after Belvidere and western Pawtucketville, parts of the Lower Highlands and Acre seem to have some of the lowest safety scores.

Cornelius Kiernan* 1949 – 1976 26 years
Paul Sheehy* 1965 – 1972 8 years
Phil Shea* 1973 – 1979 7 years†
Edward LeLacheur* 1975 – 1998 24 years
Robert B. Kennedy* 1975 – 1978 4 years
Tim Rourke 1981 – 1982 2 years
Susan Rourke 1983 – 1992 10 years
Steve Panagiotakos 1993 – 1996 4 years†
Kevin Murphy 1997 – 2014 18 years†
*Prior to 1978, the 18th as we know it didn’t exist; pieces of three districts would be put together to form it. Councilors with asterisks were elected to these predecessor districts.
† Left for higher/different office.

The last I wrote about state politics, Kevin Murphy was still representative of the 18th, but since then, he was chosen as City Manager and the position has been vacant ever since. I don’t live in the district, but because the three representatives Lowell sends to Beacon Hill all work together, this election is very important for all of Lowell. In addition, those elected to the 18th Middlesex tend to stay in office a long time and only leave to pursue higher office or to retire, so the person elected this year could be in office twenty years from now.

A couple of weeks ago, Khmer Post and LTC sponsored a televised debate with a special screening at LTC. I attended that event and was surprised to see a mostly full room. However, it appeared that half the room had Rady Mom or Dave Ouellette shirts, and I imagine that those who didn’t were connected to one of the other candidates. Regardless, it was an interesting peek into a group I don’t see too often. Of course, early all the action was on the screen.

I thought I’d share my impressions taken from the debate, from websites, and from the Lowell Sun. Quotes from the debate may be off by a word or two, but Richard Howe’s blog has the video and a comprehensive summary.

The Candidates

People watching screen at Lowell Telecommunications Corporation (LTC)

Screening of debate at LTC. Soben Pin of Khmer Post is on screen, one of a panel of questioners.

Brian Donovan

Sun interview

Mr. Donovan mentioned that as a retiree, he could devote all his time to the statehouse. His opening statement was direct: “The issues we have in the city are violence and an education system that needs improvement,” and those areas seemed to bring his most impassioned answers, including an opinion that violent crime is on the rise in Lowell:

It’s easy to say it’s safe if you aren’t being affected. – Brian Donovan

He said that gangs were a factor, and he would focus on funding gang units. He showed a lot of anger toward criminals, saying “they don’t care who they’re hurting,” and calling them “thugs.” Along with the gang unit, Mr. Donovan has told the Sun he would make sure police and fire would have “top shelf equipment.”

In response to other questions, he spoke once again about finding state money: when asked about how he would engage with Asian Americans, he mentioned finding small business grants and funding set-asides. Asked about education, he mentioned providing support for college students. However, he did acknowledge the challenge Massachusetts businesses have because of workforce costs: in other words, housing costs.

Jim Leary

Sun interview

Mr. Leary is a familiar face in Lowell politics, an insurance claims manager who has served on the school board since 2007. However, he has made economic development a major focus of his campaign. He would seek grants for infrastructure and job growth; development and marketing of Cambodiatown; and work with the colleges to attract new tech businesses. In fact, he was very animated about the idea of working with Cambodian (and presumably other) businesses to identify their specific needs, and believes a key is to connect Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

However, he also acknowledged crime problems:

I used to run… up School Street, and I would feel completely safe… But when you wake up two in the morning with fireworks, and you start to feel disturbed. – Jim Leary

Finally, he had specific ideas about easing the burden of higher education on students, including pushing more college-level classes in the high school and looking toward the State University of New York system for ways to make college low-cost.

Rady Mom

Sun interview

Rady Mom came to the United States as a refugee when he was ten years old, and has been a resident for twenty years. He now runs a small acupuncture business in the Highlands and has extensive civic experience. Although he was not as specific as other candidates on his plans, he spoke with a great deal of conviction:

It is amazing to have this opportunity. Where I come from, there was none of that.

His approach to violence was somewhat different, in that he emphasized the role of working directly with schools and families in their own language. In fact, this was a repeated theme throughout the debate. He stressed creating connections between community members, between Lowell and the statehouse, and between agencies. Notably, he mentioned that he would make sure Cambodian businesspeople felt it was “OK” to reach out to the statehouse.

I have been a little surprised that Mr. Mom doesn’t share more of his experience in interviews and debates. Even the Sun mentioned, “He almost never spoke about politics, legislation or the Statehouse.” His story as a refugee is chilling, but I’d love to know more about how he’s helped guide Lowell institutions such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

It’s not that I’m a politician… First and foremost, I’m a community activist. – Rady Mom

David Ouellette

Sun interview

I’m familiar with Mr. Ouellette from a number of Lowell events. He’s Lowell’s Senior Building Inspector and founded the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) in 2009. He would resign from his city position if elected, but continue to attend ACTION meetings and walk the Acre. Mr. Ouellette is also focused on public safety, agreeing the community policing and anti-drug campaigns need funding, but had a unique additional perspective as a code enforcement officer:

We go in there after there’s been a shooting… and we write up all the problems in that house. …we have those people move out, because we condemn the property right on the spot, and it gives instant relief to the neighborhood. – Dave Ouellette

This perspective came up again, when Mr. Ouellette talked about a plan to give loans that could provide fire suppression sprinklers modeled on lead removal loans. Depending on the applicant, loans can be fully amortizing and may be deferred until home sale or refinance.

