For years, the talk about Cambridge's student voting power was just that --
talk. Can a city-council candidate from MIT walk the walk?
Cambridge by Jason Gay
Erik Snowberg's a nice kid. Go ahead, pat him on the head.
Now say it like your grandma would: Ain't he cute?
No need to condescend. Snowberg, a 22-year-old MIT student who's
running for the Cambridge City Council, is used to hearing compliments. He's a
bright, articulate triple major in physics, math, and geology. He's a solid
progressive, pro-rent-control and good on environmental issues. He's even got
the endorsement of the city's oldest political organization, the Cambridge
Civic Association (CCA).
Still, Snowberg's bid for City Hall is being taken about as seriously as a
write-in campaign for Mickey Mouse or Amanda Huggenkiss. Local pundits dismiss
his campaign as if it were a witty class project. Established pols merely pay
him lip service -- or blow him off entirely. Some even posit that the CCA's
endorsement of Snowberg is just a ploy to siphon votes from other contenders.
None of this bothers the neophyte candidate, however.
"People can ignore my candidacy," Snowberg says, barely concealing a smile.
"But they ignore it at their peril."
Here's why: Snowberg is launching one of the most aggressive student
voter-registration efforts Cambridge has seen in eons. By the end of this week,
Snowberg's campaign will have signed up nearly 500 students at MIT, where
school just started last week. The plan is to register several times
that many over the 90 days before November's election. Snowberg says he's
"realistically" shooting for 2000 to 3000 new voters.
The potential impact of several thousand new voters in a local election
is enormous, especially in Cambridge. The city elects its nine councilors via
proportional representation, which means voters rank their choices for office
in preferential order. If just 10 percent of voters rank you first, it's
enough to win, so a relatively small constituency can get someone elected. In
1997, for example, incumbent councilor Henrietta Davis won re-election with
just 926 first-place votes.
To Snowberg and his campaign staff, that number seems reachable. There surely
must be 926 votes lurking in just three college dormitories. And because he's a
student himself, Snowberg's a natural choice for nearly all the area's college
students. Throw in the help of a CCA endorsement, the theory goes, and he's a
bona fide contender.
"He's a serious candidate," says Joel Rosenberg, a recent MIT grad who ran a
democracy teach-in with Snowberg last April. "It's not a joke."
The big "if," of course, is the reliability of students as voters. Though
students make up nearly a fifth of Cambridge's population of 95,000, the city's
campuses have been regarded as a kind of political no-man's land. Historically,
students don't register, students don't vote -- and some students couldn't find
City Hall if they were standing in front of it. Fewer than 50 MIT
students voted in the last city-council election.
"Ninety-nine percent of MIT students don't know [Cambridge mayor] Frank Duehay
from Franklin Delano Roosevelt," says Snowberg's campaign manager, Eric
But Snowberg and his MIT cohorts aren't waiting around for their peers to
awaken from their slumbers. Snowberg's voter-registration drive isn't some
half-assed, "wanna take a voting card?" kind of effort: his crew is soliciting
student voters with the gusto of a Best Buy salesperson hawking DVDs. They are
in school hallways and courtyards nearly every day. They plan on taking
registration cards and going door-to-door ("dorm to dorm," Plosky says) at both
MIT and Harvard. They've virtually hijacked the MIT student newspaper, the
Tech (Snowberg and Plosky are on the staff). They're even recruiting
student volunteers from outside the city: on a recent afternoon, Snowberg
schooled a trio of BU undergrads on how to solicit voters. Turns out that the
BU students are taking a poli-sci class that requires them to volunteer in a
political campaign. How'd they wind up in Snowberg's camp? Snowberg went
and spoke to their class.
Few angles are left unexplored. With a sly grin, Plosky confides that the
campaign is trying to get some frat boys who were busted for drinking to
fulfill their community-service requirement by signing up voters. Gabe
Weinberg, a Snowberg ally who runs an MIT political-action group called SWASS
(named for a Sir Mix-A-Lot album, Weinberg explains), is arranging a campus
forum featuring candidates for the Cambridge and Boston city-council races.
Another Snowberg aide gleefully muses about the possibility of getting a
celebrity endorsement from actress and Harvard frosh Natalie Portman.
Yeah, it beats doing problem sets. But these MIT politicos-in-training really
think they can win.
