Massachusetts: Eighth District|
Rep. Michael Capuano (D)
Last Updated June 14, 1999
A long generation ago, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a plainly aging city, with a grayness in the air matching its gray winter skies. Its two great universities, Harvard and MIT, were closely hemmed in by a not very friendly town of Irish Catholics, Italians and a few Portuguese, living generation after generation in three-decker houses with cracked walls letting in the cold in the long winters. Boston was the nation's slowest-growing metropolitan area, economically stagnant, still caught in a 17th Century Puritan-Papist rivalry. Students from suburbs across the country, exploring Boston from their dormitories and campuses, felt they were pawing through the living remnants of 1920s America, a quaint place where people called traffic circles ''rotaries'' and milk shakes ''frappes.'' Massachusetts has since changed, and nowhere more than in Cambridge. As universities and high tech have become driving forces of economic growth, Cambridge has gone glitzy, with trendy restaurants and high-priced hotels, boutiques and upscale condominiums. Greater Boston may well have the heaviest concentration of graduate students and post-graduate hangers-on of any major city, and this graduate student proletariat's world is centered on Cambridge, with outposts in lower-income Somerville, tenured-faculty haven Belmont, Boston's Back Bay, and Allston and Brighton near the Harvard Business School.
Cambridge is the center, and the rest of these communities are part, of Massachusetts's 8th Congressional District, a district with great historic sites, from the gold dome of the State House on Beacon Hill to the frigate U.S.S. Constitution in the Charlestown docks; the district, with MIT and the software concentration in Cambridge's once downscale Lechmere Square, is one of the high-tech capitals of America. The 8th also includes the impoverished suburb of Chelsea and much of the Roxbury black ghetto in Boston, now with many Puerto Rican and other Hispanic residents as well. This is by far the most Democratic district in Massachusetts.
The congressman from the 8th District is Michael Capuano, the winner of a 10-candidate primary in 1998. It could be said that over the last 50-odd years this district has been represented alternatively by townies and Kennedys: James Michael Curley, the scampish-five-term mayor of Boston and one-term governor; followed by John F. Kennedy in 1946, then from 1952, Tip O'Neill, the most successful House speaker of this half-century; succeeded on his retirement in 1986 by Joe Kennedy; and now Capuano. Capuano was born and raised in Somerville; his paternal grandfather immigrated from Italy, and his father was the first Italian-American elected official in Somerville; his mother is the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Capuano graduated from Dartmouth and Boston College Law School. He returned to Somerville to raise his family, practice law and get into politics. By day, he worked for the legislature's Joint Committee on Taxation and practiced law; in off-hours, he served as alderman in the 5th Ward, like his father before him; he was elected alderman-at-large from 1985-89. In November 1989 he was elected mayor of Somerville in the city's closest race; he was re-elected five times.
Somerville is packed with three-deckers, giving it the densest population in the United States outside Manhattan and Hudson County, New Jersey; for years an Irish and Italian town, in the 1990s it has attracted many grad students and yuppies. Capuano seems to have been the right politician for this mix, with deep Somerville roots and a penchant for innovation and reform. He got the city's fiscal house in order, promoted recycling and created nine new parks, increasing open space by more than 15 acres (a big deal here); he made Somerville the first city in Massachusetts to offer residents a choice in cable TV, and required cable operators to build a fiber-optic network for all city buildings, including schools. He built new schools and boasted the smallest class-size (19) in the Boston area; he authored a tough ethics code. So, Capuano had a solid base to run for the 8th District seat in 1998 when, everyone expected, Joe Kennedy would run for governor. But after Kennedy's former wife wrote a book detailing their annulment and his verbal abuse, and after his brother Michael Kennedy was alleged to have had an affair with his family's 14-year-old babysitter, Joe Kennedy announced at the end of August 1997 that he wasn't running for governor and would run for re-election; sadly, Michael Kennedy died in a skiing accident in December 1997. Then, in March 1998, Joe Kennedy said he wouldn't run for re-election after all. This gave Capuano, and many others, a chance to prepare for the September 1998 primary that would determine who would represent this safe Democratic seat, probably for many years to come.
There was no lack of competitors: Ten in all ran for the Democratic nomination. Six were far out on the left wing of the Democratic party, and between them won 49% of the votes. George Bachrach, a former state senator who finished second to Joe Kennedy in the 1986 primary, ran as ''an unabashed, unrepentant, unreconstructed liberal.'' More recently a lawyer, lobbyist and political consultant, he spent more than $350,000 of his own money, and finished third with 14%. Environmental activist John O'Connor, married to a supermarket heiress, spent even more, $2 million; he called for repealing Massachusetts's electric deregulation and was endorsed by Ralph Nader. O'Connor ran fourth, with 13%. Then there was Marjorie Clapprood, a former state legislator and radio talk show host, who promised exuberantly to go to Washington to ''kick butt.'' She finished fifth, with 12%. Three other liberals, one black, one lesbian, one Hispanic, won 5% or less.
The four more moderate candidates split 51%, and Capuano got a near-majority of that. High-tech entrepreneur Chris Gabrieli, who called for education reform, charter schools and freer trade, spent $5 million on his campaign. But he won only 7%, and became better known in April 1999 when his nanny won $70 million in the lottery. Boston City Councilman Thomas Keane, a protege of the late Senator Paul Tsongas, won only 3%. But the real competition, as it turned out, was between Capuano and former Boston Mayor (1983-93) Ray Flynn. Flynn had returned from a tempestuous tour as ambassador to the Vatican, where he became involved in out-of-country issues, amid speculation that he might run for governor. Athletic, with deep roots in South Boston (which is outside the district), he is a Democrat who favors old-fashioned liberal economic programs and is opposed to abortion--the dominant Democratic politics here up through the 1960s. But at candidate forums and public appearances, he was attacked by supporters of abortion rights and pilloried as a troglodyte. In early polls he was in the low 20s, but he ended up with just 17% of the vote, for second place in the primary. ''The climate has changed,'' he explained. ''People are just turned off. They don't believe either party represents them. … I stand for the poor people who have a need for someone to speak for them in government. But when times are good … most people could care less. They don't need me and they don't need government.'' Meanwhile, Capuano, with his solid Somerville base, was running first or second in polls; among the 85,000 Democratic primary voters, he came in first with 23%. ''This wasn't done the electronic way or the fancy way,'' he said of his victory. ''This was done with shoe leather and knuckles knocking on doors.''
Capuano is still well to the left on the national political spectrum: for gay marriage, against the partial-birth abortion ban and opposed to the flag-burning amendment. Coming to Washington, he said he wants to reform Social Security, spend more on public schools and somehow secure affordable housing for districts whose housing values have been rising rapidly: ''I'm not a Kennedy, I'm a Capuano. I know I don't bring the notoriety to issues like a Kennedy would, but I want to do my job and deliver the things that I have promised to people.'' It is possible he could have serious competition in the 2000 primary, but the 1998 figures suggest a leftist candidate could not count on a majority in a two-candidate race.
Safe. Arguably the most liberal district in the state, this area is so heavily Democratic that Capuano should never have problems in a general election. There are some rumblings, however, that Capuano could face a challenge in the Democratic primary. Unless Capuano trips himself up, he will be hard to dislodge.
- Pop. 1990: 602,396
11.8% age 65+;
- 65.6% White,
0.3% Amer. Indian,
10.1% Hispanic origin;
30.3% married couple families;
13% married couple fams. w. children;
53.4% college educ.;
median household income: $30,417;
per capita income: $16,327;
median gross rent: $560;
median house value: $189,700.
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