Scare tactics 2: Big Money in Elections

Nick Grabbe



Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

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.

Comments 18

  1. “What people resist is not change per se, but loss.”
    Ronald A. Heifetz,
    For many TM supporters and those who will be affected by the loss of Town Meeting, it is not the change in government that will matter, rather it will be a real loss of a way of life. A way of life that has been a central component which defined who they are and how they saw themselves as citizens of Amherst. This phenomena will be played out in the weeks and months leading up to the March election.
    Think about it, there are a great many involved citizens of Amherst who only know TM. Who got their start in Town Government through being involved in Town Meeting? These are the people who populate not only TM, but the Select Board and various other committees in town. Members of the Select Board could suddenly find themselves out of a position and if they choose to run for a council seat they will be facing unknown competition for at large Council Seats or District Council seats. Factions that once coalesced around Town wide elections will be fractured and forced to compete with possible precinct specific factions. A loss of control that will be profound and will be manifested in an intense fight to maintain the status quo. There will be those who really wanted a change from TM who will resist the change because they really wanted a Mayor form of government and/or because the form of government proposed does not offer, from their perspective, a net gain in the way Amherst is governed. All of this is a manifestation of loss and not resistance to change.
    The reaction to change is different than the reaction to loss. The reaction to change is often intellectual, whereas the reaction to loss is often visceral and emotional. Thus we will see an intensely fought campaign from those who wish to maintain the status quo with a great many references to how a change in government threatens the very existence of Amherst.

      1. Excellent observation, Irv. I can empathize with those who will no longer be participating through TM even though I believe the new government would serve the common good better.

  2. Nick, I’d like to pick up on a theme that Gabor wrote about – that of demonizing Town Meeting supporters. You must realize that using words like “scare tactics” suggests TM advocates are a nefarious bunch of people who sit around thinking up devious ways to defeat the charter. Perhaps you could consider that people truly believe that this charter change is largely about zoning and are truly worried that the money that got you, Andy, Mandi Jo, Tom and Nick elected, will be the same money that will try to get a large slate elected to the new council, should it come to pass. (yes, that same money got Julia elected, and if memory serves me, when she made her first vote against the Charter, you were one of the people who accused her of betraying A4A).
    Consider that in the Fall 2016 TM, there were 3 articles on the warrant brought by a developer to (1) rezone the west side of N. Pleasant from Cowls Lane to McClellan St; (2) much of N. Prospect and (3) the north side of Triangle to Cottage St.. The rezoning effort would have allowed the construction of more very large apartment buildings like the ones on the east side of Kendrick Park. The first 2 were sent back to the Planning Board by TM and the third withdrawn after those defeats. There were 6 Commission members voting in TM for these articles. The 3 who voted against referral and thus for the rezoning, were pro charter; the 3 who voted against the rezonings were anti-charter. I truly believe that the 3 of you believe that kind of rezoning would be good for Amherst. I respect that. But the 3 of us and the ⅔ of Town Meeting who voted against it, felt it would not be good for Amherst. And I would put a lot of money down that if we investigated the major rezoning efforts in Amherst over the past few years, it would reveal similar voting patterns. Can you see that leads many of us to believe that this Charter could result in a new super majority on the council who would agree to rezone our downtown and other areas of town to allow for large development? These are not scare “tactics”; these are worries that we have about the future of downtown and of the quality of our neighborhoods. So, how about treat such issues as issues and let’s engage in the kind of meaningful debates that you so desire. Zoning and money in politics are two such issue that needs a clean debate; not name calling.
    Lastly, cherry picking a city here or there does not guarantee anything in Amherst. Explain why the new government will do a better job than the current one without resorting to such arguments please. Otherwise, we end up quoting our favorite stats to support our arguments and we just go around in circles!

    1. Gerry, as I’ve said before about being afraid of development and will say again–in competitive elections, ideas and positions will win out, not money. (For example, Peter Demling won the contested SC race against Jennifer Page, while raising less money than Page, mostly because his position on the replacement of the schools was supported by a majority in Town). If a candidate 1 runs for council on a platform of changing the zoning to allow developers to build 10 story buildings on Pleasant Street and candidate 2 runs on a platform of keeping zoning exactly as it is, with whichever candidate wins, the people will finally know where the residents of Amherst stand on development in Town. If that’s candidate 1, then Town Meeting has likely been voting against the residents’ desires. If it’s candidate 2, then Town Meeting has been voting with the residents’ desires. What is so bad about having that conversation before the people go to the polls and using the election as a proxy for determining what people want in town? I think that’s the best way to figure out what people want–the more people who vote in an election that is contested where the issues and positions have been aired, the more our elected officials actually know what the people want. Right now, our elected officials don’t know what the people want–it’s a guessing game because issues aren’t debated by the candidates who do the legislating ahead of time (I’m completely ignoring the fact that in some precincts only 8 people run, so even if the issues are aired, a voter can’t actually vote against those they don’t support…all 8 will get elected no matter how little support for their views some of them have–it’s one of the reasons I believe turnout is so dismal). Let’s air the positions and debate them before the election. Then we know when our elected officials vote with the will of the people or against it. That’s a good thing that neither side should be afraid of. If that airing results in more or less development, at least we know it’s what the residents want.

  3. I guess Gerry, forgot that I was a Charter Commission member, or that I was elected as an independent who did not garner the same funds as he suggested that Andy, Mandy, Nick and Tom did.

  4. Please, everyone who uses the term “Big Money” please define what that term means. This will allow for a more reasoned discussion of the topic.

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    Gerry, do you read these posts before you comment on them? I presented seven reasons why I don’t think large financial contributions will determine the outcome of council elections, and cited real dollar amounts spent by progressive Greenfield council candidates. You have a different view, but you don’t address any of the points I made. You don’t show any sign of reading anything beyond the term “scare tactics” in the headline.
    I do not believe that all Town Meeting supporters are “a nefarious bunch of people who sit around thinking up devious ways to defeat the charter.” But a few of them have set forth arguments that are so absurd that we feel justified in calling them “scare tactics.” If responsible Town Meeting supporters disagree with us, they should address the actual points we’re making.
    I certainly do NOT believe the charter is all about zoning or development. I believe it’s all about democracy. As you’ll see if you read my posts, I think that the structure of the council will make it very difficult to get zoning changes passed, restrictions on contributions will make it impossible for developers to “buy” councilors, and Amherst voters are too smart to be swayed by Big Money, whatever that is. Did you see that a progressive candidate for Greenfield council defeated an opponent who spent nearly ten times as much? There are a lot of things in politics that are more important than money. I don’t know whether the council will loosen or tighten restrictions on development, but if there are competitive races and more voters participate than do now, I’ll take whatever comes.
    Please tell me about the money that got me elected to the Charter Commission. I wasn’t aware of it. It isn’t surprising that when 60 percent of voters voted to create the commission, which is what Amherst for All wanted, that many of the candidates endorsed by Amherst for All would be elected. It’s a tribute to the respect you’ve earned and the service that you, Meg and Diana have done for the town over the years that you were able to buck this trend. As for Julia, I gave her the benefit of the doubt with respect to her endorsement by Amherst for All and subsequent no votes.
    With respect to the proposed zoning changes you mention, I was not part of Town Meeting and have not researched the pluses and minuses of them. But I think that if we have fair, democratic elections and people who favor zoning changes like this win out over candidates who don’t, or if the opposite is true, that’s democracy. We should not be afraid to have candidates air their views and let the voters decide.
    You say you want a “meaningful debate,” but how can we have that when you write a comment on a post but don’t address any of the points I made in the post?

  6. Irv, my apologies. I thought you were on the A4A slate.

    Nick, I was mostly trying to address “Scare Tactics”

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  7. Town Meeting supporters should drop their efforts to discredit the Charter process and focus on why they think the current structure is the best one for Amherst now, and into the future.
    That’s our message at Amherst For All, plain and simple: a Council will do a better job than Town Meeting at managing these challenges.

  8. Hey, Gerry I was supported by A4A. As you were supported by the Commons group.My comment was about you not even mentioning me in your post as a member of the Charter Commission. I certainly did not intend to convey anything other then that.

  9. I see what you’re saying. You are right Irv! I checked my original copy that I did in Google Docs and your name was there. When I transferred the doc, somewhere along the way, your name got deleted. I do apologize for that.

  10. Let the voters decide. If the voters of Amherst on March 27, 2018 decide that : If they like the way down town looks, that they like the state of the school buildings, that they are alright with turning down millions of State dollars for new school buildings, that they are satisfied with their taxes, that they do not want public/ private projects, such as creating additional parking and thus creating additional tax revenues and parking, if they are satisfied with the sidewalks and town roads, if they are satisfied with the pace of smart development that create additional revenues for the town, if they are satisfied with the overreliance on single family homes taxes to support municipal services and the town budget, in short if they are satisfied with the way things are, then they should vote in favor of defeating the Charter. Our current form of Government (Town Meeting) has had decades to address some very pressing needs, yet the supporters of Town Meeting insist that they should be given the opportunity to continue doing what they have done.

  11. Gerry – to your point about not cherry picking a city here and there…

    I have worked on library and other projects in more than a dozen Commonwealth municipalities and I have seen well-functioning as well as dysfunctional Council/Mayor and Council/Manager systems. I have also worked in several TM (open and Representative) communities. Those communities have included Chicopee, Barre, Athol, Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, Shutesbury, Shelburne, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Wareham, Medford, Charlton, Stoughton, Southbridge, Wilbraham, Greenfield, Noho, Amherst, Marlborough, Worcestor, Webster, New Bedford, Fall River and Fitchburg

    In the cases of the dysfunctional Council systems, I have seen relatively rapid turnover when the populace becomes dissatisfied and some sort of coalition forms to back new candidates. Typically that has resulted in better, more responsive government, AND as a lever to engage new candidates into the process.

    Part of the issue that is so vexing today is that despite best efforts by the League of Women Voters (I am a member) and within TM to encourage voter turnout and new candidacies for local seats the results in terms of new candidates and turnout have been disappointing and trending worse (I believe Nick has addressed this issue with election data elsewhere). Why is that?

    I expect that if our form of government changes, that there will be times when we are disappointed with the Council as a whole or with decisions by individual members. I would relish the opportunity to hold my Ward councilors accountable for their actions in a way that I simply cannot do today with the 24 TM members from my precinct.

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