Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 27, 2012

Harvard Crimson Archive – The Great Cambridge Mayoral Marathon of 1948

Filed under: Cambridge,Cambridge government,City Council — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 2:24 pm

The Harvard Crimson has a searchable archive that can’t be beat. With the current comedy of the unresolved Cambridge mayoral election, I thought it might be worth looking at some of the accounts of the Marathon of 1948 when it took four months, 35 sessions, and 1,321 ballots before finally electing Michael J. Neville as Mayor. There are a few archiving errors here and there, some of which I’ve edited, but you’ll get the picture. Links to all of the Crimson articles are provided. – Robert Winters

Smash Hit
Published: Friday, January 16, 1948

A few blocks down Massachusetts Avenue one of the best farces to be produced in many years is showing nightly before a packed house. Opening night at the show was not the sensation that one might expect, for at the time there was no indication that the play would have such a run. It has already put ten performances behind it and threatens to continue indefinitely.

There is no real lead in the play. Top roles are shared by nine men, all of whom happen to be members of the Cambridge City Council. Their acting is well nigh flawless. The plot is centered around the futile and ludicrous efforts of a City Council to elect a mayor from among the members of the Council. To date they have held 319 ballots, and no one has been chosen, though at a point early in the balloting one of the actors had four votes and needed only his own to make him mayor of the city. Fortunately he was too modest to vote for himself. That would have spoiled the whole performance.

There have been some charges that the entire plot was lifted from one of the early Mack Sennett comedies. The good boys (stamped by the CCA) are battling the bad boys (Micky Sullivan’s cohorts). But the good boys can’t agree upon a plan of action, so they are thwarted at every turn. Eventually, just when it seems sure that the bad boys have won the day, they will be confused by some daring stratagem, and virtue will reign triumphant–maybe.

The final touch of irony is added by the fact that even if someone does eventually get elected mayor, it will be a hollow victory. For Cambridge has a City Manager type of government, commonly known in Massachusetts as Plan E. The Manager is the person who really runs the city; the mayor glories in his title and draws down an extra thousand shekels a year.

Promoters in other cities have been watching the production with great interest. Perhaps they plan to institute similar productions all over the country. And well they might. An election marathon has infinitely greater possibilities than six day bicycle racing. It is a much funnier and far less tiring form of indoor sport.

Divide and Flounder
Published: Monday, February 16, 1948

On January 5th, nine ambitious men gathered at City Hall to elect a Mayor of Cambridge. Today, seven weeks and 841 futile ballots later, the City Council is still unable to decide which one among them shall serve as the chief executive. The filibuster has seen the Council Chamber criss-crossed by vicious political tracers, it has turned simple ambition into bitter perversity, and has delayed vital legislation. Resulting from a hopelessly disorganized political system and a calculated smear campaign by a few professional politicians, the lengthy stalemate can only give the Councilmen enough rope to hang themselves and possibly the city along with them.

The fact that a deadlock has been allowed to drag on for seven dreary weeks is an eloquent commentary on the current state of Cambridge politics. Although elections are fought on a broad reform and anti-reform basis, there is a complete absence of party discipline among members of the same faction. Each man views his legislative duties in the light of his personal ambitions and thus obviates any hope for concerted action. The returns from the November election gave the backers of Managerial government and proportional representation a clear cut majority of five men on the City Council. It should have been a simple matter to elect a Mayor by a majority vote. The reformists, all backed by the Cambridge Civic Association, promptly developed a schism and gummed the work. Former Mayor John D. Lynch claims a supernatural mandate from the people. His dearest friend, Hyman Pill, has cast 841 votes for the man with a mandate. Messrs. Deguglielmo, Crane, and Swan, also of the CCA, dislike and distrust Lynch and have split their three votes among themselves. These men are the backers of Plan E. They are responsible for its continuing success in a city that still wants to be shown. If, through personal ambition and mutual dislike, they discredit that most excellent plan, one can only guess to what depths their I.Q. has plummeted.

What was originally a worthless minority of four anti-Plan E votes on the City Council now looms as the strongest group. The unexpected fratricide among reformists has proved a strategic godsend to the men intent on discrediting Plan E and proportional representation in the eyes of the electorate. PR forces a candidate before the entire city for re-election instead of allowing him the relative security of a small well-organized Ward. Such a plan constitutes a direct menace to professional politicos like Sullivan, Foley, Sennott, and Neville. Their political futures demand an inoperative government and a continuing stalemate. Although these men have had it within their power to elect one of themselves Mayor several times they have always split their vote. At one point Neville, having three anti-reform votes, received an unexpected CCA ballot. Mickey (the dude) Sullivan was last to vote and cast a ballot for John D, Lynch, one of his bitter political enemies. There was no Mayor elected that day. As long as the opposing factions in the reform camp insist on feuding, these men will be able to extend the filibuster indefinitely.

