Election reflections: Women rule

Nick Grabbe

If the results of the preliminary election yesterday hold true on Nov. 6, there will be 10 women and three men on the new Town Council.

Combined with Mindy Domb’s landslide victory in the state representative primary and Jo Comerford’s write-in State Senate win, it was a good day for female candidates.

Although only 31 percent of the candidates on the Town Council ballot were women, they received 42 percent of the votes. If District 1, where all four candidates are women, had needed a preliminary election, a greater percentage of the votes townwide would have gone to women. Four of the five top vote-getters in the at-large and district elections were women (Mandi Jo Hanneke, Lynn Griesemer, Dorothy Pam and Shalini Bahl-Milne).

Is anyone really surprised? These results expose as baseless the contention by Charter Commission member Julia Rueschemeyer and others that a Town Council would likely have a larger percentage of men than Town Meeting, based on gender breakdowns on other councils in Massachusetts. In fact, the opposite will probably be true.

* * *

The preliminary election also exploded the myth that the Town Council would be dominated by “Big Money,” because of the supposedly urgent need for campaign donations. Candidates’ financial statements, and their answers to a question at last week’s at-large forum, show that personal contact with voters has been much more important than money. We’ll see if this continues in the general election campaign.

The unofficial Town Council vote totals are at the end of this post.

* * *

Of course, we can’t assume that the candidates’ rank will be identical on Nov. 6. With the state representative and Senate races likely to be a non-factor, the composition of the electorate could be different.

District 3 has the greatest potential for a change in the electorate. UMass student John Page survived the preliminary with only 106 votes, finishing fourth of five candidates, but he told me last night that he plans a massive mobilization of student voters for the Nov. 6 general election. District 4 could also be in flux, as the top three vote-getters were separated by only 58 votes.

* * *

In most races, Tuesday’s preliminary election was like a poll. But in District 5 (Precincts 7 and 8, with much higher voter turnout) there were six candidates on the ballot, and thus two were eliminated. They were Aaron Hayden, the former Planning Board and Select Board chair, and Town Meeting member Jeffrey Lee. Either one’s vote totals would have easily come in first in District 3, which had much lower turnout.

* * *

This Town Council campaign has gone pretty much as I had hoped it would. All voters will have choices about who will be making decisions on their behalf, and many capable residents have chosen to run. There are three candidates I would be comfortable with on the council even though they voted differently from me on the new charter.

And more than 300 residents showed up on a hot August night for the district councilor candidate forums, and about 150 attended the at-large candidate forum.

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Shortly before the election, someone created a Facebook page called “Amherst News” and used the town seal to illustrate it. The page  displayed a ballot with preferences filled in and it read, “Important information for Amherst voters.”

I don’t know how many readers of the Facebook page thought they were looking at an official document from Town Hall. But I do know that there was a big flap in 2005 when, during the previous charter campaign, the late Larry Kelley did a similar appropriation of the town seal for partisan political purposes. A story in the Gazette at the time cited the law that he violated, according to reporter Scott Merzbach.

The matter was referred to Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and to Facebook. At midday Wednesday, Bockelman said that the town seal had been removed from the Facebookpage.

Kitty Axelson-Berry and Thaddeus Dabrowski admitted involvement with the page.

* * *

Eric Nakajima is a good man, and he’s stabilized the Regional School Committee, but he got overwhelmed by the juggernaut that was the Mindy Domb campaign. I hope that Eric realizes that this wasn’t a vote against him, and that he finds some other avenue to serve the public with his enormous talents.

* * *

Here are the unofficial vote totals in the Town Council preliminary election:

At-Large: Mandi Jo Hanneke, 2,681; Alisa Brewer, 2,460; James Pistrang, 2,438; Andrew Steinberg, 1,826; Robert Greeney, 1,410; Robert Kusner, 1,130; Dillon Maxfield, 570.

District 2 (Precincts 2 & 6):  Lynn Griesemer, 855; Patricia DeAngelis, 572; Victor Nunez-Ortiz, 442; Peter Vickery, 434; Juan Ruiz-Hau, 132 (withdrawn).

District 3 (Precincts 4 & 10): Dorothy Pam, 215; George Ryan, 193; Stephen Braun, 157; John Page, 106; Joyce Thatcher, 86.

District 4 (Precincts 5 & 9): Evan Ross, 439; Jacqueline Maidana, 412; Stephen Schreiber, 381; David Reffsin, 271; Niels La Cour (withdrawn), 85; James Roche, 77.

District 5 (Precincts 7 & 8): Shalini Bahl-Milne, 773; Darcy DuMont, 751; Paul Bobrowski, 465; Samuel MacLeod, 460; Aaron Hayden, 396; Jeffrey Lee, 302.



Comments 21

  1. Nick,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and analysis. It was a good night for women candidates throughout the region and commonwealth.
    I am curious about a comparison of turnout, by precinct, between yesterday’s election and the March charter vote. I wonder if there is difference in voter enthusiasm between the two elections and what inferences could be drawn.

