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  • Patrick Barrett

    Larry,

    The problem with you speaking about campaign finance corruption at a hearing that was primarily about whether Cambridge should move forward (finally) on a zoning change that will bring much needed housing and help revitalize Central Square made it easy to cross the streams and infer that you were suggesting that anyone in favor of this zoning change is in cahoots. Cambridge’s election cycle and its councilors, as daffy and lovable as they are, represent to me a great model of democracy. Anyone can run and become a councilor with minimal effort and almost no money at all (don’t you like amateurs in politics?). Further, the amount one can give is paltry in comparison to the PACs and silliness one sees on the national stage. Your intrusion on the zoning discussion was offensive to someone like me who has spent the past five years trying to explain to entrenched NIMBYs and those who have written off Central Square, why euclidean zoning is an anachronism with no place in modern design. (see: The Laws That Choke Creativity). Cambridge hasn’t even changed our classification of uses in over fifty years! We tried comprehensive reform and a candidate likened the result to “Pearl Harbor” … and he won! So will the 77% you casually suggested were on the take abandon zoning reform for another couple of years? I hope not, but I at least think you should be able to piece together why some folks are a bit angry. On the flip side of your own argument, what is one to do if they don’t want to waive signs around, or call people at dinner time, or knock door to door to support “their” candidate? In my opinion some of what you espouse exists in a vacuum. I donate to all the councilors because I genuinely like how the system works, however I am a “developer” and I do own property in most parts of Cambridge, so should I recuse myself whenever something I care about is before the council if there is a chance I could financially benefit? How far down the rabbit hole should one take that mentality? Further, I don’t have time to run around with signs and I like my neighbors too much to knock/call/robocall; unless of course the matter is BBQ or whiskey related. In short you are right, how campaigns are funded is an important issue when dissecting how decisions are made, but it isn’t the only one, and in this situation your timing was just awful.

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  • http://saultannenbaum.org/ Saul Tannenbaum

    Myself, I divide the world up into two difference kinds of people:

    - folks who believe that money corrupts the political system
    - folks who might believe that money corrupts the political system but are using it as tactical issue in a fight that really isn’t about the corrupting influence of money

    Framing the “money corrupts politics” discussion as “developers give money, development decisions are corrupt” is a disservice. You start with the fact that, as a strong City Manager goverment, the vast majority of decisions are made by professional staff largely insulated from politics. Add to that the fact Cambridge continues to have one of the most restrictive land use regimes on the planet where the vast majority of the City isn’t being developed. If the process were truly corrupt, why isn’t my block being bought up and redeveloped? In focusing where you did, you were arguing at the margins of the margins. That doesn’t make what you had to say less true, but the substance of the issue is motivated by other factors.

    As someone who supports both the zoning change that was being debated, and the removal of money from politics, I’ll share how I see it. We have a housing crisis in Cambridge, paired with a housing affordability crisis. We need to build housing and a lot of it. That housing will, for the most part, be built by developers, because that is, for better or for worse, capitalism. That development is being opposed by many people who have, themselves, become wealthiier by buying their Cambridge homes decades ago and letting their value climb (disclaimer: me, too). If money is corrupting systemically, isn’t it an equally fair argument to note that they are protecting their wealth by limiting the supply of housing and contributing to campaigns with a combination of money and sweat equity?

    The irony of discussing this at the margins is that we’ve actually experienced, in Cambridge, the case where someone bought the repeal of an ordinance for $500,000. The Council passed an ordinance changing sign policy and one wealthy person, who didn’t like the thought of Microsoft sign on his building, paid for professional signature gatherers and PR consultants to force a referendum on the ordinance. Very little of what said in petition campaign was true (no, Cambridge was not going to have billboards in parks), but the Council, faced with a public vote on the ordinance, repealed it. That was naked systemic corruption and not a single councilor received a campaign contribution.

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  • phung

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