Why whites control Lowell city government
Voting system concentrates power in heavily white Belvidere
Photographs by Meghan Moore
LOWELL IS MOST commonly associated with block upon block of old mill buildings; immigrants from Asia and the world over; and tough streets, the kind that produced famed boxer Micky Ward. What probably does not come to mind are tidy tree-lined boulevards and quiet blocks filled with exquisitely restored Victorian homes, many of them mansion-scale.
This latter image would be Belvidere, an area of Lowell that in many ways more closely resembles nearby Andover than the gritty city it overlooks to the west. Statistically, Belvidere is hardly representative of the city. It’s 85 to 95 percent white, while many sections of the city are no more than 50 percent white; the median household income ranges from $70,000 to $125,000 depending on the Census tract, more than double most parts of the city. But if you want to know who controls the levers of power in Lowell, Belvidere is the place. The mayor lives in “Belvi,” as do five of the other nine city councilors.
The concentration of power in this one square-mile area on the eastern edge of the city reflects a wider disconnect between Lowell’s political class and the general population. In a city that is fast approaching majority-minority status — Lowell is about 40 percent minority, according to the 2010 Census — there isn’t a single non-white municipal elected official on the nine-member city council or the six-member school committee.
So neighborhoods that have high turnout tend to have their pick of the litter. And in Belvidere, which is packed with current and retired public employees, people vote. Turnout in two of its key wards regularly exceeds 40 percent in city elections, compared to an average citywide turnout of 18 percent.
Lowell adopted Plan E back in 1943. Since then, at-large voting systems have fallen out of favor in Massachusetts and in other parts of the country, specifically because of their tendency to lead to the underrepresentation of minorities. In 1981, after a campaign by voting rights activists, Boston residents voted to end exclusive at-large voting, in favor of the current system of nine district and four at-large councilors. In the South, federal judges have ruled that entirely at-large voting schemes violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ferguson, Missouri — the country’s latest emblem for racial discord — is currently facing a lawsuit that seeks to end at-large voting for its school board.
The lack of diversity in Lowell goes beyond its elected offices. The police and fire departments are disproportionately white, and nearly every administrator in the school district is white, as are more than 90 percent of the district’s 1,700 employees. The imbalance in the schools is especially striking considering that the student body is only 29 percent white.
The “whiteness” within Lowell city government is all the more notable given its multicultural image— two of the city’s marquee events are the Lowell Folk Festival, a showcase for world music, and the Southeast Asian Water Festival. And Lowell has been held up as one of the model Gateway Cities, post-industrial municipalities with large immigrant populations that state officials have targeted for redevelopment. Indeed, state and federal funding have been key to the city’s vaunted revival. The University of Massachusetts Lowell is one of the city’s primary economic engines, and much of downtown is part of a US National Historical Park, a designation that has paved the way for the redevelopment of millions of square feet of once-vacant mills into museums, housing, and offices.
The peculiarity of Lowell’s political institutions in this day and age is not lost on Marty Meehan, the Lowell native and former congressman who formerly ran UMass Lowell and now oversees the entire UMass system. “It’s a subject I’ve given a lot of thought to,” says Meehan. “All neighborhoods should be represented. When you have everyone elected at-large, it doesn’t ensure they’ll be represented.”
In today’s Lowell, the result is that political power has become a matter of the haves and have-nots.
ENTER THE CAMBODIANS
In recent years, Cambodians have begun flexing their political muscle, much as earlier waves of Irish, Greek, and French-Canadian immigrants did. The city’s most celebrated political son, Paul Tsongas, was the child of a Greek immigrant father who owned a dry-cleaning business. Tsongas launched his political career as a Lowell city councilor, rose to become elected to the US Senate in 1978, and sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. Tsongas was instrumental in the creation of the National Historical Park, part of a lifelong mission to revive his hometown.
The Irish-Americans who once toiled in the city’s mills also clambered their way into politics. In the 1880s, the image of Lowell’s iconic St. Patrick’s Church was added to the city seal, a not-so-subtle attempt by Irish leaders to put their stamp on the city, in the view of local historian Richard Howe Jr. Today, the city council and school committee remain well-populated with Irish, French, and Greek surnames.
But for the Cambodians of Lowell, planting their flag in local politics has proven extraordinarily difficult. In the November 2015 election for city council and school committee, there were six Cambodian candidates on the ballot, the most in the city’s history. Not a single candidate won.
To be sure, Cambodians in Lowell have enjoyed a small measure of success at the ballot box. In 1999, Rithy Uong became the first Cambodian elected to the city council, a milestone that garnered national attention. He served two terms. In 2011, a prominent local Cambodian leader, Vesna Nuon, was elected to the council, but he was unable to hold onto the seat in the next election, nor to regain it in the most recent one.
“People would like to see someone sit on the council not just for one term, but on a continuous basis, and eventually they want to see a Cambodian mayor,” says Paul Ratha Yem, one of the unsuccessful candidates in last fall’s election. “That would be the ultimate goal, and everybody talks about that.”
