Post-Election Lowell

Aurora and I haven’t written here in a while, partly because we were engrossed in the election as much of the nation was. In fact, one of the last essays we added was a report about a Trump rally several months ago. Now that there’s time to reflect, I wanted to talk about Lowell, the election, and what’s next.

Photo of group at HypertextLast night, Aurora and I attended a LGBTQ+ Mixer at Hypertext Bookstore. The event was hosted by Lowell’s  LGBTQ+ Action Group and supported by Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant and Hypertext. That night, more than 45 people filled the bookstore and had coffee, talked about their feelings and reactions to the election, and their plans for the future. It was an electric vibe, filled with young people just out of (or still in) high school, a couple who just moved to Lowell, more than a few activists, and some familiar faces.

It was a bright spot in what for many has been an increasingly tense-feeling time. Last Monday, Attorney General Maury Healey’s office launched a hotline to report harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. She reported an increase in reports of such incidents to her office since election day.

Some incidents have risen to prominence. Earlier this year, in May, two brothers beat a homeless man because he was Latino. More recently, three 15-year old girls allegedly punched and beat a woman on the Red Line for being an immigrant after mocking her accent. This issue doesn’t appear only in Boston. Just a few days ago, a Natick man reported receiving threatening letters filled with racial slurs. This would follow national trends: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Anti-Defamation League all reported a spike in reports of harassment and vandalism since the election.

There is a great debate that is being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and social media about how and if these incidents are related to the election. Many argue that anyone who voted for Donald Trump, because he used racially-charged and sexist language, are either bigots or, at best, bigot-enablers. Others argue that there are many reasons to have preferred Mr. Trump’s outsider status or policy positions over Secretary Clinton’s. Still others believe that both major-party candidates were not worth voting for, leading to a fairly high “other” vote. Some of those topics might be the subject of future posts. I imagine little of that matters for people who have overcome harassment, discrimination, or isolation, and worry that the heated rhetoric signals a trend toward a return to that abuse or an indication that it never was that far away.

Lowell’s Vote

What is clear is that Lowell—and especially greater Lowell—had a sizable number of people vote for both major-party candidates. According to the unofficial tally (which doesn’t count provisional ballots, overseas absentee, and some other exceptions), 36,641 people voted in the general election in Lowell out of about 85,000 old enough to vote. That’s about 43%, less than Massachusetts’ estimated 61% or the US’s 53%, but Lowell’s high proportion of noncitizens may account for some of that lower turnout.

Of those 36,641, 23,186 voted for Clinton and 10,495 voted for Trump, a 63%/29% split, with the remaining 8% for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or blank. This was very close to Massachusetts’ overall 61%/34% split.

votesinlowellNotably, more people in Lowell voted for Democrat Niki Tsongas (76%) in her race against Ann Wofford than for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what this means, other than that people weren’t voting straight-ticket and weren’t voting solely on policy. All the towns next to Lowell except for Chelmsford voted in favor of Mr. Trump, making the “Greater Lowell” breakdown about 51% Clinton, 41% Trump, and 8% other.

Organizing for Lowell

In this moment where it feels like political frictions are high, there are a number of groups organizing a number of events with an eye toward lending support to those who may be most vulnerable. This includes a peaceful Solidarity Rally against hate and discrimination 3:00 pm tomorrow at City Hall, which will include speakers from Lowell’s diverse population and a 4:30 pm workshop at Mill No. 5 to discuss what civic and political actions participants want to take together.

15107405_1277147152349666_735794546867948049_nOn Monday night at 5:30 pm at the Senior Center, CBA is hosting a “Community U-Nite”, a post-election gathering that will include food, conversation, and resources to make sure that everyone still knows they are welcome in Lowell’s community. Their goal is to highlight that although the nation—and Lowell—may be divided politically, Lowell is still one, inclusive community.

Later, in December, Pollard Memorial Library is hosting an “American Perspectives” non-partisan, civil and constructive community conversation on the 2016 Election. Local educators, community organizers, and citizens will discuss together how to reaffirm commonalities and move forward as one community of Americans.