Snowberg's hopeful candidacy began, ironically, with a tragedy. When MIT
freshman Scott Krueger died of alcohol poisoning in 1997, area college students
watched as the press, police, and politicians pig-piled on underclassmen,
calling for stricter drinking codes and crackdowns. Even if they agreed with
some of these measures, students at MIT, in particular, felt steamrollered by
the establishment. "They completely disregarded students as a political
entity," recalls Joel Rosenberg. "It was upsetting."
Fed up with feeling powerless, Rosenberg and Snowberg began brainstorming ways
to persuade students to get more involved in the political process. At first,
they concentrated on ballot initiatives for a few hot issues -- late-night MBTA
service, for example. But they realized that without an established political
voice or candidate to lead the way, their ballot-question drives weren't taking
off. "It wasn't really resonating," Rosenberg admits.
Enter Snowberg. A San Francisco native whose thinning blond hair makes him
look a bit older than his years (an effect combated by sandals and a stud
earring shaped like a crocodile), Snowberg had been active in several campus
environmental groups, though he'd never held political office of any kind.
After some prodding from friends and a cab driver (who listened to Snowberg
rattle on about city issues and urged him to run), he decided that if he
couldn't get anyone to run for the council, he'd do it himself.
Not that Snowberg hasn't prepared thoroughly for this close-up. "I love
talking to people, I love going to meetings, I love the inane details of public
policy," says the self-described political junkie. "I watch C-SPAN
-- and to me, that's like watching football."
Though Snowberg says he's determined to win, he maintains that his chief focus
remains what it always has been: to register student voters and, by extension,
get students more involved in city politics. And putting up a student candidate
has made a tremendous difference in making MIT students wake up and take
notice, Snowberg's allies report.
"When we tried this before Eric was a candidate, it didn't work," reports
Weinberg, the SWASS organizer. "With Eric, it's amazing what the reaction
There are, of course, limits to the enthusiasm. These are inexperienced
student campaigners working with no budget, and they can stir the pot only so
much. For example, Tuesday's SWASS-sponsored candidates' forum outside the MIT
student center turned out to be a clunker of Spinal Tap-ian proportions.
Cambridge councilors Ken Reeves, Katherine Triantafillou, and Kathy Born were
there, along with challengers Jim Braude, James Williamson, and David Hoicka,
State Representative Paul Demakis of the Back Bay, and Boston City Council
wanna-be Mike Ross, but barely anyone showed up to watch. And though most of
the candidates were good sports about the featherweight turnout, a few seemed
cranky about talking to a mostly empty courtyard as hundreds of kids breezed by
on their way to Burger King.
"This is a very apathetic group," complained council incumbent Born, an MIT
grad who wistfully recalled her student-activist days in the early 1970s.
"C'mon! Let's hear something!"
Of course, the vote is nearly two months away, and no one in Cambridge
is exactly cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs about the city-council election just yet. But
Snowberg and his crew will have their work cut out for them trying to galvanize
their politically comatose constituency. Nothing at Tuesday's MIT rally changed
the perception that the student vote in Cambridge is DOA.
Other questions linger. How will Snowberg perform off campus, when he gets
thrown into Cambridge's turbulent sea of class and identity politics? How can
Snowberg stand out in an already crowded field that includes 24 candidates, 17
of them challengers? Snowberg isn't the only new toy in the toy chest. Braude's
making waves with his plan to zap the city's "weak mayor" form of government;
David Maher's got the backing of retiring-but-still-powerful councilor Sheila
Russell in vote-rich North Cambridge; newcomer Helder "Sonny" Peixoto's making
a strong bid to win, or at least to wallpaper the entire city in his
red-and-white yard signs. And next to someone like Marjorie Decker -- just 26
years old, she's already a veteran of state and city politics, and a strong
campaigner to boot -- Snowberg looks greener than the insta-ivy on the Harvard
The conventional wisdom holds that first-time candidates for Cambridge City
Council don't win. Then again, Erik Snowberg isn't playing by the old rules.
He's not relying on the old votes, either. He's trying to grow a new base,
ballot by ballot.
"I don't know if I'm chasing after a windmill or slinging at a giant with a
tiny pebble," Snowberg says. "But I intend to find out."
Jason Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.