Yem, who supports going to a combination district-based/at-large system, spoke at his real estate office, where he keeps a picture of John F. Kennedy over his desk and some campaign signs stashed in a corner.
Low turnout is commonly cited as the main reason the Asian community doesn’t fare better in city elections. But while turnout is low in the Lower Highlands compared to Belvidere, it’s not unusually low for municipal elections in the state. For example, it ranged from 15 to 25 percent in 2013. In Boston, by comparison, citywide turnout was below 14 percent in the last city election. For his part, Nuon, who was a top vote-getter in the main Lower Highlands wards in his previous elections, expects that establishing a political foothold in Lowell is going to be a slog.
“There’s still kind of an old-boys network.” Nuon says. “Maybe you have to work double-hard than someone who is more affluent and has lived a long time in Lowell.”
Lowell’s Cambodians notched another historic victory in November 2014, when Rady Mom was elected state representative. He is believed to be the first Cambodian-American state legislator in the country.
While Mom’s election was hailed as a milestone by many of Lowell’s elected leaders, it could also be taken as evidence that a more narrowly-drawn district would favor Cambodian candidates. Mom’s district includes the heart of the Cambodian community and excludes the less diverse eastern side of the city, including Belvidere.
Mom, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2005, also has issues with the at-large system. “Finally, for the first time, we have six candidates, and they all worked very hard,” Mom says, referring to the large number of Cambodian candidates in the most recent city election. “But what can I say when you don’t have the turnout?”
It isn’t only minority candidates who have a hard time getting elected in Lowell. Derek Mitchell, who moved to the city after serving in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, ran for a city council seat in 2013. Mitchell has led several local nonprofits, and his wife is a founder of an urban community gardening program. He was in many ways an ideal representative for the young professionals and creative types that Lowell officials have sought to attract to the city.
But while Mitchell had a good showing for a “blow-in,” as he jokingly refers to himself, he still finished 12th among 18 candidates. This was despite a vigorous campaign that involved going door-to-door across the city, even to public housing projects that are terra incognita for most candidates.
Mitchell says making a lasting impression on voters in Lowell is a daunting task for a candidate of any ethnicity or background, especially given the scant press coverage of local government these days. How, he wonders, are residents really supposed to distinguish among several dozen candidates on a single ballot?
“They don’t have any frame of reference for who to vote for other than, ‘Oh, I went to high school with that guy’s nephew, or, oh, that person lived down the street from my grandmother,’” he says.
THE POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT
It was a cold night in early January when the Donald Trump show came to Lowell, a seemingly unlikely setting given the city’s Democratic reputation. Even more surprising to many locals was the presence at the speech, at UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Center, of two city councilors who were photographed holding signs of support for the Republican presidential candidate.
One of them was Rita Mercier, a Democrat and born-and-bred Lowellian who is one of the city’s most popular politicians. Mercier, who is known for her tell-it-like-it-is manner, insists she was mainly drawn to the event because of Trump’s celebrity status, not because she endorses his controversial statements about immigrants.
“I went there because this is America. I can go wherever I want and so can you,” she says. “I happen to love The Apprentice,” she says of the reality TV show Trump hosted. “Does Donald Trump make some good points? Yeah, he does. Do I agree with everything he says? Absolutely not.”
Mercier, like most elected officials in Lowell, supports the at-large system. “I don’t have a problem with the way it is,” she says, while acknowledging that “new immigrants may feel not represented.”
City Councilor Edward Kennedy, Lowell’s current mayor, sees the at-large system as intrinsic to the city’s Plan E strong city manager form of government. Because the city manager serves at the pleasure of the councilors, it’s important that they have the interests of the city as a whole in mind and not get mired in parochial concerns, he says. “It’s very conducive to economic development and to reacting more quickly in some ways than other forms of municipal government,” Kennedy says.
Not every incumbent backs the at-large system. At the city council meeting in late February, Councilor Rodney Elliott made a surprise motion to consider going to a combination at-large and ward-based election system. “Very clearly, there is a lack of representation coming from those particular neighborhoods, and certainly they represent more of our diverse population,” says Elliott, one of the few councilors who live outside Belvidere. Elliott couldn’t even get a second to his motion.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM
Elliott’s motion wasn’t the first time an effort to change the election system in Lowell came to naught. In 2009, local activists put an initiative on the ballot to have the city adopt proportional representation. Under the system, which is used in Cambridge, voters get to rank their choices of candidates. In this way, those who are well-liked and have solid constituencies would likely fare better than mediocre candidates who simply have familiar names.
But Lowell voters solidly rejected the measure — not a surprising outcome, perhaps, given that a majority of residents are unlikely to vote to upend a system that has favored them.
For those bent on changing the system in Lowell, there is what might be termed the nuclear option: Getting the US Justice Department involved and even bringing a federal lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 of the landmark law prohibits voting schemes that “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
George Pillsbury, a Massachusetts-based consultant with Nonprofit Vote and a longtime voting rights advocate, says there is precedent for DOJ involvement.