Finally, many are wearing safety pins on their jackets or clothes. This started in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, when immigrants were increasing targets of hate crimes. The safety pin symbolized that immigrants were “safe” with the person wearing the pin, and that people wearing them will try to actively intervene when they see someone being harassed. It’s been adopted in the wake of the American election to symbolize safety for immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, women, Muslims, and any other groups who are feeling threatened. Some critics of the pin call them a lazy crutch that gets in the way of real activism or believe they widen the gap between political parties. Supporters argue that they are a first step into activism by many who otherwise do not know how or are not as free to protest in other ways; a reminder like a string tied around a finger; and a constant signal that they’re willing to help. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but wanted to mention this symbol I’m seeing more and more around Lowell.

What’s Next?

The recent events have made Aurora and I want to turn back to Learning Lowell, to talk about the impacts we think different policies will have on the city, the arts and culture from all around the world that make Lowell unique and amazing, and the history that can teach us so much about the present day. As always, we want to know what you’re feeling either on Facebook or in the comments section here.


Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:





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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


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.


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.


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.


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.)

Lowell on Beacon Hill and the Transportation Bond Bill

Lowell’s “delegation to Beacon Hill,” our three state representatives and senator, have received a fair amount of attention in the previous months. Kevin Murphy recently became Lowell’s next city manager. Meanwhile, a state Transportation Bond including about $26 million “earmarked” for Lowell projects is making its way through the lawmaking process. Elsewhere in the state house, UTEC continues to advocate for allowing a Vote 17 referendum in Lowell.

When I decided to write about these politicians and their job in Beacon Hill, I realized I understood a lot less than I thought I did. Although many know the basic process of how a bill becomes a law, the intricacies are less clear. DJ Corcoran, who worked in the Massachusetts from 1992 until he took a job as Director of Government Relations at UMass Lowell in 2012, explained the process and a few of the secrets of Lowell’s success.

A bill becomes a law in three paragraphs

A man shaped like a hammer with a powdered wig signs a bill into law.

Luckily, our representatives do not look like the illustrations in Massachusetts’ primer here.

The state legislature (called the “General Court” in Massachusetts) is much like, but not identical to, the US Congress. A simple explanation of the lawmaking process is that a senator, representative, or Governor develops an idea for a bill. That person has his or her staff craft language for a bill and files a petition with the senate or the house. There, the bill will be referred to a bipartisan committee with specialized knowledge of economics, transportation, or other issues.

The committee may hold public hearings [1], where the public and outside experts offer testimony related to the bill. The committee may refer it to a different committee, may report favorably on it, or may end it there. Usually a bill has to go through three committees before being debated, amended, and voted upon in the house or senate.

The bill then has to go through the entire process again in the other branch. If the other branch amends the bill, a bipartisan conference committee crafts a compromise bill. That bill is sent to both branches for a final, unamendable vote. The Governor can veto or recommend amendments to the bill, and this can be overridden with a two-thirds vote from both branches.

One example: Transportation Bond Bill

The Transportation Bond Bill is a compelling example of this process. Newspaper stories about the bond bill often gave the impression that, once passed, the bill would direct the state to borrow billions to be directed at certain projects. In actuality, the bill only gives permission for borrowing. It is up to the administration led by the Governor to create a capital plan within the limits established by the bill.

The process started early last year with Governor Patrick filing a petition for the bill. The bill’s primary purpose was to authorize Massachusetts to borrow and provide discretionary funds for various state agencies and local (Chapter 90) aid. It included some funding to be used specifically for the South Coast Rail project, the Green Line Extension, and South Station project. This bill led to a debate last May between the legislative branches and administration and ultimately a stopgap measure.

