Candidate survey is helpful but incomplete

Nick Grabbe

A helpful survey of Town Council candidates’ positions on important issues is now available online. The questions on the survey are specific and non-partisan, and the answers are revealing about the candidates.

Unfortunately, only 15 of the 26 candidates responded to the survey by the deadline. That’s mostly because the survey was conducted by Amherst Forward, which had previously endorsed 14 of the candidates and formed a political action committee so it can raise money to inform voters.

With three exceptions, the endorsed candidates responded to the survey and the unendorsed ones didn’t. Jim Pistrang and Steve Braun were not endorsed by the group but did fill out the survey, and Victor Nunez-Ortiz got an endorsement but didn’t answer the questions.

Amherst Forward said it will allow candidates who didn’t meet the deadline to submit answers and will post them on their web site. I encourage them to do so. The ability to work with people you disagree with is an important qualification for Town Council membership.

I’m going to offer some views on both sides of this issue, and then express my own opinions.

Paul Bobrowski, a candidate in District 5 (Precincts 7 & 8) has no problem with Amherst Forward registering as a PAC.

They have given me no money, no marching orders, nor do they plan to and I wouldn’t accept either if they offered,” he wrote on Facebook. “The few meetings I have attended were either informational (schools, zoning) or tutorial (how to run a campaign).”

Amherst Forward did provide data on who voted in the last few elections, but said that data is easily available at Town Hall, Bobrowski wrote.

The fact that people are tracking voters’ preferences is hardly a surprise and only the politically uninitiated would think this is a nefarious activity,” he wrote. “Organizing is what people do when they want change badly enough.”

On the other hand, Andra Rose is “turned off by the premise that we need a PAC in our small town to inform the voters.”

I feel like Amherst Forward is undermining the promise of the Town Council,” wrote Rose on Facebook, noting that she sided with the group on both the charter vote and the elementary school project. “I don’t consider a past position on an issue a reason to scratch a candidate off my list. Fanning the flames about the schools, an issue that divided the town in half, seems irresponsible.”

Rose questioned whether Amherst Forward can be objective. “If they’re the ones asking the questions, it’s not impartial,” she wrote.

Becky Demling wrote on Facebook, “I do see so many other groups endorsing a slate of candidates based on their opinions, and I am perplexed as to why this is any different.” But Perry Conley wrote, “I resent the PAC…People who harp on the school vote turn me off. I think it’s a poor litmus test.”

Most of the candidates who did not answer the questions said their non-participation in the survey was because of the formation of a PAC and because there were similar questionnaires elsewhere. The only candidates who didn’t respond at all were Bob Greeney and Sam MacLeod. Greeney said he never saw the survey, and Amherst Forward may not have had his correct email address. He is being sent another one.

Some candidates objected that it is not appropriate for a partisan group to host a survey of all candidates,” Greeney said. “Not sure how I stand on that issue. Since I never received a request to participate, I did not have to decide.”

My own views are mixed. I think it would have been better if Amherst Forward had waited until after their survey was conducted before it endorsed candidates. And I don’t think they should be surprised that people associate a PAC with dark money and corrupt candidates, given the state of our national politics.

At the same time, I think that criticism is misplaced. I don’t see a problem with forming a PAC if the purpose is to keep voters informed, there are strict limits and transparency on contributions, and candidates have to finance their own campaigns. I don’t see the PAC as a reasonable justification for declining to participate in a survey that does not ask leading questions.

I think there hasn’t been enough information about the candidates, and it’s especially important as we choose our first Town Council members, who will serve for three years. We need answers that go beyond the canned, carefully sculpted positions published on candidates’ web sites. Amherst Forward’s survey provides those answers.

Comments 16

  1. As a political scientist, I find some of these arguments against using information about past actions to vote so odd. When figuring out how to vote, citizens have to make a judgment about a potential office holder’s future performance. Who is the best candidate to get what I want done? The two obvious sources of information are what the candidate says and what the candidate has done in the past. I’m deeply skeptical about a complete reliance on what a candidate says, especially because this often drifts into who seems like a nicer, more likable, or sincere person. Moreover, even good people often say one thing, then do the opposite (and maybe for good reason!). Or they proclaim a value, but then vote in ways that do not seem to be the most effective way to uphold that value. If you think someone made a good decision in the past, then you would logically think they are likely to make good decisions in the future. If you think they made a poor judgment, then you could vote for someone you think has been judgment. Or you might wonder and try to find out more, through town forums, blogs, meetings– and the candidate could give you an explanation for that decision– one that leads you to see their point of view and change your mind, or one that explains that they were mistaken and think differently now. Very recent decisions logically give you the most up-to-date information on their judgment. This is how democratic accountability works. So the idea of moving forward and jettisoning the recent past, as if it holds no informational value for us as voters, just baffles me.

