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Taxpayers group seeks common cause

Members negotiate their way around growing rift

If there ever were a time that the Newton Taxpayers Association needed to be united, it would be now. The group is mounting a campaign against a new Newton North High School and hoping to field a slew of candidates in this fall's city elections.

But instead of banding together, the group is splintered by infighting. E-mails exchanged among members have been buzzing with rumors of resignations and secret meetings, and unflattering comments about people within the group. Playboy's Miss November 1972 has even been brought in for a cameo appearance.

The squabbles within one of Newton's most high-profile grass-roots organizations have pitted longtime members who want to retain the group's current broad-based agenda against a newcomer who wants to narrow the focus and recraft the group's image.

The lightning rod is Jeff Seideman, a public relations executive who is seeking to become the group's next president, although he has been an active member for only six months.

"This is unusual that there's such a division with the Taxpayers, but there clearly is right now," said Brenda Loew, a longtime member of the group who has become one of Seideman's most vocal opponents. "There's a real tug of war going on."

The current president, Paula S. Kay, said she is not planning to seek a second term, but has not ruled out her candidacy altogether.

"I was hoping that we could come up with a suitable candidate to replace me, and there has been a vigorous debate at this point," she said. "I won't rule out that I couldn't be persuaded to stay, but I would prefer to be relieved of the responsibilities."

The group's co-vice president and treasurer, Marsha Ciccolo, is also planning to resign, with Greer Tan Swiston, the Republican challenger to state Representative Kay Khan last November, a possible replacement. Brian Camenker, the other co-vice president, at one point indicated that he might step down to escape the media spotlight, but he told the Globe last week that he intends to stay on.

Seideman serves as the association's spokesman, issuing news releases and responding to queries. He is also spearheading its campaign for a ballot question that would cap the cost of Newton North construction at $55 million. Current plans call for a $104.5 million building.

As a registered Democrat, Seideman stands out in this group known for its Republican leanings. He was the assistant press secretary in Maine for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and worked for the late New York congressman Allard Lowenstein.

Seideman has chided some association members for being too extreme, arguing that a moderate stance would win more support within a city that voted 3-1 last fall for John Kerry.

"Because of the recent reputation problems we've had and the misconceptions people have had, it hasn't been easy, and there's been some misunderstanding about what our goals are," Seideman said. "We're not a liberal, we're not a conservative group. We're not Republicans, we're not Democrats. We're here for one thing: fiscal responsibility."

Loew said she still had her doubts.

"We don't know where his allegiance is. It could be to the Democratic City Committee," Loew said. "And who knows what could happen? The liberal Democrats and the socialists could take over the Taxpayers."

Last week, Loew sent an e-mail to the group's most active members with a link to a site that has a photo of Seideman standing next to Lenna Soderberg, who was Playboy's Miss November 1972. "Everyone say hello to Lenna!" Loew wrote in the e-mail.

Soderberg has been dubbed "The First Lady of the Internet" because computer programmers scanned her centerfold to use as a test image for early compression software.

Seideman, working with officials at Playboy, tracked Soderberg down in 1997 in her native Sweden to bring her to a Boston conference on the history of digital imaging.

"It's not all that explicit. But it is quite unusual," Loew said in an interview when asked why she sent out the link.

"I am 100 percent proud of that work," Seideman said. "You do see a photo of us -- with her clothes on, and my clothes on."

Loew herself runs an online magazine called Everyone Is Doing Outrageous Sex, which advocates for "freedom of choice and privacy rights for consenting adults of all erotic and sexual orientations, preferences, and lifestyles."

Camenker speaks highly of Seideman, but questions whether he is ready to take over the association.

"I think that Jeff has managed to alienate a few people in the group, and there are ways to avoid doing that. The more Jeff gets involved, the better he'll be at that," Camenker said. "This can be a rowdy bunch, and you've got to have certain political skills to be able to keep things moving properly."

Seideman rubbed some key members of the group the wrong way, for example, when he declined an invitation to appear on "Newton Talk" on NewTV, a show that Loew produces and another Taxpayers Association member, Jackie Morrissey, hosts. Seideman said he did not want to appear on the show until the election was over.

Loew said she and Morrissey are now considering running as candidates for president of the Taxpayers Association, perhaps as a team.

The Taxpayers Association's board of directors plans to hold a closed-door meeting next month to elect officers.

Kay downplayed the rift within her group.

"We have grown in terms of our political diversity and our numbers," she said. "The more members you have, the more diversity of opinions you have, and we welcome that. We do not stifle discussion. There are good points and bad points to that situation. You're less homogenous, but there's going to be more disagreement and discussion."

Kay said the organization has "several hundred" dues-paying members, but she would not say exactly how many.

"This is all just so silly," Seideman said of the dispute. "A few paranoid people are obsessed with the past, with not dropping their past defeats. They want to keep fighting. I want to move forward."

Matt Viser can be reached at viser@globe.com.

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