The process of resolving that bill last winter was, by reports, much quieter [2]. It was referred to three committees, the Joint Transportation, the House Bonding, and finally the House Ways and Means, before being amended by the House and passing unanimously. Each committee altered the bill slightly:

The chair of the Joint Transportation Committee asked members of the committee to submit priority and/or shovel-ready projects (earmarks) to include in an amendment. The result was a bill (H3763) authorizing about $12.4 billion and including many smaller projects throughout Massachusetts. It was reported favorably and recommended ought to pass.

House Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets held public hearings on the bill. It recommended a version of the bill that authorized $12.5 billion (H3836) ought to pass.

The House Ways and Means Committee added additional earmarks to the bill (H3860), now totaling $12.6 billion. This was recommended ought to pass and the version that actually went to vote.

Third Reading and Vote: Dozens of representatives had amendments for projects in their districts. The chair of the Ways and Means committee worked with the representatives and staff to include all amendments in one package so that the house would not need to vote on each individually. This bill (H3882), as amended and finally totally $12.7 billion, passed unanimously.

The final packaged amendment included several projects from Representatives Golden and Nangle: $25 million for the Lowell Trolley expansion, $90,000 for an enclosed pedestrian walkway at Gallagher terminal, and $5 million for Chelmsford center. As far as I know, the representatives have not publicly stated why they prioritized these projects over others. I have heard that all three representatives first discussed possible amendments among themselves.

The Bill went through a similar process in the Senate and was unanimously passed last month. The Senate’s Ways and Means committee removed the earmark for the VFW bridge feasibility study but included $5 million for Rourke Bridge and $4 million for improvements to the Lowell Connector and Tanner Street related to the Ayer’s City plan. Senator Donoghue successfully submitted an amendment to re-include the Trolley expansion project. The total authorized for bonding in the senate version is around $13 billion.

What’s next?

The senate and house selected three members each for a bipartisan joint committee that will create a compromise bill that cannot be amended. Once passed, this bill will authorize the State to borrow money for the purposes listed in the bill for the next five years. Whether or not the State borrows and spends the money is ultimately up to the administrative branch of government, who creates a capital plan.

Are the earmarks simply “pork” partially intended to play well in reelection campaigns? Mr. Corcoran suggested that the delegation would argue they are an important planning tool to set priorities for the administration. The governor may change—perhaps more than once—during the five years the bond bill covers. The earmarks lock the administration into what the legislature considers priority projects. Of course, there are still bonds in the bill that agencies may spend flexibly.

Where’s the power?

As you might suspect, the process is not so straightforward.

First of all, the system itself gives certain members of legislature more power than others. A great deal of this power is in committees, specifically in the chairs of committees, appointed by the Senate president and Speaker of the House. They decide whether the legislature will vote upon bills and what is in the initial text of those bills.

Most committees are “joint,” including both representatives and senators. However, the greatest exception is each branch’s Ways and Means Committee, which deal with financial matters. Because the highest-profile bills often deal with financial matters, the chair of each Ways and Means Committee has a large amount of latitude in determining which bills make it to the legislature floor. [3]

This is why pundits often consider the most successful congresspeople those who can “horse trade” the best. For example, a chair of a powerful committee may move a bill forward for a member, who in turn will vote on an important piece of legislation.

Mr. Corcoran suggested another way Lowell politicians have had success in the Massachusetts legislature: Lowell has consistently been able to present a unified front to the state. As the Sun’s column blog described Lowell’s three representatives:

If there’s an a big state announcement to be made in Lowell, these guys will make it, collectively. They comprise a pack, and they’re proud of it.

The City Council passes resolutions supporting issues as varied as Vote 17, the Route 3 Extension, or the Hamilton Canal District, the entire state delegation lobbies for the issues, and the 3rd district US Representative may also voice support for projects. Following this, congressional leaders will see the issue as relatively noncontroversial and see the advantage in gaining the favor of many parties.

