Black gay Cambridge mayor hunted by local press

Ken Reeves, the openly gay mayor of Cambridge, Mass., has been on a tight leash since he took office for the second time in January 2006. And many of those restraints pull along race and class lines in the predominately liberal city, much more than they do along lines of sexual orientation.

As the first mayor in the country to be both black and gay, the character of the man gets lost not only in the warring identity politics of his constituents and enemies, but it also gets lost in a local press that only reports news in hues of black and white – The Cambridge Chronicle.

With the inflammatory headline, “Mayor blows travel dough, asks for more,” in the newspaper’s Dec. 21 edition, the Chronicle reported that the City Council approved Reeves’ request for an extra $20,000 after overspending his entire travel budget of $20,000 in six months, jetting across the country cavorting with self-interest groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Conference, National Association of Black School Educators, U.S. Conference of Black Mayors, and the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference.

The Chronicle reported that Reeves’ $40,000 over-budgeted travel expense request comes at a time when the City Council is also requesting 30 more police foot-patrol officers that could possibly increase city taxes.

When Reeves was asked to provide his expenses, he did. And based on an outline of Reeves’ travel expenses that the Chronicle obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the paper learned Reeves actually spent $11,188 on travel this fiscal year.

But for the Chronicle that was not sufficient, because there was still a missing piece to Reeves’ expense report. So it asked: If the mayor only spent half of his $20,000 travel budget in five months and had $13,419 left over, why did he ask for almost $20,000 more? Was he planning on using the money this fiscal year or next?

But the missing piece that the Chronicle did not focus on is that Reeves is trying to address social and economic disparities in a city divided between million-dollar homes and subsidized housing, a huge achievement gap in its public school system between African-American and Latino students and white ones where students in free or reduced lunch situations score below students who come from more affluent families, and a paucity of teachers of color in the school system.

Reeves has traveled to identify social innovations by encouraging talented and qualified applicants to apply for positions within the Cambridge public school system.

The question is: Why would the mayor not simply go into Boston to recruit faculty of color? The answer is simple: Cambridge housing is too expensive, teachers’ salaries are too low, and although Cambridge is a world-class city, for many professionals of color, it is nonetheless too white.

But for the Chronicle, that rejoinder was not sufficient. So it solicited the people’s voice by still focusing on Reeves’ travel budget, asking, “Do you think it’s reasonable for Mayor Ken Reeves to spend more than $40,000 of taxpayer money on national travels?”

And so the people responded to the newspaper on its web site and blog:

One person wrote: “I think this is a lot of hot air and baloney, meant to elicit more or less the reaction it did. ¦ I think the whole thing is kind of ridiculous. The Chronicle has a reputation for going after really, really, really easy stories – stories that require someone to go to an office in City Hall and ask for some documents. My guess is they got a whisper about Reeves doing a lot of traveling, did the requisite document request, and are milking it for all it’s worth and so, so much more.”

Another said: “Your story was incredible, literally. First, you yourself say you don’t know what you’re talking about, and won’t until you get information. ¦ Second, even if it was $20,000 more than budgeted, that’s a drop in the Cambridge budget’s bucket. It would ruin me, personally, but you know the size of the city’s budget, and how minute a percent of it this overrun would be. Third, that Cambridge through its mayor keeps updating its connections with the Black Congressional Caucus, black school educators, black mayors, and gay and lesbian leaders will stand the city in good stead.”

But the fact is that Reeves neither attended the National Conference of Black Mayors nor the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference due to his heavy work schedule here in Cambridge.

It was journalistically irresponsible for the paper to present to its tax-paying citizens a skewed and inaccurate expense account of Mayor Reeves’ travel budget. Its reporting gave the impression that Reeves is cavalierly out squandering our money, not interested in the welfare of its entire citizenry, and is only actively involved in city governance when it comes to his “special interest groups.”

But for David Harris, editor of the Chronicle, this matter is not over. “Think we’re finished with the Mayor Ken Reeves travel expenses story? Nope,” he wrote on the paper’s blog. “We’ve taken the liberty of making a map of all the places Reeves has been along with a timeline. And, yes, next week, we’ll have another Reeves story. We’re not finished yet.”

Published in In Newsweekly, January 17, 2007. 

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