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The Votes Are In

The Harbus recaps November’s local election results in Cambridge and Boston.

On November 7, voters nationwide turned out to the polls for state and municipal elections. At January’s swearing-in ceremonies, Cambridge will welcome three challengers to its nine-person City Council, and Boston four to its group of 13.

In Cambridge, voters elected all six incumbents on the ballot back into office. The three new entrants include Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, who returns to City Council after a narrow defeat in 2021, as well as Ayesha Wilson and Joan Pickett.

Bike safety and affordable housing were top-priority issues this election. Leading up to the election, advocacy group Cambridge Bicycle Safety asked candidates to sign the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Pledge. Candidates signing the pledge indicated their support for the Cycling Safety Ordinance, a statute that would require the city to add 25 miles of separated bike lanes over the next several years. On housing, just this October the city passed amendments to Cambridge’s 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay, raising height limits from 12 to 15 stories for qualifying developments. While the majority of City Council is supportive of increasing affordable housing supply, debate persists as to the best way to do so.

The three elected challengers offer mixed perspectives on these core voter concerns. Pickett, formerly Chairman of Cambridge Streets for All, indicated her opposition to both initiatives on the grounds that they oversimplify issues that are not “one and done.” Cambridge School Committee’s Ayesha Wilson, who grew up in Cambridge’s Jefferson Park housing development, supports the housing code amendments as necessary to increase affordability and supply. Sobrinho-Wheeler, who was a driving force behind the original 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay and Cycling Safety Ordinance in his last term on council, remains supportive of both in their current forms.

In total, Cambridge received 23,321 valid ballots (up 7% from 2021). The candidates, in aggregate, spent $412,069 on their campaigns in 2023, with incumbent Paul Toner leading the pack at $87,783. Per candidates’ Municipal Election Campaign Finance Reports, there is a clear positive correlation between total campaign expenditure and first-place votes received.

Recent Harvard graduate Ayah Al-Zubi (AB ’23), who narrowly missed a seat with the 10th-most votes, spent $4,000, or 87% below the average spent by a winning candidate. When considering disparities in total campaign spending, one must weigh questions of equity in access to funds with the importance of being able to raise capital from supporters. One helpful metric is spending efficiency, or campaign expenditure per vote earned.

Notably, there is only a modest negative relationship between spending efficiency and electoral outcomes. Incumbent Councilor and current Mayor, Sumbul Siddiqui, was the highest vote-getter and posted the best spending efficiency among those elected: $6.50/first-place vote. All else equal, a candidate’s need to spend less to earn a vote suggests a more favorable public impression, implying a good fit for the role. However, here one must consider the incumbent advantage –the six incumbents returning to City Council (and one returning after one term away) benefit from branding and word-of-mouth accumulated during their time in office.

Net-net, the Cambridge elections signal continuity, with a modest shift towards the center after two of the Council’s more progressive incumbent members chose not to run. The nine Councilors have been elected to two-year terms, and will vote among themselves to choose the city’s next Mayor.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu (BA ’07, JD ’12) endorsed four progressive candidates, and all four emerged victorious – Enrique Pepén over Jose Ruiz (District 5), Benjamin Weber over William King (District 6), Sharon Durkan over Montez Haywood (District 8) and Henry Santana in the at-large election. In District 3, where long-time Councilor Frank Baker chose not to run, moderate candidate John FitzGerald won with the backing of former Mayor Marty Walsh. Ruthzee Louijeune, incumbent Councilor and former senior attorney on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, was the lead vote-getter in the at-large field.

Thus, five new faces (including Durkan, who took office in a July 2023 special election) will join eight re-elected incumbents, including Liz Breadon (District 8, home to HBS) on Boston’s City Council.

Thank you to all in the HBS community who made the effort to vote.

Tim Ford (MBA ’25) is originally from New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Commerce and Spanish in 2018, and completed an M.Phil. in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge in 2019. Prior to the HBS MBA, Tim worked in growth equity in San Francisco.

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