In 2008, the delegation was put in the position of defending the earmark for the JAM plan implementation. Although the delegation had secured a recurring half-a-million earmark for nearly a decade, budget committee members had doubts stemming from Lowell’s delays in applying for that money in the previous two years. Former City Manager Bernie Lynch said, “We absolutely need the money, and you can’t say enough about what the delegation has done to get that money.” [4]

Notably, this is often how voters grade state politicians: whether they can cooperate to secure funding for local projects. It is notable that I more easily found news related to funding specific projects than to state policy when searching for information on the delegation. In that spirit, we’re providing a short description for each delegation member. It’s important to note that each description includes a few highlights, but is almost certainly an incomplete picture of the member. We hope to explore the delegation members more as election season approaches, regardless of whether they are facing opposition. In the meantime, check out, where you can search for politicians, including our state delegation, by name. The page for each candidate includes biographical details, their position on key votes, and ratings from interest groups.


1st Middlesex: Eileen Donoghue

Eileen DonoghueEileen Donaghue is currently the “freshest” member of the delegation, serving as Senator since 2010. Prior to this, she served on Lowell’s city council from 1996 to 2008, and as Mayor from 1998 to 2002, championing Tsongas Arena, LaLacheur Park, and artist overlay district. She ran for Lowell’s United States House of Representatives seat, losing the primary to Niki Tsongas by only 4%. She is a JD and an attorney at Gallagher & Cavanaugh.

She has specialized in economic development matters, currently chairperson of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. She is also Vice Chair of the Committee on Higher Education and member of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies; Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy; Ways and Means; and Post Audit and Oversight committees. Notably, Senator Senator Donoghue recently sponsored a bill to examine the costs and benefits of a Boston Summer Olympics. She has also focused on reducing student debt and assisting small businesses.


16th Middlesex: Thomas Golden

Tom GoldenThomas Golden, Jr. has represented the 16th district since 1994. He is also chair of the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau and a board member of Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council. He has a BS in Business Administration and is a practicing Realtor. His cousin, Dan Rourke, was elected in 2013 as a Lowell City Councilor.

Tom Golden has a reputation for being responsive to constituent outreach. Among other priorities, he has championed substance abuse and mental health services and grants for open space. He is Vice Chair of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets; and serves on the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy and Post Audit and Oversight committees.

17th Middlesex: David Nangle

David NangleDavid M. Nangle has been a representative since 1999, when he beat Bill Martin, Stephen Geary, Rita Mercier, and others in the Democratic primary. Prior to this, he worked for Senator Steven Panagiotakos, and he also serves on the Greater Lowell Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors. Previous to this, he worked for Senator Steven Panagiotakos.

Last year, Representative Nangle endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s republican challenger, Scott Brown, saying “They’re good parents, a good family,” and citing his belief Brown could work bipartisanly. He is Vice Chair of the House’s Ethics committee, and earlier in 2014 he was acting chair when the committee recommended expulsion of Representative Carlos Henriquez. Representative Nangle is also member on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and Steering, Policy and Scheduling committees.

18th Middlesex: Vacant

Kevin MurphyCurrently, Massachusetts’ 18th Middlesex district is vacant, as Kevin Murphy recently became Lowell’s City Manager. Mr. Murphy, a JD, was a representative since 1997 and a practicing lawyer until he took the City Manager position.

Many criticized Mr. Murphy because his law firm has represented unions in negotiations with public entities, creating an apparent conflict of interest. In fact, when his firm represented four school administrators including his wife, the Massachusetts Republican party filed an unsuccessful 2009 ethics complaint with the State’s ethics commission. Reflecting upon Mr. Murphy’s representation of the bus drivers’ union, LRTA Director Jim Scanlan said:

I would say that it is an unusual or awkward situation to have a state representative representing the union and at the same time being a state rep… It has created an uncomfortable situation between the LRTA, myself and Kevin Murphy.[5]

However, the Ethics commission clearly stated it saw no ethics violation, and Mr. Murphy has generally enjoyed support from his constituents. He has served on healthcare, financial, judiciary, and social service committees and most recently, the House’s Ways and Means committee. Notably, he has been a critic of the Patrick Administration, saying, “I waited 12 years to get a Democratic governor and he’s gone against all his campaign promises.” He cited a veto of open space funding for Lowell, among other issues.[6]

Election Season Approaching

It’s quite notable that there’s often little opposition for incumbents in Lowell. Members of Lowell’s delegation may have faced close primaries and elections to get into office, but afterward, have no or only minimal opposition. This may be a statement of overall satisfaction with the delegation, it may be an acknowledgement of the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, or it may have some other cause.