    1. District 3, comprising the former Precincts 4 and 10 and including the UMass Southwest dorms, will always have low voter turnout. I hate to say I told you so, but I did!

      1. Post

        I think it’s too soon to conclude that, based on the turnout in a preliminary election the day after Labor Day. Let’s see what it is on Nov. 6. The state and national election, plus the efforts of John Page to mobilize the student vote, could dramatically increase turnout in Precincts 4 and 10.

  2. The problem that may arise in this upcoming campaign is not going to be gender or campaign money. It’s our tradition of politeness in town politics. It’s wonderful, except where it keeps us from knowing these candidates fully. For example, every one of the 26 candidates needs to be identified as to how she or he voted on the school plan, as a voter and, if applicable, as a Town Meeting member.

    I am not voting for any candidate who voted, in the name of making the perfect the enemy of the good, to throw away 34 million dollars, or who does not feel sorry about it now. We need to nail down candidates on this point clearly. Yes, it tells us something about them as future leaders. I do not have this information on 2 of the District 5 candidates who made the cut Tuesday.

    May I suggest a slogan for this campaign for those of us who care about the future more than the look of specific buildings? “It’s about the tax base, stupid.”

    1. I’m responding to the slogan proposed by Richard Morse with a quote from Forrest Gump’s mama, “Stupid is as stupid does.” The school project did not win approval because there was no mandate from town-wide voters, only 50.4% on the first vote, and 53.3% on the second vote. Under those circumstances, it was unreasonable to expect 2/3 of Town Meeting to vote yes as required by State law, when barely half of the Town supported the mega-school project. Morse’s proposal to use the school vote as a litmus test to choose Council candidates also makes no sense. True leaders do not blindly follow someone else’s preset agenda.

      1. True leaders do what’s right for the children. It is a perfect litmus test to choose our town council. Any candidate who turned their backs on our kids, clearly knowing the conditions of our elementary schools, cannot be trusted to protect our children in any town wide decisions.

        “Kindness and common sense is as kindness and common sense does.”

      2. I have read Ms. Matthews-Nilsen’s pointed objection to my remarks carefully. She has characterized my objective accurately: to suggest that the school vote tells us something extremely important about each candidate. I respect Mr. Pistrang’s abstention in the role of Moderator and his remarks about what he would have done in a different position. I am confident that the forfeiting of $34 million dollars in state aid, which would have freed up the Town’s treasure to be spent on other important projects, will continue to stand as the single dumbest thing we have done collectively in town over the course of my lifetime. The perfect was made the enemy of the good in an absolutely devastating way in this particular episode. I do not wish to vote for anyone that could not see the fiscal realities and the Town’s needs clearly at the several critical moments when she or he had to decide, either as a voter or a Town Meeting member. Is it a litmus test? Yes, an extremely good one, and I do not shrink from that characterization.

      3. The school building project failed because TM overreached. TM’s role was to authorize the borrowing based on whether or not our town could afford the debt. (Short answer, we could then…and still can.) TM members who voted against the borrowing showed not only fiscal irresponsibility but also disregard for the elected members of the School Committee and every other official and volunteer involved in crafting the elementary schools plan. Our kids and teachers are suffering the consequences.

      4. Ms. Matthews-Nilsen,

        Can we please get some facts straight?

        First, an easy one. 56.0%, not 53.3%. Easy enough one to fact-check.

        Also, “mega-school”? Aren’t we done with that term yet? It was lazy and misleading from the start. The two co-located schools each had a capacity of 350 students. Would you like to know the capacity of Fort River and Wildwood? 750 students. Each. Talk about mega-schools…

        Before you decide that the schools vote should not be a litmus test for the Town Council election, I would recommend that you spend a day sitting in a classroom at Fort River. Bring something you need to concentrate on and try to do it in one of the quads housing 50, 60 students or more. See how much you can accomplish.

        Let’s try some more accurate numbers. How about 1,087? That’s how many days my eldest daughter has spent so far at Fort River. Most of those 1,087 days have been spent having to take tests while other classes were watching movies. 1,087 days of having to clap softly for a fellow classmate’s presentation because another class is trying to work. 1,087 days trying to read but being constantly interrupted by group work on the other side of the partition. The teachers and administration are fighting against the physical structure they inhabit rather than being in a building that supports and enhances student learning.

        OK, more facts – In 1996 there were 1,769 students in Amherst Schools. Twenty years later, the total population of Amherst hasn’t changed much, but the latest data available (2016-7 school year) shows 1,148 students enrolled. That’s more than a 35% decrease in just 20 years.

        There are a lot of reasons for that decrease. But I know one sure-fire way to keep the decrease from slowing or stopping. A way to keep parents from wanting to move their families to Amherst or to convince local parents to send their children to schools outside the district – Maintain the decrepit, poorly-planned schools we have now. Schools that inhibit learning. Schools that fail each of our children every day.

