The Crayola candidate
Campaign Trail by Jason Gay
MacKinnon was born two days after Christmas 1962, in Hartford, Connecticut.
Since then, he's attended prep school, formed a rock band called Nietzsche and
a Horse, enrolled at Columbia University, dropped out, worked construction,
sold wine, hawked raffle tickets, joined a theater ensemble that performed for
prisoners, moved to Boston, served as a caseworker for a cerebral palsy
patient, earned a BA at Harvard, gotten married, answered the phone at help
line for the elderly, fact-checked at a magazine, worked at a Buddhist
foundation, and recently, for the first time, ended up on the unemployment
It's been a busy life, to say the least, and throughout, MacKinnon has
maintained a passion for the arts. He played music, wrote plays, and
established his own drama company, the Artezani Theatre. He joined his current
rock band, the Burrs. He also developed a reputation as a brutally funny
political satirist and street performer, using humor to protest the war on
drugs and US involvement in Central America. His confrontational performances
sometimes landed him in trouble. In 1990, he was arrested outside a Boston
rally for Nelson Mandela; the following is an excerpt from the police report:
A white male, later identified as Ian M. MacKinnon, was causing a
disturbance . . . by causing a large crowd gathering . . .
by displaying an obscene object (a Nixon plastic face) in groin area while
zipper is down.
For the record, MacKinnon says that the Boston police had it all
wrong; the mask was in his groin area, but it was Ronald Reagan's face, not
Nixon's. But he proudly used his arrest to publicize the way he felt the city
mistreated and misunderstood artists, particularly street performers. He
continued to wage this war in Cambridge, where he moved three years ago with
his wife (and fellow Burr), Rebecca Ostriker. MacKinnon publicly criticized the
city's outdoor permitting process for street performers, which he viewed as too
restrictive and too expensive for low-income artists.
MacKinnon's outspokenness earned him some political notice, especially among
creative types and younger Cantabridgians. Earlier this summer, prodded by
friends who wanted to improve the relationship between City Hall and city
artists, MacKinnon decided to throw his name into the crowded council race. His
wife wasn't surprised at his choice.
"He's always been very extroverted, very willing to stand up and talk," says
Ostriker, an editor at the magazine New Age Journal. "But I think he
really likes the idea of politics, and doing more for the community."
Indeed, MacKinnon does possess a certain political polish. Beneath that
wild-child exterior is an articulate candidate with an Ivy League degree in
government and a wide-ranging knowledge of political and art history. He's
modeled parts of his campaign on that of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater
director who, upon being elected to his country's parliament, installed his
drama company as his legislative staff. Though MacKinnon doesn't plan the same
for Cambridge -- in fact, he says he's eager to work with the current council
members -- he is determined to bring the artistic and political worlds
And MacKinnon doesn't mind a little rabble-rousing to make his point. In late
July, he wrapped City Hall in red tape (literally: he ran around the building,
tape in hand) to lampoon Cambridge's political gridlock. Future campaign events
will include a life-size game of Monopoly to protest ongoing Cambridge
development, the unveiling of a "community art board" at the Harvest Food Coop
in Central Square, and an outdoor city council debate on October 18, organized
by MacKinnon's campaign manager, Zeitgeist Gallery director Al Nidle.
"I think Ian's the only candidate out there who's being proactive, who's
talking about new ideas," says Nidle, who has never worked on a political
campaign until now. "I think everyone else stands for the status quo."
To date, MacKinnon has pretty much ignored the status quo. His maverick
campaign is driven by a belief that with the loss of rent control and the
influx of new businesses and apartment complexes, Cambridge may lose what's
left of its shrinking creative community. "I really have deep sympathy, and it
springs from experience, for people who are trying to create real culture," he
MacKinnon thinks it's real culture, not politics, that will ultimately save
the Cambridge way of life. He's encouraging increased arts spending in local
schools, community centers, hospitals, homeless shelters, even halfway houses.
He wants the city to hire more arts teachers and develop programs to create job
opportunities for Cambridge's youngest artists. And, of course, there's his
free-money pledge -- a formidable $41,000 over two years, which MacKinnon will
attempt to match with an equal amount in foundation, individual, and corporate
How this will play in City Hall, MacKinnon isn't sure. He remains a true
outsider, an unknown quantity in a city that teems with old-school politickers.
There are rivals who see him as a playful jester with some interesting ideas.
There are others, no doubt, who view him as a fruitcake. But MacKinnon's been
getting some ink in local papers (including a profile in the Cambridge
Chronicle), and more important, he's attracting a band of merry pranksters
capable of stealing some important votes.
The other candidates may look at me as a flake," MacKinnon says proudly.
"But I'm a flake they can no longer ignore."
Jason Gay can be reached at email@example.com.