It’s also notable that exploring campaign contributions, the same players often support the entire delegation. For example, Trinity Ambulance has been a major contributor to all four members’ campaigns in earlier years. has details for each delegation member, searchable by name. I’m not sure what this means for candidates who often run unopposed. These will be exciting questions to explore as Lowell approaches election season, especially with an empty seat to watch!


[1] The committee does not choose who will testify at a hearing. Much like at City Hall, anybody can come to testify. This means that a number of bills will only attract the testimony of those who have a direct stake in the bill, or experts hired by parties affected by the bill. Mr. Corcoran used the example of a law involving the licensing of optometrists and ophthalmologists. Each “side” testified, as few understand the particulars of the field. However, disinterested experts who could comment on the larger picture may not have attended.

[2] See State House News Service via Nashoba Publishing.

[3] Notably, even though joint committees include both senators and representatives, they have two representatives for every senate member. This gives representatives additional power in such matters as choosing the committee’s staff.

[4] Discussing the individual projects and initiatives is outside the scope of this post. The quote is from Lowell Sun, April 1, 2008.

[5] Quote is from Lowell Sun, June 30, 2009.

[6] See the Column Blog’s story, “Murphy Explains Teeing-Off on Patrick”

Getting Social with Lowell Politics: Social Media Conference Part 2

This is the second post about the recent Lowell Social Media Conference. The first is here.

Dick Howe at tear sheet introducing 22,500 drop in voter turnout from 2012 to 2013.

Dick Howe illustrates the 22,500 drop in voter turnout from 2012 to 2013.

While the first half of the social media conference was composed of technical “how-to” sessions, the second half focused on “How can we use social media to effect social change?” Dick Howe introduced the session by crediting Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s success in politics partly to the “wise use of the internet.” After talking to a number of folks in Lowell, I believe that at least some thought social media could have a large effect on local politics, too. They were surprised when it didn’t seem to.

Derek Mitchell and Dan Rourke were kind enough to attend and discuss how they used social media. Kristin Ross-Sitcawich and Kim Scott, school committee members, were in attendance and also shared opinions and stories. Mr. Mitchell said he used social media to “build a brand and build a volunteer base.” Traditional media is unable to cover 22 candidates, so he needed another network to share his “narrative”. His specific strategy involved using Hootsuite to hit multiple social media platforms, specifically asking people to volunteer, getting them more invested in the campaign, ultimately encouraging them to talk to friends and family. Mr. Rourke thought Facebook was more important for this election, but Twitter has potential for its instant, brief messaging. Both speakers noted that Twitter users trend younger. The two school committee members generally agreed, although Ms. Ross-Sitcawich found the “permanence” of a website more effective than social media, which she uses to link to her website.

That said, all candidates agreed that nothing replaces canvassing, door knocking, and being on the road was most important. I’m reminded of a study about how door-to-door campaigns made a substantial increase on voter participation. Mt. Mitchell found more honest feedback about issues at doors than in public forums, and Mr. Rourke revealed he was out 2-3 hours a day after work, going to every house, not just those on the voter lists. However, those who rent and live in apartment buildings, are difficult to reach with these methods. (In my admittedly uninformed opinion, renters are a demographic overlooked by local candidates due to their low turnout.)

Derek Mitchell

Derek Mitchell

Danny Rourke

Danny Rourke

Mr. Mitchell drew laughs from one discovery: pictures, specifically those of his wife and him, drew the most hits. Later, an audience member mentioned Mr. Rourke’s use of family in his social media: “Rather than Danny the candidate, it was Danny the person.” Discussion focused on how including family to introduce and make candidates relatable was perhaps more important to a campaign than messaging about issues. However, Ms. Ross-Sitcawich reminded the audience about the privacy issues around using images of family in campaign materials. An entire book could be dedicated to what influences voter behavior (many have), but I think a study of nonpartisan, non-competitive elections such as Lowell’s would be very revealing. It strips away party affiliation and negative campaigning as factors in decision-making.

