Northeastern Disorientation

Getting Involved in Local Politics

 · 5 mins read

This upcoming election day - November 7, 2017 - Boston, Cambridge and Somerville will have local elections for city councillors and mayors. These elections offer an opportunity for those living in these cities to elect representatives who will take important actions to deal with the major problems facing the Boston area.

Boston and the surrounding cities are facing a range of issues. These include skyrocketing housing costs which lead to massive levels of displacement; a lack of resources for public education and proposed budget cuts to Boston Public Schools; decreasing quality of public transportation; the need for increased immigrant protections to truly make Boston a sanctuary city; and a minimum wage that is far from a living wage.

This is, of course, only an overview of a wide range of issues, and electing certain candidates will not necessarily be the way to solve all of these problems. Many of these issues are complex, and may not be able to be adequately addressed by the city government alone. Minimum wage, for example, is generally set by the state. And electing candidates is certainly not the only way to address these problems. Grassroots civic engagement, citizens placing pressure both on government and private institutions will also be vital.

But generally, the mayor and the city council have the power to make progressive changes that would have positive effects on the lives of the average Bostonian. Potential changes include increasing the mandatory levels of affordable housing in new developments and changing the way new developments are approved to increase community power in these decisions; implementing a just-cause eviction policy that would protect tenants from no-fault evictions in which a landlord evicts a tenant simply to gain higher rents; and refusing to co-operate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As students, we have a unique opportunity to be involved in these elections and to support the candidates who will do the most to support the best interests of all city residents. Northeastern alone has around 18,000 undergraduate students. In the 2015 Boston elections, Tito Jackson won the District 7 City Council seat - the district where most Northeastern students would be able to vote - with only 2,983 votes. In 2013, Marty Walsh won the mayor’s seat with 72,514 votes, beating his competitor by only about 5,000 votes. These are not massive numbers, and voter turnout of students in local elections is generally extremely low. By motivating students at Northeastern and other schools to turn out to vote, students could have a sizeable impact on these elections.

Northeastern students will be able to vote directly for the mayor, for at-large city councillors (city-councillors who are chosen by the whole city), and for the councillor of whichever district they live in (for Northeastern, this is generally District 7, including off-campus students living in the Mission HIll area). Besides the elections we can directly vote in, students can also get involved by volunteering for local candidates.

Many grassroots candidates are particularly in need of enthusiastic canvassers. This is especially important for those candidates running against powerful and well-funded incumbents.  While those candidates with large coffers from corporate backers have an advantage, in local campaigns, this advantage can be overcome in a way that is often not possible for elections on larger scales. A dedicated team of canvassers goes a long way to evening the field. Many of these candidates will be trying to quite literally knock on every door in their district.

This election season has the potential to see progressive challengers unseat more conservative incumbents. In Somerville, a major new development project is at risk of raising rents and displacing residents. The project’s corporate developers are attempting to receive approval from the city to build a lower amount of affordable housing than is legally required. Several city councilors are currently receiving campaign donations from real estate developers and seem willing to prioritize the profits of developers over the needs of the community. Candidates including J.T. Scott and Ben Ewen-Campen are running against these incumbents on explicitly pro-affordable housing platforms. In Boston, the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA), which is appointed by the mayor, is similarly turning a deaf ear to the needs of citizens when it comes to new developments. In recent months, the BPDA board has approved plans JP/Rox and Tremont Crossing in the face of direct protest from community members who demanded higher levels of affordable housing. Mayor Marty Walsh is facing a challenge from Tito Jackson, who spoke out at the BPDA meeting against these building plans. Including housing, Jackson generally takes a more progressive stance than Walsh; but he faces an uphill battle, as Boston has a long tradition of reinstating incumbent mayors looking for re-election.

As students, it is important that we engage in electoral politics in a way that benefits the people of Boston. This means all of the City’s residents, not just college students. Many of us will not live in Boston after university. This may make it seem unimportant to get involved in local politics, but we have the opportunity to work with community members in ways that may help to create long term, positive change. When possible, our work must always be in partnership with the permanent residents of the City; we fight with the people of Boston.

If you have a Massachusetts-issued ID or driver's license, you can register to vote online. If not, this site has instructions for voter registration by mail or in person. Northeastern student organizations such as Generation Citizen conduct voter registration on campus.