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Reeves defeated, Benzan elected as first Latino on Cambridge council

Reeves defeated, Benzan elected as first Latino on Cambridge council
Dennis Benzan and his daughter India, 7. The 41-year-old attorney won election last week to the Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves began election day with an early-morning visit to place flowers on his mother’s grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery and adorn the final resting places of two long-time supporters in the adjacent Cambridge Cemetery.

“Walking into the new section of the graveyard, I realized that I knew most every recent arrival,” said Reeves a few days after losing his bid for a 13th council term. “The problem was that none of them could vote — at least legally.”

The old story of shifting demographics left the former mayor finishing 10th and out of the running for one of nine council seats. Reeves’ core of support — long-time African-American residents — has been diminishing while other candidates have been more successful in winning votes from younger residents.

Fellow Councilor Denise E. Simmons, who finished a term as mayor in 2009 and currently serves as vice mayor, won a seventh two-year term with a middle-of-the-pack finish. Dennis Benzan, an attorney and a former aide to Reeves, became the first Latino elected to the council by finishing ahead of three incumbents. His surprising victory ensures minority control of two seats on the legislative body.

Meanwhile, incumbent Richard Harding, 41, came in third among candidates vying for six slots on the Cambridge School Committee.

The municipal election produced a stronger-than-expected turnout of over 17,000 voters, who chose four newcomers to the council. Unless a rumored recount takes place, the Secretary of State will soon certify the results and the election department will release a breakdown of how many number one votes the candidates received in each of the city’s 11 wards.

Once the vote is certified and the council seated, their first order of business — an annual spectator sport among political insiders in the college town — is to elect a mayor from among their ranks.

In Cambridge’s unusual system of proportional representation, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Office-seekers focus on coveted number one votes, which allow candidates to survive early rounds of counting. In successive counts, those failing to make the cut see their number one votes transferred to the number two selections on the ballot.

Reeves received 899 number one votes in the first round, a little more than half of the “quota” needed to make it to the second round.

In 2011, Reeves received 1,013 in the first count and was not elected until the 14th round. In 2009, he was elected in the first round.

Simmons, who finished fifth last week, received 1,143 number one votes, good enough for election in the 16th count. Like Reeves, she saw her number one votes drop from 2011, but she managed to crack the crucial 1,000-vote barrier to stay in the running through later rounds.

Reeves, the first black openly gay mayor in the country, and Simmons, the first black openly lesbian mayor, both campaigned aggressively throughout the city for number one votes but both saw their counts drop with 25 candidates vying for nine seats.

Benzan, a black Latino who grew up in Central Square, previously ran two campaigns for state representative and one for state senator. He unsuccessfully challenged incumbent state Rep. Alvin Thompson in the 1996 Democratic primary. In 1998, both Benzan and Thompson lost to challenger Jarrett Barrios, who served several terms before winning election to the state Senate. After Barrios, a Florida native born into a Cuban exile family, resigned from office, Benzan ran in the special election to replace him but came up short.

In this year’s municipal election, Benzan’s fourth try at public office, the 41-year-old Howard University graduate received an impressive 1,258 number one votes and was elected in the 16th round.

“I hadn’t wanted to run for council before and challenge Ken,” said Benzan. “But this year, there were two open seats.”

In finishing first among non-incumbents, Benzan raised over $50,000 — the most of any candidate — and had over 100 volunteers working the phones and canvassing.

During an interview at a Central Square eatery around the corner from his home in Area 4, Benzan said two encounters captured the spirit of why he ran for office. Just a few days before the election, he was stopped by a blue-collar worker, “an older gentleman, an Irish fellow, who just looked like he could use some rest,” said Benzan. “He told me he had been out all day delivering oil and knew me and my dad from the days when we used to deliver fuel for Tropical Oil all over Cambridge and Boston. He told me he couldn’t afford to retire and didn’t have any health insurance. That’s the kind of person I want to help.”

On election day, Benzan, the father of twin 7-year-olds, said he was greeting voters outside the Graham-Parks School at the base of the tony Avon Hill neighborhood. While saying hello to voters like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, he met a homeless man whose voting address was a shelter in nearby Porter Square.

“It was just before 8 p.m.,” said Benzan. “He was my last vote of the day. I spent 10 minutes listening to him talk about the need to connect Cambridge kids with the opportunities in Kendall Square by improving their math and science performances. He wanted to see them succeed in ways he had not. What that showed me is that everyone has something to offer.”

Jim Spencer, a political consultant who has served as a Simmons adviser for over a decade, said Benzan’s election signals the arrival of Latino voting power in Cambridge. “The number of Spanish-speaking voters is rising in Cambridge, just as it is all over the state,” said Spencer. “Dennis tapped into that and of course he identifies with the African-American community as well.”

Harding, a classmate of Benzan’s from Cambridge Rindge and Latin Schools, first won election to the school board in 2001 by seven votes. He lost the seat in the 2007 election and regained it in 2009.

“After 2007, it became clear to me that every time I went to a funeral, if it was a black Cantabrigian, that I was losing a voter, so I had to figure out where to go to broaden my base,” said Harding.

“I had to go out there and prove that I was not just a black candidate but also a smart and competent candidate who understands the needs of all the children in this city.”

The city has a population of 105,000 but only 6,400 students in the public school, with half of them coming from public housing, he said.

“I understand what the kids are going through because I lived it myself, growing up in the Washington-Newtown Court projects. How do you prepare kids for the jobs that are available today from Google and Microsoft and all the other companies moving to Cambridge? That’s the challenge for the whole city.”

Harding added that he will miss the leadership of Reeves in city politics. Reeves, a Detroit native who moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard in 1968, said he would take a break before making plans for the next chapter of his career. “As one door closes, another one opens,” he said. “Maybe this time more broadly than Cambridge.”