It also is undeniably local. Mr. Mitchell summarized: “There was a hope that social media would make local politics relevant.” I believe that he was talking about those who usually only vote in national elections: young and tech-savvy. The consensus is this didn’t work; traditional demographics (older, tied to traditional media) turned out. This leaves the burning question: can a society that values civic engagement at a local level impress local issues’ importance upon younger people, even those who are childless, work strange hours and/or who rent? This is an especially important question, as these are often the very people that people like Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Rourke can’t reach going door-to-door. The final part of the conference touched upon this, subject of a future post.

Find Part 3 here.


Election Evolution from Preliminary to Final

This is the second post examining election turnout results. The first is here.

After a disappointing turnout of about 6,700 (about 12% of registered voters), a group called Double the Vote launched a campaign to increase turnout through multilingual signage and outreach. The turnout on November 5 was 11,581, so they were almost successful (about a 73% increase). Of course, the additional turnout can also be attributed to increased efforts of candidates, events such as the crime spike encouraging more to vote, and the higher profile of the final election.

Where did those additional voters come from? Here’s a map.


The white numbers represent number of additional voters in the final election, while the shade of color represents the % increase. So while much of the Lower Highlands did indeed “double the vote,” this only meant an additional 450 votes. Even though Precinct 1-2 only increased 70%, the turnout was already so high that this represented 426 more votes.

How did this play out for the candidates? Here’s a table:

Preliminary Final Difference % Increase
Elliott 2789 5301 2512 90%
Kennedy 2673 5076 2403 90%
Leahy 2385 4299 1914 80%
Lorrey 2322 4121 1799 77%
Martin 2777 4332 1555 56%
Mendonca 2020 3985 1965 97%
Mercier 3715 6343 2628 71%
Nuon 2001 3243 1242 62%
Belanger 1945 4381 2436 125%
F Doyle 1106 1584 478 43%
G Doyle 1220 1456 236 19%
Gitschier 1935 3913 1978 102%
Hargis 1789 3528 1739 97%
Millinazzo 2566 4607 2041 80%
Mitchell 1923 3949 2026 105%
Pech 1487 2271 784 53%
Rourke 2723 4644 1921 71%
Samaras 2509 4463 1954 78%
Viera 806
Darius M 575
Misitano 362
Navom 404

The increase candidates had may have been caused by new folks voting, folks switching their votes, or folks adding votes. It’s notable that several candidates increased their votes substantially (Mitchell, Gitschier, Hargis, Mendonca), but not enough to make up for a low preliminary result. The exception to this was Corey Belanger, who to his credit, ran a strong campaign.

Digging down a bit, some candidates improved their results a very large amount in a few precincts, sometimes tripling their preliminary result. Mr. Gitschier even quadrupled his result in 10-3. Here’s their percentage increases, with decreases or increases of more than 2 standard deviations highlighted in orange or green (in other words, falling well outside the bell curve for that precinct). Please excuse the poor formatting.

