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Shifting demographics erode Cambridge pols’ voter base

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Shifting demographics erode Cambridge pols’ voter base
Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves has been in office for over 20 years and has watched the city demographics change. (Photo: Brian Wright O’Connor)

As Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves walks down tree-lined Howard Street in the heart of the historically black neighborhood known as “The Coast,” he points out newly refurbished three-deckers and single-family homes where the occupants are strangers.

“Over 20 years ago, when I first ran for office, I knew most everyone on this street,” says the former mayor and veteran councilor. “The core of my support came from neighborhoods like this. I was surrounded by 60-year-old church ladies who have since gone on to nursing homes or the kingdom of heaven.”

Scuffling through red and yellow leaves scattered on the narrow sidewalk, Reeves pauses in front of a garishly painted building that once was home to famed Boston boxer Sam Langford, a one-eyed black Nova Scotian who lost a 15-round decision to future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1906.

“I have no idea who lives here now,” says Reeves, waving a hand towards the electric yellow siding. “Patrick Ewing grew up around the corner on River Street. W.E.B. DuBois lived on Flagg Street when he studied at Harvard.”

Reeves climbs the front stairs to knock on yet another door in a bid for a 13th two-year term on the council. “This neighborhood,” he adds, “has changed.”

While Reeves and fellow African-American incumbent E. Denise Simmons draw votes from mostly every Cambridge neighborhood in council elections, their base is the city’s black community, which for over a century has been concentrated in the Riverside neighborhood, also known as “The Coast,” roughly bordered by River Street, Massachusetts Avenue, the Harvard campus and the Charles River.

Victory for candidates of color doesn’t necessarily depend on racial solidarity — witness Gov. Deval Patrick or President Barack Obama — but in down-ballot races, drawing support from ethnic fellow-travelers is the traditional route to success.

The gentrification of Cambridge, which accelerated after the abolition of rent control in 1994, has had a dramatic impact on black voting patterns in the city. The percentage of African-American residents in Cambridge declined by a modest 5 percent between 1990 and 2010 — from about 15 percent to 10 percent. However, many of the new African-American arrivals, replacing long-time black residents who departed to other precincts — heavenly or worldly — are no more likely than other young, more affluent professionals to vote in municipal elections.

Candidates like Reeves and Simmons — and Cambridge School Committee member Richard Harding — could once depend on getting the bulk of their coveted number one votes in the quirky system of proportional representation from the city’s black base, but now must depend on transfer votes to win.

Compounding the challenge this year is that more and more candidates — 25 are vying for nine council seats — are chasing fewer and fewer reliable voters, who tend to be older and more set in their choice of who receives their number one vote. According to election results, the average age of a Cambridge voter who has turned out in the last three election cycles is 59.

In the 2011 contest, Reeves received 1,013 number one votes on the first round of counting and Simmons 1,266. That was good enough to keep them in play as other candidates with fewer number one votes were eliminated in successive counts. As those candidates’ number one votes were distributed to the voters’ number two choices, Reeves and Simmons stayed alive and were declared winners on the 14th and 13th vote counts respectively.

That’s a far cry from 2009, when both Reeves and Simmons won on the first ballot.

Cambridge’s population of 105,000 includes an astounding 16,000 new voters who have registered since 2011. With the median price of a single-family home going for $810,850 and an average rent of $3,175 for a three-bedroom apartment, the newbies tend to be wealthier and less likely to vote in city elections than the residents they’re displacing.

“All the neighborhoods have changed a lot since rent control went away,” says Simmons, who was elected to the school board before winning a council seat in 2001. “The older folks of every stripe are being replaced by younger, more affluent voters.”

Simmons, who became the first black openly lesbian mayor in the country after her council colleagues elected her to the post, and Reeves, the nation’s first openly black gay mayor, both have appeals beyond the city’s black base and both canvass for support in every neighborhood.

But the demographic trends are troubling to those concerned about black representation in a city that thrives on its image for diversity and tolerance.

Walking on Callendar Street in the Coast, John — who asks that his last name not be used — pauses to say that he used to live around the corner.

“The owner lived downstairs but she died and her family sold the place. The buyer turned the place into condos,” he says, standing in front of a Pentecostal church facing the Cambridge Community Center – the first in the nation to employ both black and white social workers.

“Everyone wants to live here now. It’s close to MIT and Harvard and Boston. I was here most of my life — attended the Western Avenue Baptist Church and sang in the choir. I played hoops with Patrick Ewing. I’m over here visiting my cousin today,” he adds, pointing towards a two-family with a Ken Reeves sign on the porch.

“But his landlord is getting on in years. I’m not sure how long he’ll hold on.”

John turns the corner onto Howard Street and heads towards Western Avenue. “Maybe he’ll join me in Boston.”