        If you want to turn Amherst into a retirement village that tolerates college students, fine. Just please be up front about it. Don’t throw around terms like “preset agenda” or pretend that Town Meeting worked in a sensible, reasonable way to come to a decision.

        I’d rather live in a community that welcomes people of all ages. I’d rather live in a community that proves by its actions that it cares about its most vulnerable residents, its children. Town Meeting failed to protect the children of Amherst. And I will never, never forget or forgive its accomplices.

        Litmus test? You’d better believe it.

        1. Let me request that the school visit takes place on a day of heavy rain. There are puddles in the school EVERY TIME. Think about it. How many times did it pour torrentially over the summer? And what do you think happens to chronically wet walls, floors and ceilings? I wanted to scream every time someone told me that they did not support the co-located buildings because they did not ‘buy’ that the buildings are unhealthy. BTW, my now 9th grader has not had ONE SINGLE SINUS INFECTION since leaving Fort River
          . This for a child who was told by her pediatrician that she had a propensity to chronic sinus infections. Turning a blind eye on the needs of the schools under the guise of [insert here any convenient phrase that sounds catchy and politically correct] is just wrong. Is. Was. Always will be.

  3. I think Richard Morse has a damn good idea there. I also want to know how each candidate voted on the elementary school. That is my sole criteria that I will be using in who I will vote for. If they voted against the school then I will not vote for them. Would it be possible for this blog to get the candidates to answer that simple question?… How did you vote for on the elementary school issue, both privately and/or publicly for former town meeting members? Most of us can’t get to candidate events and it would be so great if this blog could put that one question to each council candidate and then publish it on the blog. And if the candidates choose not to answer, then that is their right… and of course people like me will draw our own conclusions from that and vote for someone else, which is also our right. Would it be possible to publish the answers to that basic question to each town council candidate here to help Amherst voters like Richard and myself and a lot of other people who cared about the school? Thank you.

    1. Post

      I have been asking this question of some of the candidates whose positions on this I don’t know, and will be publishing a blog post soon.

  4. The January 30, 2017 Special Town Meeting results are public. Here are how the Town Meeting members who are going to be on the ballot voted. https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/37746/1-20-17-Votes

    Hanneke: Yes
    Brewer: Yes
    Pistrang: Abstain (as moderator)
    Steinberg: Yes
    Greeney: Yes (initially voted No at the Fall session)
    Kusner: No

    None were TM members

    Ryan: Yes
    Braun: No

    Schreiber: Yes
    Maidana: No

    None were TM members

  5. Does anyone know if District 5 candidate, Darcy Dumont, supported or opposed the new elementary school when it was on the ballot and in front of the town meeting? I don’t think she was a town meeting member, but if anyone is aware of any public comments either supporting or opposing the elementary school during that time, it would be helpful to know. I am a voter in District 5. Thank you.

  6. Post

    In answer to David Ahlfeld’s question above, the voter turnout figures by precinct in Tuesday’s preliminary election have been released, and they show a slightly lower turnout than in the charter referendum on March 27, 2018.
    Here are the percentages of voter turnout:
    Precinct 1: 22.97 charter, 20.22 Tuesday.
    Precinct 2: 33.42 charter, 29.04 Tuesday.
    Precinct 3: 20.18 charter, 15.64 Tuesday.
    Precinct 4: 12.52 charter, 11.23 Tuesday.
    Precinct 5: 31.58 charter, 26.81 Tuesday.
    Precinct 6: 36.54 charter, 35.53 Tuesday.
    Precinct 7: 34.76 charter, 33.32 Tuesday.
    Precinct 8: 47.59 charter, 44.49 Tuesday.
    Precinct 9: 28.30 charter, 24.88 Tuesday.
    Precinct 10: 12.66 charter, 12.04 Tuesday.
    TOTAL: 29.66 charter, 26.44 Tuesday.
    Both turnout levels were quite a bit higher than the average between 2008 and 2017. Those are:
    Precinct 1: 12%
    Precinct 2: 20.1%
    Precinct 3: 11%
    Precinct 4: 8.8%
    Precinct 5: 15.1%
    Precinct 6: 20%
    Precinct 7: 17.6%
    Precinct 8: 23.6%
    Precinct 9: 15.1%
    Precinct 10: 9.3%
    TOTAL: 15.6%

  7. I invite anyone who is still not convinced about the bright line nature of the NO vote on the school plan to watch carefully the Amherst School Committee meeting of August 14, 2018, about the conditions in the air at Wildwood and Fort River. These conditions were NOT a secret at the time of our votes.

  8. I object to yet another aspect of Ms. Matthews-Nilsen’s comment. She states that 50.4% approval – “barely half” – for the schools plan was not a town-wide mandate. Yes.It.Was. We call it a majority. I continue to be dumbfounded by the arrogance of TM members who refused to accept the voters’ decision and do their job with respect to financing.

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