    There’s a separate issue about who gets deemed an appropriate source of information in this town. I see this group having grown out of a need– many people felt shut out of the power structures in Amherst (closed email lists, called questions and limited debates at town meeting, social networks based on neighborhoods; these aren’t all bad things in and of themselves, but lead others to feel outside some rather opaque systems). So they got together and created an organization to pool their energy and enliven political engagement. From what I can see, it’s much more open and transparent than some of those other modes. The invective and suspicion hurled at it, especially when coupled with a demand to stop using the past as a tool for judgment, is frustrating.

  2. Thank you, Nick, this is all level-headed and useful information. I appreciate your continued informing us about this process.

  3. I agree with you that endorsing candidates before publishing the public survey is problematic, but I also know they have been doing and have the best interest of the town at heart. We all do if we are in engaged with this, even if the interest don’t align. We are also all learning together in this new and exciting space. We have got to figure out – as a town- how to give ourselves a break, myself included.

  4. Let’s avoid taking a few residents’ statements and generalizing.

    Of course, most voters want to look at a candidate’s past performance and, while we’re at it, voters shouldn’t overlook any problems with the law such as an OUI arrest. However, choosing to focus on one particular past stance as a litmus test is very limiting in predicting future contributions to the various decisions the Council will be called upon to make. Our town landscape is constantly changing (literally and figuratively)!

    Over the summer, the Amherst For All Ballot Initiative Group changed its name to Amherst Forward. Based on a detailed questionnaire, Amherst Forward announced their vetted slate of endorsed candidates in late August.

    They have been supporting their candidates with help on websites, brochures and the like.
    They have used various Facebook pages and their vast email lists left over from the pro-charter campaign and the still sensitive elementary school vote, to promote this slate. Amherst Forward has now filed as Political Action Committee, more than six weeks after announcing their endorsements.

    Amherst Forward insists that independent candidates answer survey questions on their PAC website? They may frame this as educational. I frame it as disingenuous. Amherst Forward intends to install their established slate on the new Town Council by dividing our community with a preset Council agenda.

  5. When some nice folks get together and pool their knowledge, hope, and enthusiasm, it is the end of the world. But if a single large donor funds a ballot question committee, not an eyebrow is raised. The voters deserve to know where candidates stand on the issue of campaigns funded by one or two large donors, like SASS and the No Charter campaign.

  6. I’ve had to correct the record on this so many times, I’m starting to wonder if the antis are deliberately and maliciously misinforming people or really just making the same honest mistake over and over again. Let’s be clear: Amherst For All and Amherst Forward are two separate and unaffiliated organizations, incorporated by different people with different agendas and charters. Sure, there’s some overlap – does every Sox fan root for the Pats? No. Let’s be honest with the voters, Terry. Stop repeating incorrect information – deliberately or not – and insinuating anything but honest differences of opinion and strategy on any side of the debate.

  7. Yes, Amherst For All and Amherst Forward are now separate legal entities, but what happened before 10/2/18 when Amherst Forward became a PAC seems murky. Can you elucidate what occurred before the PAC status was established?

    The saddest situation is that some folks continue to use the terms “pros”and “antis.” Believe me, I’m tired of this, too. I so want to move on and see a Council elected with a variety of voices. This is particularly difficult when Amherst for All insists on maintaining its pre-Charter election website and promoting Amherst Forward on the Amherst for All Facebook site.

    While this blog ostensibly attempts to bring up key issues, it consistently supports a pre-selected slate. Since August, when Amherst Forward endorsed particular candidates, they have increased divisiveness in our community.

    Most of our town’s voters have the same goals in many instances. There is commonality. I support the schools and public safety, new zoning bylaws, improved town services, sustainability, a strengthened tax base, etc. The difference is, I am leery of supporting candidates committed to a preset voting agenda before the Council has even been established.

    Because the slate candidates have already promised to follow a lock step approach to their responsibilities, it will make conferring with other Councilors very difficult. The many problems Amherst currently faces require Councilors who can truly work together. We may have differing opinions, but we all want Amherst to thrive.

    1. Post

      I agree with Terry that we need to move beyond labels as we approach this important election. I also believe that the ability to work well with others, especially those one disagrees with, should be an important criterion as voters make their choices among candidates. But Terry is incorrect when she writes that this blog “consistently supports a pre-selected slate.” In the Sept. 21 post, I wrote that Jim Pistrang “would be a valuable member of the Town Council, possibly a bridge-builder,” adding there were other candidates opposed to the new charter who I would be comfortable seeing on the Council. And I don’t think it’s correct to say that candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward “promised to follow a lock step approach to their responsibilities.” Is there anyone who can imagine Alisa Brewer or Mandi Jo Hanneke doing that?