It’s also notable that although Mr. Ouellette mentioned his work discussing with potential business owners about code and law requirements for business, but didn’t highlight the strategy outlined on his website, including increasing street activity through pedestrian and bicycle facilities and community gardening, providing small retail incubation space, and providing sustained funding for those with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Paul Ratha Yem

Sun interview

Mr. Yem is a realtor and former director of the Cambodian American League of Lowell who missed a chance to be put on the official ballot because most of his signature papers did not list his hometown. Nevertheless, he’s running a write-in campaign and had very interesting things to say in the debate. Like Mr. Mom, he came to the United States as a refugee. However, he came to Lowell to do human service work for other Southeast Asian refugees.

Yem would focus on economic development and job creation, and much like Mr. Leary, sees great opportunity in connecting Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

This is the area that I can be proud of… I was with the Lowell Institute for Savings back in the eighties promoting small businesses and promoting home ownership. – Paul Ratha Yem

He mentioned many businesses still open and expanding from the micro loans he organized. Although he did not mention policy approaches in the debate, his website suggests ensuring funding for infrastructure projects, increasing local-hire requirements for development projects, and creating a streamlined “governmental environment.”

Unlike the other candidates, his discussions with residents of the Acre and Lower Highlands revealed immigration and family reunification to be a top issue of most 18th Middlesex residents. He would pursue legislation to give relief for cities with large immigrant populations and reform immigration writ-large. However, he has noted that the Upper Highlands residents cite crime as a priority, and he believes he can help the LPD in their community policing strategy with his experience fostering relationship between communities and police in the Executive Office of Public Safety in the late 80s. I find it notable, but not surprising, that those living in relatively safe areas of Lowell are more concerned about crime than those living closer to the center of the city.

Finally, Mr. Yem displayed some courage on a set of yes/no questions the moderator asked at the end. Unlike all the other candidates, he voiced opposition to casinos and agreed with the Governor’s offer to house refugee children.

My thoughts on critical issues

Housing

I was surprised to see almost all the candidates seemingly unprepared on how to address what I see as one of Massachusetts’s most pressing issues: housing costs. It’s not just an equity issue: from my understanding, high housing costs create high labor costs which stifle economic development. Housing costs do not seem to be a leading issue in Lowell, but if Massachusetts is struggling because of housing costs, that will hurt Lowell in the long-run. Even putting that argument aside, housing costs are still much higher in Lowell than in comparable cities in the Midwest and south.

Solutions were not forthcoming. Some of the candidates focused on the need for more market-rate housing without suggesting what barriers may exist, while others focused on the question’s other piece, the Hamilton Canal District. Mr. Ouellette suggested a strategy for improving Lowell’s existing housing stock which is perhaps a greater issue in Lowell than affordability. On the other hand, Mr. Yem mentioned his knowledge of the reality of renters in Lowell: many still pay half or more of their income on rent. Housing costs and affordable housing will be the subject of a future post.

Crime

I was not surprised to hear security be a leading issue in all candidates minds, but few made the deeper connections between crime, poverty, and early intervention. Rather, most focused on maintaining or increasing funding for existing police programs. Mr. Donovan even said he thought violent crime in Lowell was increasing, which may play to voters’ perceptions but is not backed up by police reports that include a 14% reduction in aggravated assaults compared to last year, continuing a trend that began in 2010 (link to Sun article).

However, I was happy to see that after discussing funding, many of the candidates had more suggestions. Mr. Yem mentioned assisting the police have a force that racially reflects Lowell better, Mr. Mom and Mr. Leary mentioned a focus on schools and families, and Mr. Ouellette outlines eyes on the street and mental health funding as other strategies to reduce crime.

However, I would have liked to see more comments on the role of the state in encouraging evidence-based policing, including the increased level of safety that police accountability and procedural justice brings. Nobody mentioned the problematic recidivism rates. I also was disappointed in the lack of mention of the role of organizations ranging from UTEC to Lowell House.

Women

It is of course notable that all candidates are men. When asked how they would support women to fill the leadership pipeline, few had ready answers. Mr. Ouellette even said, “That’s a good a one!” Ultimately, each suggested a different approach, from connecting with UMass Lowell (Mr. Donovan) to finding mentorship opportunities (Mr. Leary), to ensuring education is preparing women for careers (Mr. Ouellette).

I thought it was especially interesting that Mr. Yem brought up the difficulty of recruiting women at the Cambodia Town organization in a culture where men are traditionally dominant. However, Mr. Leary’s suggestion may be best: “Start listening.”

Majority-Minority District

I found it notable that there was only brief mention of other races and ethnicities outside of Cambodians. Many of the candidates made the basic argument that strategies would help people of all races, such as crime reduction and job creation. However, it seems that the persistent poverty many of the groups face require a special approach for each group.

Notably, only Mr. Yem addressed the audience in another language than English, but I have no idea if that would help or hurt his chances in the primary.

Youth Engagement

Finally, I was disappointed nobody got the chance to comment on one of the more disappointing results in the Lowell legislature: The Vote 17 Amendment to the Election Reform bill. The entire Lowell delegation supported that bill, and it will take more pressure to get the good idea moving.

Conclusions

The most interesting thing that I found about this slate of candidates is that they do not sort easily into a left-right spectrum. All were focused on the particular needs of the community; all advocated for funding (although each funding priority was different); and all were democrats in a slightly different way. Some mentioned funding more often, while others suggested inter-community negotiation and discussion. Each brings special focus and skills, and I hope to continue watching them all, regardless of who wins the primary and the final election.

(Edit: A former version of this post was missing a number of previous representatives. Thanks to Dick Howe for assistance.)

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