The Boston Phoenix
October 9 - 16, 1997


The Crayola candidate

Oddball Cambridge City Council challenger Ian MacKinnon wants to bring more art into local politics, and he's willing to donate half the position's salary to prove his point

Campaign Trail by Jason Gay

Ian MacKinnon is nuts. At least that's what the passersby think, as they scurry past MacKinnon, his lips pressed to a purple plastic megaphone, screaming his lungs out on a recent afternoon in Harvard Square. It's half past noon, the lunch crowd has just ventured outdoors, and you can see pedestrians swerve to avoid MacKinnon as he stands near the Red Line subway entrance, red-faced, left arm flailing, passionately raging about big government, big business -- and the need for more poetry in contemporary politics.

But MacKinnon, a gawky, brown-haired 34-year-old, isn't some sidewalk crackpot. He's a candidate for Cambridge City Council, and today's Harvard Square venture is just an old-fashioned campaign stop -- an opportunity for MacKinnon to press flesh, hand out brochures, and speak to the voting masses. With a pair of campaign volunteers gripping hand-painted MACKINNON FOR CITY COUNCIL signs nearby, MacKinnon paces the red brick plaza like an expectant father until he seizes upon a thought, halts, and reaches again for his megaphone.

"If you have an idea for a comic book," MacKinnon begins, "if you have an idea for a high opera, if you have an idea for an art show in a homeless shelter or a fine art gallery, you should speak to me . . . I will give you money!"

When MacKinnon barks out this last item, a few of the pedestrians stop in their tracks. People have been doing that since July, when MacKinnon announced his candidacy and pledged that if elected, he'll contribute half of his annual $41,000 city council salary toward art grants for Cambridge residents. It's a gimmick, to be sure -- some question whether MacKinnon can legally fork over his earnings to residents -- but it's getting the first-time political candidate an unexpected hiccup of public and media attention.

MacKinnon is more than campaign stunts and good press, however. His free-money pledge is part of a broader agenda aimed at integrating more art into both the Cambridge political scene and the city itself. MacKinnon, who has been a theater director, actor, writer, dancer, and choreographer, believes that Cambridge isn't doing enough to encourage its artistic community, and he wants to lead a "cultural renaissance" in the city. He's pushing for lower rents, cheaper performance space, and generous grant programs to attract and keep artists in Cambridge. MacKinnon's aiming his offbeat appeal at the city's artists, students, and other groups traditionally ignored by the political mainstream.

The candidate has formed his own political organization, the Art and Performance Party, and patched together a campaign staff of local artists. He has no money to speak of, but he's got a small, passionate following of people who think he can bring some badly needed spark to the tepid state of Cambridge politics. Despite Cambridge's cosmopolitan reputation and the past successes of alternative candidates (such as the openly gay councilor and ex-mayor Ken Reeves), the current council isn't exactly developing a reputation for creativity or vision. Voter apathy is high. It's an efficient but dull scene, and that's why some people feel what Cambridge needs right now is a political nut, a raconteur -- a role that Ian MacKinnon, purple megaphone and all, seems destined to play.

On to part 2

Jason Gay can be reached at
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