ELECTIONS, as they say, have consequences. This is certainly the case in Lowell, where voters on Tuesday delivered a stunning rebuke to their elected officials and their decision to relocate the city’s sole public high school from downtown to its suburban edge. In the process, voters also showed that consensus can emerge in a city riven by race, class, and politics.
About 60 percent of voters backed a ballot initiative to renovate rather than relocate the existing high school, an issue that has been at the center of months of acrimonious debate. The ballot question was nonbinding, but the same can’t be said for the defeat of three incumbent city councilors who had backed moving the high school. The balance on the council, which voted 5-4 in June to move the high school, has shifted decisively in favor of keeping it downtown.
It now appears unlikely that the council will have the political will to overcome the regulatory hurdles that remain ahead of the plan to build a new high school, not least securing financing from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. (Whether renovated or built from the ground up, the new Lowell High School is set to be the costliest in state history, with an estimated price tag in excess of $350 million.)
“The entire ballot was a referendum on a single issue,” Richard Howe, a longtime Lowell political observer, said of the high school question. “It was like the super-magnet that wouldn’t let go.”
Howe, who has followed city elections since 1965 and writes a well-read blog on city history and politics, said Tuesday’s vote marked the first time that candidate slates, put out as part of a well-organized, pro-downtown high school campaign, proved instrumental.
“I think there’s absolutely evidence that these slates were very successful and had strong coattails,” Howe said. “You have candidates that wouldn’t have won but for being part of a list. People were bringing lists into the polls and using them.” (In Lowell, voters choose nine citywide candidates for council.)
In one respect, Tuesday’s election was fundamentally similar to past city elections: the suburban neighborhood of Belvidere, which is far wealthier and less diverse than the city as a whole, played an outsized role in the results. With turnout that far exceeds other parts of the city, the neighborhood has long dominated city politics; six of the nine current councilors reside there.
Not coincidentally, this is where the proposed site for the new high school is, next to the Cawley Memorial Stadium and athletic fields, which are used for high school sports. Backers argued that the site offered a once-in-a-generation chance to build a modern campus with ample green space — a far cry from the existing high school, an ailing complex of buildings in a downtown with its own unsavory influences.
It became clear on Tuesday that there was a strong undercurrent of opposition in Belvidere to the new high school that had been largely masked by the throngs who had turned out at City Hall to back the Cawley option. None of the four precincts, out of 33 total, that rejected the pro-downtown ballot question were in Belvidere. And in the two most active precincts in the neighborhood, voter turnout was even higher than usual, topping 50 percent — a rare phenomenon in municipal elections anywhere. (Elsewhere in the city, turnout was a more typical 20 percent or less.)
It’s not clear to what extent Belvidere was motivated by NIMBY-ism or swayed by the message advanced by the sophisticated pro-downtown campaign: that keeping the school in the center of the city was a matter of equity. The majority of the city’s public school students are Hispanic, black, and Asian, and many of them reside close to the central city and rely on a range of services offered there.
Tuesday’s election was unprecedented in another way: the top vote-getter was a Cambodian-American, Vesna Nuon, who garnered more votes than incumbents with long, distinguished pedigrees in Lowell politics. Nuon, who had previously held a seat on the council from 2013 to 2015, is a respected leader in the city’s Cambodian community, the largest in the eastern United States. Another Cambodian-American, Dominik Lay, won a seat on the school committee, becoming its first nonwhite member in city history.
Their election comes as the city is fighting a federal lawsuit brought by a civil rights group charging that the city’s exclusively at-large, or citywide, electoral system systemically disenfranchises members of the city’s minority communities.
Howe, the city’s unofficial historian, views the election of the Cambodian-Americans as “historic.” But Howe pumps the brakes on the notion that Lowell is entering a new era of harmony, not with the wounds from the bitter high school debate still raw.
“I think the Cawley people feel the city had a legitimate vote and, but for the delaying tactics, they feel we could have had a groundbreaking by now,” he said. “I think the animosity and divisiveness will continue. I don’t think it will continue forever, but it’s not going away overnight.”