Elliott Kennedy Leahy Lorrey Martin Mendonca Mercier Nuon Belanger F Doyle G Doyle Gitschier Hargis Millinazzo Mitchell Pech Rourke Samaras
1-1 105% 84% 92% 81% 58% 78% 71% 73% 130% 52% 19% 98% 118% 72% 114% 163% 65% 133%
1-2 68% 77% 64% 56% 49% 87% 58% 30% 109% 26% 49% 54% 105% 74% 85% 20% 60% 59%
1-3 66% 72% 57% 53% 39% 69% 51% 22% 86% 3% -13% 51% 51% 57% 48% 7% 53% 58%
2-1 125% 56% 106% 44% 68% 160% 41% 105% 157% -31% 69% 200% 91% 48% 142% 85% 120% 168%
2-2 135% 116% 83% 65% 20% 117% 52% 56% 100% 13% 11% 56% 16% 53% 78% 28% 82% 18%
2-3 78% 91% 135% 48% 32% 69% 75% 41% 118% 81% 49% 329% 91% 66% 88% 45% 118% 82%
3-1 75% 107% 74% 85% 53% 104% 49% 79% 75% -6% 43% 70% 114% 95% 137% 90% 78% 98%
3-2 169% 154% 120% 100% 65% 97% 119% 91% 162% 61% 69% 182% 132% 100% 163% 102% 123% 74%
3-3 117% 62% 80% 114% 85% 68% 55% 72% 106% 77% -20% 131% 133% 56% 90% 36% 93% 41%
4-1 101% 64% 76% 163% 70% 122% 65% 42% 161% 26% 13% 82% 102% 86% 114% 71% 95% 72%
4-2 119% 106% 61% 109% 71% 126% 52% 121% 140% 32% -27% 122% 81% 194% 95% 78% 105% 143%
4-3 103% 148% 150% 132% 43% 173% 62% 76% 120% 138% 47% 240% 85% 89% 140% 43% 76% 77%
5-1 84% 101% 105% 84% 56% 77% 61% 57% 130% 100% 28% 145% 102% 100% 134% 84% 62% 63%
5-2 127% 153% 110% 141% 128% 168% 106% 157% 184% 75% 39% 112% 176% 225% 188% 59% 102% 119%
5-3 102% 78% 78% 89% 50% 82% 92% 97% 150% 58% 26% 153% 83% 100% 100% 52% 97% 108%
6-1 72% 130% 85% 78% 52% 80% 95% 56% 172% 74% 23% 142% 169% 108% 172% 76% 65% 75%
6-2 89% 96% 70% 52% 69% 105% 81% 48% 91% 28% 6% 93% 130% 84% 178% 49% 58% 73%
6-3 74% 77% 94% 85% 58% 69% 47% 50% 161% 27% 31% 81% 71% 74% 181% 7% 54% 88%
7-1 79% 98% 86% 63% 56% 150% 72% 85% 112% 7% 28% 121% 225% 64% 244% 74% 65% 128%
7-2 186% 103% 141% 125% 153% 158% 142% 98% 82% 183% 23% 222% 85% 85% 70% 96% 46% 178%
7-3 157% 68% 82% 150% 60% 154% 103% 79% 260% 69% 64% 208% 100% 138% 57% 70% 119% 160%
8-1 76% 92% 82% 76% 68% 156% 76% 85% 68% 13% 21% 117% 124% 71% 93% 60% 42% 106%
8-2 107% 83% 121% 96% 38% 116% 86% 51% 122% 77% 13% 119% 98% 98% 58% 23% 85% 77%
8-3 91% 101% 64% 64% 55% 98% 56% 26% 97% 42% -17% 104% 87% 56% 97% 27% 62% 53%
9-1 88% 71% 80% 42% 49% 156% 54% 54% 117% 14% -22% 85% 79% 111% 81% 57% 41% 63%
9-2 76% 77% 81% 70% 68% 96% 79% 83% 149% 36% 34% 117% 169% 102% 207% 56% 59% 104%
9-3 77% 101% 97% 85% 62% 128% 101% 72% 191% 139% 38% 54% 90% 83% 86% 39% 70% 93%
10-1 97% 107% 96% 105% 55% 80% 71% 39% 107% 66% 26% 153% 114% 49% 121% 74% 154% 62%
10-2 230% 152% 162% 109% 114% 145% 142% 121% 165% 255% 63% 126% 138% 125% 112% 50% 121% 126%
10-3 125% 65% 61% 165% 21% 81% 76% 70% 227% -13% -16% 371% 85% 82% 96% 95% 136% 144%
11-1 121% 92% 79% 80% 63% 117% 76% 115% 127% 71% 0% 132% 64% 93% 149% 62% 74% 87%
11-2 86% 85% 89% 93% 57% 78% 72% 64% 172% 40% 18% 145% 73% 78% 100% 25% 82% 78%
11-3 100% 104% 69% 94% 73% 112% 105% 95% 236% 40% 67% 200% 154% 80% 169% 140% 97% 81%

For a future post, I hope to map this, along with comparing results to demographics of precincts and crime rates. Until then, panhandling, historic preservation, cultural events, and so much more to write about!

