Meet Penny Ricketts. She got the most votes in the Nov. 7 Town Council election in Greenfield. She’s been a single mother and hospital worker, and she wants to establish fees for absentee landlords. She spent $1,027 on her campaign up to Oct. 31.
Meet Ashli Stempel, who got the second-most votes. She advocates for 100 percent green energy and donation of bone marrow to help cancer patients. She spent only $447 on her campaign up to Oct. 31, getting more votes than an opponent who spent $3,925.
Greenfield voted for Donald Trump at three times the rate that Amherst did. And yet this town a half-hour north of here elected six progressives (average age 41) to its Council this month, tipping the balance on the 13-member legislative body.
The notion that Amherst’s Town Council elections will be dominated by Big Money is a scare tactic. It is used by people who want to frighten voters into keeping power in the hands of the unaccountable, largely self-appointed Town Meeting. The Big Money scare tactic would have had more credibility if the Charter Commission’s proposal had included a mayor, but some charter opponents are using it anyway.
On March 27, voting “yes” on the new charter will give voters the power to choose the residents who they trust to make decisions on their behalf. If they want to elect progressive candidates to the council, as Greenfield voters did, there’s nothing to stop them.
The other progressive candidates who were elected to the Town Council in Greenfield this month (and the money they spent on the campaign) are a librarian ($433), a UMass clerk and union leader ($772), a community TV manager ($987), and a man with cerebral palsy who is the region’s biggest “Star Trek” fan ($1,026), all up to Oct. 31.
In Amherst, voters will be able to evaluate multiple candidates for Town Council seats, based on their positions on issues, their experience and character. Through greater voter participation and ranked-choice voting, our representatives will be chosen by a much greater percentage of the community than Town Meeting members are now.
It is understandable that some Amherst residents look at the corruption of national lawmakers by wealthy donors and fear that the same thing could happen in our town. But I hope to convince you that wealthy donors will not control the Amherst Town Council.
First, what will candidates need money for, other than lawn signs, brochures, and maybe newspaper or Facebook ads? They won’t be buying costly TV or radio commercials. Look at the amounts the Greenfield progressives spent. The way to get elected is to meet lots of voters and put forward an appealing agenda. Solomon Goldstein-Rose is our state representative not because he raised the most money but because he knocked on almost every door in the district.
Second, state law limits contributions to candidates for office to $1,000 (unlike donations to organizations, which are unlimited). Did you notice the correction in the Bulletin last week after charter opponent John Fox incorrectly wrote that there would be no limit to Town Council campaign contributions?
Third, spending more money than your opponent is no guarantee of success. Jennifer Page raised more money than Peter Demling in the Amherst School Committee race last spring, but lost the election, in part because she opposed the school building project (which voters knew about because there was an active campaign). Ashli Stempel spent about one-tenth what her opponent did but still won.
Fourth, any $1,000 contributions from the sinister Big Money developers would be public, and in Amherst that might be more of a detriment to a candidate’s chances than a benefit.
Fifth, the only other possible influence of Big Money on the council is out-and-out bribery. This is, of course, illegal. If charter opponents have evidence that this is a problem with the Councils in Greenfield, Northampton or Easthampton, let’s see it.
Sixth, the new charter establishes a process for candidates to post statements for free on the Town’s web site, enabling lesser-known residents to get their ideas before voters.
Seventh, Amherst is an incredibly well-educated town, and yet some people don’t trust well-educated voters. I think voters will not allow elections to be the playthings of monied interests.
It’s ironic that many of the Town Meeting supporters who say they are concerned about Big Money influencing our elections voted “no” on the recent elementary school proposal — in which the No campaign was primarily funded by a single $5,000 donation. (Interestingly, the group supporting the new government proposal has limited contributions to a maximum of $100 per person.)
Defenders of the status quo in Amherst know that they don’t have a lot of good arguments, but people who hold power seldom give it up willingly. That’s why some of them are using scare tactics. On this blog, we will expose these arguments to the light of day, and readers can make their own judgments about their validity.
In the next post, Mandi Jo Hanneke will examine some charter opponents’ absurd claim that Amherst’s council will inevitably be dominated by men.