Leland Cheung, a former Sloan School of Management student who made headlines in 2009 for being the youngest person and first Asian-American elected to the Cambridge City Council, is running for re-election. This season, Cheung’s main initiatives include promoting the local economy, affordable housing, public education, energy conservation, and government transparency. Cambridge residents will head to the polls on Nov. 8.
Running as an incumbent doesn’t convince Cheung that this campaign will be easier than his last. Historically, the newest Council member is not re-elected, he noted. And in 2009, he was barely elected to the ninth seat on the Council with 754 No. 1 votes compared to the top candidate’s 1858 No. 1 votes.
But Cheung differs from the other councillors in more ways than just being a rookie.
Robert Winters, who runs a popular website about Cambridge politics (http://rwinters.com), saw Cheung as an impressive first-timer. “He’s a proven activist,” Winters said, “In his first few weeks he filed more initiatives than some incumbents did in years.” (Winters is also a lecturer in MIT’s Concourse program.)
Winters says he speaks on a regular basis with Cheung and the other councillors. From observation, Winters praised Cheung as a quick study. “The real Cambridge is not just MIT, it’s bakeries, garbage pickups, and potholes. Leland is a good person to bounce ideas off of. He gets it.”
Cheung has gained the respect of the city administration — which is crucial to being an effective councillor — Winters noted. Even people who viewed him as a “career climber” at the start of his campaign have befriended him. “They simply think, ‘He’s been good while he’s here,’” Winters said.
A student at heart
Cheung isn’t just a City Councillor — he’s also a part time student at the Harvard Kennedy School. And although he’s no longer knocking door-to-door for student votes like he did two years ago, Cheung is diligent about representing student interests, he says.
As MIT pushes to bring technology companies to the Kendall Square “innovation cluster,” Cheung hopes to advocate for additional construction of residential areas and retail space — things that are more immediately relevant to Cambridge’s student crowd. Many other City Council incumbents have also publicly called for more residential and retail space to come with the Kendall Square revitalization.
“I’m the lead voice representing the interest of the students; I encourage them to come out and participate in their local democracy,” Cheung says.
And — to the relief of many a weary student — those problem sets might turn out to be useful in the end: Cheung confirms that his budgeting and finance classes at Sloan were applicable in his work with the city budget.
As might be expected of a former MIT student, Cheung is tech savvy. The councillor says he wished he had pushed for more government transparency through easy-access technology. So far, he has supported live-streaming video and closed captioning of Council meetings on the city website, and mandated that city contracts be posted online before the Council votes on them. If re-elected next term, he hopes to develop more ways to interact with local government online.
By population, the MIT community counts for two of the city’s 33 voting precincts, or about 6,400 people. Of these, only 768 voted in the 2009 election.
Cheung encourages students interested in national policy to recognize that all change originates from the local level and to become more involved in their city government.
“In many respects, Cambridge is the vanguard of leading change in the nation; often the policy we set serves as role models for policy in cities around the country.”
Election day is Nov. 8. Members of the MIT community will be able to vote at the Kresge Auditorium precinct.