Please note I’m using “cards cast” rather than “votes counted” to describe turnout, and I typed many of the numbers into excel, so there may be minor errors. Let me know if you want any of the underlying spreadsheets.

Election Visualized

Although the election is now in the past, we’re still waiting for the voter lists to come out. I’m sure folks around Lowell will do some very interesting analysis. In the meantime, I thought I would make some maps and charts with available data (provided graciously by Dick Howe, Jr.)

I needed to group the candidates somehow, as 18 bars in a graph is too many, so I ran a correlation analysis on the proportion of the total number of votes each candidate received in each precinct. The groupings should surprise nobody carefully following the election. The most correlated candidates pairs were, in order:

  • Van Pech and Vesna Nuon
  • Stacie Hargis and Derek Mitchell
  • Corey Belanger and Danny Rourke
  • Corey Belanger and Jim Milinazzo
  • Corey Belanger and John Leahy

If a voter voted for one of the above candidates, they were highly likely to vote for the other person in the pair.

Mr. Milinazzo seems to be the odd duck. Those who vote for Corey Belanger also tended to vote for Milinazzo. Those who tended to vote for Bill Martin also tended to vote for Milinazzo. Yet Mr. Martin otherwise correlated with Bill Samaras, Derek Mitchell, and Stacie Hargis; while Mr. Belanger correlated with John Leahy, Danny Rourke, and Rodney Elliott. Mr. Milinazzo appears to have cross-party appeal, if you could call these groups “parties.” The other candidate with cross-party appeal was Mr. Lorrey, although unlike Mr. Milinazzo, it was not enough for him to be elected.

Also notable: despite the perception that “everyone” votes for Rita Mercier, a high vote for challengers (excepting Mr. Belanger) in a precinct tended to hurt Ms. Mercier’s vote, while a high vote for current counselors Elliott, Kennedy, or Mendoca tended to help her vote.

Given the natural groups in the data, along with a bit of interpretation on my part, I decided to group the following way:

  • Mercier/Elliott/Kennedy/Mendonca
  • Rourke/Belanger/Leahy/Gitschier
  • Milinazzo/Lorrey/Doyle/Doyle
  • Samaras/Martin
  • Mitchell/Hargis
  • Nuon/Pech

Here’s a map of the precinct-by-precinct results for these groups. The bars are so much higher in the outlying areas not only because of higher turnout, but because voters there tend to use more of their nine votes. The things I find notable: Mitchell/Hargis’s strong showing downtown, the Rourke et al group doing better in the Upper Highlands than the Mercier et al group, and how close Mitchell/Hargis was to Samaras/Martin in almost all precincts. There’s an excellent post about the precinct-by-precinct results at


To examine the number of voters, I prepared a pie-chart map. The size of the pie is total number of registered voters, while the blue slice represents those who actually voted in the 2013 council election. It’s notable that Belvidere not only has the most registered voters, but also had a far larger turnout of those voters than other precincts.


Finally, we see that some precincts spread throughout the City added more votes than Belvidere since 2011. This final map shows the 2011-to-2013 change in number of voters visualized in colors. The % change may be misleading–even though many precincts in the Acre and Lower Highlands nearly doubled their turnout from 2011, this didn’t actually represent many additional votes since the turnout was so small in 2011.


There are some more maps and charts I’d like to make to show change in turnout from the preliminary to the final election, and how the support for candidates changed in that time. Not to mention the reports Aurora and I plan to make on a few of last week’s events. Stay tuned!