“These all at-large elections have been subject to a lot of litigation under the Voting Rights Act because they were specifically used in the South to ensure all-white city councils,” he says.
Federal pressure has been brought to bear against other Massachusetts cities in recent years. In 2002, Lawrence redrew its district lines in response to DOJ claims that the boundaries had been rigged against the city’s large Hispanic community. (Since then, Lawrence’s city council has become majority Hispanic, and the city has had two Hispanic mayors.)
Springfield, perhaps, offers a more salient example. In 2005, a coalition of civil rights groups sued the city in federal court over its all at-large electoral system. After years of resisting any changes, the city council submitted a home rule petition to the Legislature to expand the council to include eight ward and five at-large seats; the lawsuit was dropped. The council has since become considerably more diverse.
The idea of getting the Justice Department involved in Lowell has been kicked around over the years, but it has never risen to the level of bringing a formal complaint. Several observers have noted that the Cambodian community in particular doesn’t want to rock the boat, and bringing in the feds would no doubt generate some serious waves in the city.
Yem, the council candidate in the 2015 election, says he was concerned federal action could “tarnish the reputation” of Lowell. “I’m hoping it doesn’t have to come to that,” he says.
RACE, POLITICS, AND A STUDENT ELECTION
One of the 2015 candidates for Lowell School Committee was Benjamin Opara, a businessman originally from Nigeria whose children attended city schools. Opara first ran, unsuccessfully, for the school board in 2009. He says one of his main concerns was the lack of nonwhite teachers and school leaders. One of his kids had joked that the only staff at the high school who weren’t white were the janitors. Opara didn’t think it was very funny.
As it happened, five weeks before last year’s city election, another election thrust the issue of race — a subject that goes largely unmentioned in the local political discourse — into the spotlight. On September 29, Lowell High School held its election for student body president, and the winner was an African-American, the son of immigrants from Cameroon.
Not long after the results were announced, a group of students who had supported a white candidate exchanged angry text messages, including one that said “rule out blacks and #MakeLHSGreatAgain” — apparently a nod to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. Another message referred to the victor and other African-American students as “niggas.”
The text messages went viral and two days later the school suspended six students who participated in the exchange. Lowell public schools Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui commended the high school leaders in a letter for acting “swiftly and decisively.”
But if administrators had hoped for a quick end to the episode, subsequent revelations would complicate their efforts.
Khelfaoui had refused to disclose the identities of the suspended students, insisting they were minors. But a local paper, The Valley Patriot, did some digging and discovered that the white candidate for student body president, who was also suspended for participating in the texting, was in fact 18 years old. What’s more, he was the son of a prominent school board member, Stephen Gendron, a Belvidere resident who had previously served on the city council. In addition, the newly-elected student president alleged that a high school administrator tried to get him to pose for a photo with one of the texters, to be posted online to show that the parties had reconciled.
As concerns about the handling of the incident mounted, Khelfaoui announced that an independent task force would be formed to investigate and present its findings. The task force’s report was released in late January, but it contained a level of redaction one might expect of a CIA intelligence report.
Among the withheld portions was a chronology of the texting incident and administrators’ response. The publicly available portion of the report was two-and-a-half pages of recommendations primarily on the need to diversify the district staff — an issue that should not have been a revelation to the school committee and other city officials. (A motion to “promote the hiring of staff members from diverse backgrounds” had been approved by the school committee nearly two years earlier.)
The student president’s parents remain dismayed by the district’s response. They say they were never consulted by the task force, nor informed when the report was released.
“It makes me believe more that things like this have been happening at Lowell High, and things have been shoved under the table,” says Khien Awasom-Nkimbeng, the student’s mother. “Nobody is trying to see what happened or how the school handled this. The administration failed seriously, and nobody is handling that part of it.”
The parents are working with a local attorney, who has not ruled out legal action against the district.
Khelfaoui did not respond to requests for an interview, nor did Gendron, the school board member. An attorney for the school committee, who was responsible for withholding much of the task force report, declined a public records request to release the full report, largely citing employee privacy.
The task force report was on the agenda of the school committee at a meeting in February, but only one member spoke for more than a few minutes about it, and she expressed understanding of the need to withhold most of the report from the public.
Opara, the former school board candidate, says he has “absolutely no doubt” that the panel’s response would have been very different, both to the task force report and to the larger issues around race, if there was even one minority voice on the school committee. “The discussion would be different, and the outcome would be healthier and our city would be healthier,” Opara says.As for the recent city election, Opara again came up short in his bid for a seat on the school committee. The top vote-getter: Stephen Gendron, the father of the suspended student president candidate. He won by a far wider margin than he did in the previous election.
Ted Siefer is a New England-based journalist who has covered state and local government, among other matters, for a wide range of outlets, including Reuters, the Boston Globe and the Center for Public Integrity. He currently resides in Lowell.