All improvements, budgets, and vacancies come under the jurisdiction of a School Committee headed by the Mayor. If there is no Mayor, the committee cannot function and any successful operation of the schools becomes impossible. Cambridge’s educational program, recently the target of a lengthy report by Professor Simpson, is badly antiquated and desperately in need of overhauling. Any such revision of the school program can come only from the School Committee and for this reason alone the election of a Mayor is a matter that should be placed outside the realm of petty politics. Along with the general loss of prestige for Plan E, a more specific evil of this senseless stalemate is its crippling effect on the city’s school system.

Mickey’s Minstrels Carry On To Snap Long-Run Records
Published: Tuesday, February 17, 1948

Cambridge’s legislative carnival is now rocketing into its seventh fun-packed week and still no Mayor. With 841 sterile ballots to their credit since January 5th, the nine-man City Council is eagerly looking forward to the thousand mark, at which time, it is reported, each member will receive a complimentary copy of "Laughing Gas" by Dr. O. H. Schneiderman, anesthetist at Bregman Memorial Hospital.

Early rumors that a conscience-stricken Councilman would attempt to break the filibuster were squelched by an ugly counter-rumor that he wouldn’t.

1,220 Ballots, Yet Mayor’s Job Open
Published: Saturday, March 13, 1948

Ballot number 1,220 was cast last night in another futile attempt to elect a mayor for Cambridge.

Filing into the meeting 45 minutes late, the city’s nine uncompromising council-members didn’t once give the impression that they might accomplish anything. Even the clock on the council chamber wall was slow.

A crowd of 75 soda-drinking and candy-munching spectators heard Hyman Pill vote for himself 15 times, thereby preventing any majority vote.

To the observer, it was like one big poker game, with members of three determined cliques bluffing each other to see how long each would last out the game. Clouds of smoke thickened in the room, but the plot still looked clear. Cambridge would stay without a mayor.

Appointed Mayor May Halt City’s Election Comedy
Published: Saturday, April 24, 1948

Governor Bradford may soon confiscate the script of Cambridge’s most popular comedians.

He threatens to name City Clerk Frederick H. Burke to the long-disputed mayor’s post, and thereby put an end to the fruitless voting sessions that one gallery observer called "the most ludicrous burlesque I ever saw."

Although 1803 ballots have been cast since January 5, no mayor has been selected in the 34 voting sessions. Interspersed between each ballot, the council-men have slipped eggs in each other’s pockets, joked loudly, and even refused to swing the tide by voting for themselves. Hundreds of Cambridge citizens have come to the sessions, and have laughed, jeered, and insulted the actors on the councilroom stage. "Ridiculous," they ruefully admit between sips of lemonade.

No Signs in Cambridge
Not one new sign has been hung in Cambridge this year as one result of the lack of a mayor, for his signature is needed on every permit for a new bill-board or shingle. "No mayor, no sign," exasperated storekeepers explain.

But despite the apparent necessity of a mayor, local citizens won’t be entirely happy even when this long-awaited figurehead finally gets in the City Hall. If Governor Bradford appoints the city clerk to the post, and lets the Council play around with its fruitless elections on its own time, Cambridge will loose its most recently discovered amusement center–the council chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

Any such action from Beacon Hill would set a political precedent, but what is even more important, it would at last give Cambridge a man down at City Hall with enough power and prestige to issue okays for the newly painted shingles that must now stay inside its stores.

Mayor’s Nest
Published: Thursday, April 29, 1948

After 1,321 ballots and countless pocketed raw eggs, the Cambridge City Council has reached the end of the road. It was a long road and often a comic one, but last Friday the councilmen met for the thirty-sixth time and decided not to vote again. They didn’t have to, for they had finally elected a mayor.

How the group arrived at this unprecedented decision is still unclear. Since January 5, each councilman found his own desires stronger than the theoretical interest of the group; though there was no crucial issue keeping the factions apart, no candidate garnered a majority. A major attempt to force a compromise and end the haggling failed in February, but virtually the same plan succeeded last Friday when five votes seated Michael Neville. Regardless of whether the elusive majority materialized with the Spring, or whether it stemmed from Governor Bradford’s edict to produce or else, the shouting is over and the Mayor’s chair is filled.

Filling the vacancy won’t exactly clear up confusion for there was little confusion to begin with. The Cambridge City Manager attended to all routine chores during the interregnum–only the School Committee was held inactive. Now that Mr. Neville is elected, the School Committee can roam at will, and signs can once more be posted bearing the mayor’s signature. Only one questions remains: do these advantages really compensate for the loss of the famed Councilmen capers? Mayors are good to have, but vaudeville is priceless.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for posting these. Just a fantastic look into Cambridge history. This is the kind of stuff that I thrive on.

    Comment by Joe Aiello — January 28, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: