Which campaign has the big donors?

Nick Grabbe

The claim that supporters of Amherst’s new charter are beholden to Big Money has been exposed as a cynical messaging tactic. In fact, it is opponents of the charter who rely on large donations.

Surprised? Just look at the numbers from the two sides’ 2018 campaign finance reports. They don’t lie.

Of the $12,652 raised by Not This Charter and Vote No on the Charter, almost half of the money came from just nine large donors. Contributions under $50 made up just 16 percent of their fundraising.

In contrast, Amherst for All, the pro-charter group, raised $15,702 from 234 donors, and the average donation was only $67. Contributions under $50 amounted to 54 percent of all donations.

While the two anti-charter groups had seven donations of $500 or more (with the largest $1,000), Amherst for All had no contributions over $300.

The third anti-charter group, Town Meeting Works, missed the deadline for filing campaign finance reports.

“These campaigns claim to be working against Big Money in politics, but they are actively soliciting and benefiting from Big Money,” said Johanna Neumann, chair of Amherst for All. “Voters should ask, ‘Why are a handful of big donors pouring money into blocking the charter?’ One reason is that 1930s-era Representative Town Meeting lacks accountability and transparency, and is therefore easily manipulated by powerful interests who know how to work the system.”

The anti-charter groups’ willingness to take big donations while denouncing Big Money was also evident in their 2017 contributions, as I outlined in this blog post. Last year, they accepted a contribution of $2,400, which was 10 times the largest donation to Amherst for All. Just four donors contributed a total of $5,000, which was nearly half of all the money the “no” groups raised.

Anti-charter donations in 2017 were heavily dominated by Town Meeting members, who (not surprisingly) don’t want to give up their privileged status in Amherst. Two-thirds of the donations came from current Town Meeting members, four-fifths if you also count former members.

While Amherst for All received $3,376 in donations under $50 in 2017, the anti-charter groups received only $380 in small donations.

“Despite the misleading rhetoric and innuendo coming from these groups, Amherst for All has undeniably demonstrated its grass-roots support from small donors and regular voters who believe it’s past time to update our town government,” said Neumann.

Oh, and those donors with real estate interests who are supposedly bankrolling Amherst for All? There were a few, but they represented only a small percentage of donors. And donors with real estate interests have also contributed to the anti-charter side.

While the anti-charter groups are relying on large donations, they are also claiming that the 13-member council that will be created under the new charter will be beholden to large donations. This claim also does not stand up to scrutiny.

I explained why in this blog post. Here are the main reasons that Big Money won’t influence council elections, any more than it will influence the outcome of the charter election March 27.

  • Council candidates won’t need great gobs of money, especially those running for the 10 district seats, and personal contact and compelling positions will be much more important;
  • State law limits individual contributions to candidates to $1,000;
  • Raising less money than opponents doesn’t sink a candidate, as School Committee member Peter Demling and six progressive candidates for the Greenfield council showed last year;
  • All contributions over $50 will be public, and voters might look askance at $1,000 donations;
  • The charter establishes a process for lesser-known candidates to introduce themselves and explain their positions at no cost;
  • Amherst voters are well-educated and won’t allow elections to be controlled by Big Money.

Ironically, many of the same Town Meeting supporters who say they are concerned about Big Money influencing our elections voted “no” on the elementary school proposal — while the No campaign was primarily funded by a single $5,000 donation. 

That donor is back in 2018, giving $250 to an anti-charter group.

Comments 18

  1. Just like last time (http://abetteramherst.org/2018/01/26/follow-the-money-and-the-endorsements/), I’m guessing we won’t hear much pushback on this from anti-charter groups, because the hard data you’re citing here once again directly undercut one of their most prominent, longstanding talking points: That support for the charter is funded by big-money interests. What’s funny is that they kept beating that drum after the previous campaign finance disclosures… because they know it works, even if it’s an easily debunked falsehood.

    I am curious about something, and I truly don’t know the answer to it. In the January report, it was disclosed that John Fox and Maurianne Adams gave $1200 and $2200 respectively as “loans” to the Not This Charter campaign. Carol Gray, in her comments on the article I linked to above, went out of her way to say “the larger ‘donations’ you point out to the anti-charter campaigns were specifically noted as ‘LOANS.'” Well, what is the status of those in light of this week’s update? Are they still loans, or are they donations like all the rest?

  2. Post

    It appears that those “loans” have not been repaid, because they are listed as “liabilities” on the charter opponents’ campaign finance statements: Maurianne Adams, $2,000; John Fox, $1,000; Janet McGowan, $500; Kenneth Rosenthal, $500; and Horst and Karin Winter, $150. The total of these “liabilities” is $4,150.

  3. This is interesting, but how can I get the campaign finance statements, so I can check the numbers out myself? Call me cynical, but I just want to see the reports.

    1. You can see the reports at the town clerk’s office on the first floor of Town Hall. I don’t think they are on line yet.

    1. Post

      It is beyond strange to look at hundreds of donations from ordinary residents of $100 or less and see “big money,” while the other side relies on a much smaller number of much larger donations.

    2. Not a single donor gave more than $300 to Amherst for All, but a person who donated $500 to the antis is complaining about big money? This argument is truly baffling.

    3. There you have it: Janet’s briefest post yet.

      She knows (when she’s out of advocacy mode) what we all know: the contributions on either side are a wash. There’s really nothing to be teased out of the numbers in favor of either side……except that the NOs fired the first shot on this topic.

      Perhaps “oh, never mind” would have been better, which would an even shorter remark.

  4. I am a retired public school teacher. I have taught in Head Start programs and in high schools with the majority of my career at Mark’s Meadow Elementary School in North Amherst.

    I gave a large donation to Not This Charter because I believe the proposed document is very flawed in many ways. A Council of 13 would have unchecked power and no Mayor. I do not believe that a Council should be able to appoint the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and the Finance Committee. Voters are critical to a sound democracy yet voters are not a branch of government and are therefore not a “veto” for proposed laws.

    The only property I own is my home here in Amherst. Therefore, I do not represent “Big Money.”

    1. Post

      Terry, we are all grateful for your service as a public school teacher and with Head Start. And you are, of course, free to spend your money as you see fit. I for one would not label your donation “Big Money.”
      But if you think the council will have “unchecked power,” that’s exactly what Town Meeting has now. Neither the Select Board nor the town manager can override what Town Meeting decides. The main difference is that the 13 councilors will be chosen by voters, who have heard multiple candidates debate the issues, while more than half of Town Meeting members have not been chosen by voters at all, with low turnout and little debate about issues. And the council will be able to deliberate and seek extra information and public comment, while Town Meeting usually has to vote on an article the same night it’s presented, after listening to speeches.
      And who do you think should appoint the members of the Planning Board and ZBA under a council form of government? The manager? I would prefer that the appointing authority be as close to voters as possible.

  5. I am pretty happy to be able to give money to support citizen-led democracy in Amherst. We are part of a long New England tradition of ordinary citizens making fundamental decisions about their towns. And now everyone can have a seat at the table-not just white men who own property. I serve in Town Meeting with hundreds of citizens and more than 125 women-all fully capable of understanding the issues that come before them. I’d rather sit, discuss, debate and vote with firefighters, teachers, students, professors, parents, people of color and little color, grandparents, people with all types of work backgrounds and life experiences, immigrants, disabled people–than a few paid politicians on a city council. This is the smartest, most involved community I’ve ever lived in.

    I deeply doubt there are 13 councilors that: are municipal government experts, deeply understand zoning, the needs of 2 school districts and all types of budgets, are able to reach across divides in town, run town hall, supervise the Town Manager, expertly confirm or reject all board and committee members-and department heads, regulate our public roads, expertly propose, pass and enforce bylaws , can lower taxes without deep cuts, negotiate PILOT agreements, run inexpensive campaigns, represent the views of everyone in their district, personally match the ages and ethnic backgrounds and genders of our community….and do even more. (Where is this magical town with such an effective expert council?)

    I know that 13 people cannot match the diversity, depth, knowledge, life experience and wisdom of our 255 current elected officials. I respect the members of the Select Board and Town Meeting and appreciate all the people who have worked to make Amherst what it is today. Amherst has warm, connected neighbors, thousands of citizens that volunteer in the community. It’s a beautiful town with good schools, protected land,strong finances, compassion-and some great coffee.

    We have a time-tested government structure that is flexible and adaptable. I actually believe in a government of checks and balances and separation of powers-and that no one government body should have consolidated powers. No one has named a town that actually has the Charter proposal’s government structure. So there is no way to evaluate and compare actual results, or hopeful claims.

    The leaders of Amherst For All, instead of healing divides and working to make our government stronger, have made divides deeper. They have shut down voices and opinions they disagree with. They have presented no evidence that this Charter proposal will work better than our current government–if there was we would have seen it.

    We moved here 15 years ago in the middle of a Charter vote that split Amherst In two. Here we are again. It’s worth good money to stop this renewed effort to take political power away from 255 ordinary people. Thankfully, I am not alone in this belief.

    1. Janet–Your litany of jobs for the Council is a bit broad and perhaps shows a misunderstanding of the separation of powers between the Council and the Manager. The Manager is tasked with enforcing bylaws, negotiating agreements (including PILOTs), and running Town Hall. Further, you conflate the two versions of “representation” at issue in this election: one where the representative body matches the demographic diversity of the residents it represents or one where the representative body represents the viewpoints and beliefs of the residents it represents, instead of their own individual interests. Representative Town Meeting currently meets neither of these versions. It neither matches the demographic diversity of the residents it represents, nor can it claim that it represents the viewpoint and believe of the residents it represents (without active campaigns on the issues, we cannot determine whether the viewpoints of those elected match the viewpoints of the residents electing them; further, many of those actually elected affirmatively state they only represent their own interests, not those of the residents electing them).

  6. What I find so fascinating about the response from the status quo supporters to the concerns about their over-reliance on a small cadre of Town Meeting loyalists to fund their campaign, is their total lack of self-awareness or accountability – the “abdication of responsibility” as Jim Wald says in his endorsement of the new Charter. I have always been amazed at Town Meeting members ability to shrug their shoulders at the problems we face. There’s some irony in the fact that younger residents (especially young families) are the ones pushing for greater responsibility and accountability.

    As a Town Meeting member, I’ve failed my community by allowing housing prices to raise to the point that my friends can’t afford to live here, I’ve failed to stem the flight of families and the decline in public school enrollments, I’ve failed to put in place a strategic plan to tackle major infrastructure plans, and I’ve failed – most of all – in my accountability to voters.

    Please vote me out on Tuesday by voting Yes! on the new Amherst governance plan.

  7. Actually the litany is based on reading Amherst’s current charter with the Select Board’s many executive branch duties and powers, and the legislative duties and powers of Town Meeting, plus the many, many claims made by you and other Charter proposal proponents. The proposed Council has a huge list of powers and duties usually split up between government branches. Add to that the lowering of taxes, healing of rifts, having Council members represent all views and being balanced by gender, age and so on. Does anyone live in such a place? Where is this city or town?

    1. I find it very interesting that you choose to base the details of the separation of powers between the Council and the Manager on a completely different document that outlines duties for a different form of government instead of on the actual description of the duties listed in the proposed charter. I suggest you read the proposed charter, specifically Article 3, Executive Branch, and particularly Section 3.2, “Executive and Administrative Powers and Duties”. It’s where you’ll find an accurate description of the powers and duties of the Town Manager — powers and duties that do not fall to the Town Council.

  8. A few points to make about donations: People should look at the donations in each reporting period — and look at the collective donations made by family members (some with different last names). I made my loan top help pay for a full-page Gazette ad, since it had a very early deadline. I know Maurianne Adams loaned for the same reason. The loan from me could have been divided between me and my husband. Amherst For All sent out an email asking supporters to limit individual donations to $100, one person could make a $100 donation in each reporting period. And then their children and spouses also could donate $100 in each period. (There will be a final reporting period with results known only after the election.) So anyone researching the numbers needs to keep these possibilities in mind.

    But no apologies from me for supporting Amherst’s very democratic, traditional New England citizen-led government–with it’s long, progressive history of good government, good schools and engaged residents. We live in a good place with many seats at the table for everyone to participate.

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