Blue city blues

It's not easy being a Republican in the People's Republic of Cambridge. As Super Tuesday approaches, conservatives there keep their politics on the down low.

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008

Amanda is young and articulate, a magna-cum-laude college graduate with a good job in the biotech industry. But she has a secret identity she rarely unmasks to her Cambridge friends and neighbors: She's a Republican.

She keeps quiet during conversations about politics, even though she reads political news daily. Last fall, Amanda checked her urge to put a Fred Thompson for President sign in her front window. In the privacy of her apartment, she listens to Rush Limbaugh.

She spoke about her party affiliation on the condition that she be identified only by her first name. The only time Amanda is open about her right-leaning political beliefs is with her similarly minded family, and at gatherings of the Boston Young Republicans Meetup Group, comfortably surrounded by other conservatives.

"It is just nice to have a conversation about politics and speak freely without worrying I will offend someone," the 28-year-old wrote in an e-mail. "It feels like we're members of a secret society."

It's lonely being a Republican in Cambridge, where nearly every political banner seems to have a Democratic pedigree and every cocktail party seems to evince conversation about the evils of the Bush administration. In Cambridge, where the City Council once voted to boycott nonunion lettuce, two-party politics means Democrats and independents.

As Tuesday's presidential primary approaches, those who identify themselves by the R-word say they feel caught in a cultural disconnect.

"If anything, being a Republican in Cambridge is almost a farce," said Ian C. Pilarczyk, a Republican who moved to Huron Village in 2003. "It's like the punch line to a joke. Their usual response is to laugh. And they'll say something like, 'I didn't know there were any,' or, 'Isn't that against the law?' Or they step back three feet."

Four years after he became a Cantabrigian, though, Pilarczyk, helping run a new law program at Tufts University, is a bit demoralized - less because of his minority status, he said, than because the people he meets don't seem open to different views. When he handed out campaign brochures for Keith Mercurio, a Republican running for state representative last fall, some people handed them back, refusing to read them when they discovered Mercurio is a Republican.

"One could easily think of these as dark times for Republicans in Cambridge," Pilarczyk wrote in an op-ed column for the Cambridge Chronicle a few months ago, bemoaning the election results in a city with a single Republican elected official. "Or, one could think of every day as a dark time for Republicans in Cambridge."

Across the state, 12 percent of registered voters identify themselves as Republicans. (Thirty-seven percent are Democrats, while the majority - about half - are not enrolled in either party.) But in Cambridge, 5.3 percent of voters - 3,091 in a city of about 101,000 - are registered as Republicans. About 59 percent, 34,206, are registered Democrats, and 20,250, or 35 percent, are unenrolled.

Still, there are a few other Massachusetts communities where Republicans are even more rare. In Provincetown, for instance, there are a mere 115, less than 4 percent of registered voters, according to 2006 statistics, the most recent available from the secretary of state's office. Aquinnah, on Martha's Vineyard, has 17 Republicans, just over 4 percent.

While Somerville has about the same percentage as Cambridge, its neighbor has a special aura of liberalism, burnished by its most famous, and famously left-leaning, institution: Harvard University. The list of the city's great moments in liberal history are legion: Cambridge's City Hall opened at midnight on May 17, 2004, so it could issue the country's first legal wedding licenses to same-sex couples. The City Council, which frequently condemns Bush administration policies, named the city a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Three years ago, a nonpartisan think tank put Cambridge in eighth place on its list of the country's most liberal cities.

But some local members of the GOP are weary of living in obscurity. Last year, the Cambridge Republican City Committee began pulling together a marketing and recruitment campaign to become a competitive political party, hoping to build a brand, they say, as solid as Kleenex or Starbucks.

Henry Irving, a stockbroker who has unsuccessfully run for the state Legislature, has been heading up the effort.

In his 2006 campaign, Irving found himself in the strange position of outing Cambridge conservatives as he traveled the city's streets, armed with a voter list, knocking only on the doors of registered Republicans.

"When I caught them outside, they'd say, 'Hush! I don't want anyone to know,' " he recalled. "Then we'd laugh. Like every good joke, there's a little truth to it."

Now Irving is hoping to bring new energy - and electable candidates - to the city's Republican committee. He dreams of a world where "Cambridge Republican" is no longer an oxymoron.

"I really think the Republican Party in Cambridge is going to stay insignificant unless we make the effort to reach out and say what we think," he said.

"The chasm is not that great . . . There is a meeting ground that we, as Republicans, haven't made the effort to find."

But Irving himself struggles to come up with the names of local rank-and-file Republicans, beyond the city committee's members. A friend of his wife, who is an independent, once said that he was the first Republican she had ever met.

David Slavitt, a Cambridge poet and novelist, humorously chronicled his travails running for the state Legislature as a Republican in 2004 in his book, "Blue State Blues: How a Cranky Conservative Launched a Campaign and Found Himself the Liberal Candidate (And Still Lost)." Recounting his first brush with the city committee at a Christmas party at Ryles, he described its members as "a group of desperadoes, less like a political party than a collection of conspirators. They might as well be monarchists or vegetarians or prohibitionists - except that they are slightly less eccentric and, therefore, less interesting."

Slavitt supported same-sex marriage and legalized abortion, but, in the end, he was still a Republican from Cambridge. He drew only 13 percent of the vote, 1,680 ballots with a darkened circle next to his name. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, a Socialist Workers Party candidate did better.

Even Google shows some skepticism. Type in "Cambridge GOP" and the great Internet search engine counters, "Did you mean Cambridge gov?" - that doesn't happen with, say, "Worcester GOP" or "Providence GOP."

Steve Jens says that one of his earlier memories of Cambridge came when he was growing up in Iowa and heard about the city's devotion to rent control. But after the young conservative graduated from MIT, he found himself staying here. He liked the bookstores and the presence of the universities, even if his political views put him in the minority.

The software engineer doesn't hide his Republicanism. He writes a blog that often touches on politics. But in conversation, Jens said, he usually doesn't reveal his conservative views.

"I'm not a very confrontational person," he said. "Sometimes I'll duck out of the conversation."

Still, he sometimes bristles at the assumption that everyone who lives in Cambridge must be liberal. Recently, when acquaintances began talking about the Kyoto Treaty, an effort designed to reduce greenhouse gases, Jens couldn't stay quiet. He pointed out that it's possible to oppose the treaty, as President Bush has, and still be concerned about global warming.

It put a bit of a damper on the conversation, he said, but made his acquaintances realize that not everyone in the group held the same politics.

"After the initial surprise of, 'Oh, we're not all Commies here,' we move onto, 'Oh, maybe some people I know are Republicans.' "

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

'If anything, being a Republican in Cambridge is almost a farce,' says Ian C. Pilarczyk, a resident of Huron Village.


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