      1. If anyone catches Alisa Brewer marching to the beat of someone else’s drum, would they please let me know?

  8. Let’s cut to the chase. I want to see the Terry S. Johnson endorsements for Town Council.

  9. When did “slate” become a four-letter word? Nothing wrong with backing candidates. Politics is all about endorsements and support.

    I’ll remind folks that the first slate in the Charter debate came from Town Meeting supporters who coalesced behind candidates that were determined – some publicly, some privately – to run jointly for seats on the Charter Commission with the aim of maintaining the status quo. It was only after we learned of that effort, that Amherst For All decided to support candidates through a coordinated effort – i.e. a slate. In the Town Council race to be determined November 6, there are ad hoc and pro forma slates on all sides of the debate. What I appreciate most about the Amherst Forward effort is how transparent it is. It’s clear that non-AF candidates are quietly coordinating their campaigns and messaging – how is that not a de facto slate?

    As for the candidate surveys, I don’t have a problem with any of them, so long as it’s clear who’s behind the effort. Again, that’s what I appreciate about the AF effort – the transparency. They’re not the only organization or individual probing candidates. I heard from one At Large candidate who said she had completed ten different surveys and questionnaires from various different organizations. Why are we focused on just the AF one?

    It seems to me that a lot of the fear of PACs and organized campaigning is coming from the corners of the community that are still loyal to the Town Meeting concept and fearful of change. I hope that changes.

  10. Yes, Nick, you have discussed Jim Pistrang, a fine candidate, and you have mentioned a few other non-slate potential Councilors. How else could you claim to be non-partisan?

    Although Amherst Forward now touts itself as a “transparent educational PAC,” no one on this blog has answered my question and provided information about the work that occurred during the six months between the March 27th Charter vote and their October 2nd PAC filing.

    The fact is, just a day after the deadline for filing nomination papers on June 29th, every declared candidate received a detailed questionnaire from Amherst Forward. By August 27th, just days before the preliminary election, Amherst Forward had endorsed a hand-picked slate based upon specific answers to this survey. Interestingly, this now PAC continues to appear on Amherst for All’s still active website, posted as the “Amherst Forward 2018 Election Guide.”

    Of course I support all questionnaires from identified non-partisan organizations. But this newly-formed PAC is asking independent candidates that they do not endorse to take time out from their canvassing efforts to answer a repetitive questionnaire. Once again, why would any non-endorsed candidate want to respond?

    Personally, I’m not dwelling on Town Meeting or the Charter election. We all want our new form of government to succeed. Raking up past actions on either side hinders us as a community from working for the future of our Town.

    We DO need change with a variety of differing voices on the Council who are willing to be open to new ideas and possibilities without pledging to vote on a preset agenda.

    1. Terry – Between March and October, Amherst Forward had a bunch of meetings to decide about priorities and to to then decide how to invite candidates to provide their opinions/take positions on the things Amherst Forward thinks are important. It was clear from the outset that Amherst Forward would not support any candidates financially, and that has continued to be the case.

      I would note that there has been some great discussion about what Amherst Forward can do over the long term to help build a pipeline of candidates that reflect our Town’s diversity – how under-represented constituencies can be recruited and provided with modest support (e.g. basic training on how to run a campaign, role of candidate, campaign manager, campaign treasurer, etc.) – so that our government can really reflect who we all are.

      Because of the nature of this election – primaries and then a general – and the newness of Amherst Forward and the council form of government – Amherst Forward decided to reach out to all candidates twice – once over the summer and then after the primary. The purpose of this outreach was to give all candidates an opportunity to state what their priorities would be/is for the public’s benefit. I would imagine that the next election, when incumbents will actually have a track record, will be different from this cycle because the public will know how their councilors have performed.

  11. Matt, thank you for your partial summary of what Amherst Forward has done over the summer. It has also used email lists and phone numbers collected from the Charter campaign and kept up the Amherst for All Facebook page (Today it was announced that the Amherst for All FB page is now Amherst Forward, thus keeping all those followers). I also believe that Amherst Forward has provided professional marketing to candidates with website assistance and brochure development. A marketing agency even generated the second AF survey to candidates. That’s a lot of professional in-kind contributions.

    Let’s stop this continuing dichotomy. The unfortunate formation of this PAC is fueling rancor leftover from an election which is past. The Charter is our form of government. We need a Council with diverse voices who have not pledged away Amherst’s future before the Council has even been elected.

    1. Hi Terry –

      I want correct your statement that you believe that Amherst Forward has provided professional marketing assistance to candidates. It has not. Nor did a marketing agency generate the second AF survey. I know since the survey came from my work email address at Financial Development Agency (FDA) and we are not a marketing agency. Never have been, never will be. We work with non-profit organizations providing grant writing and fund raising counsel services. We do no political fund raising and we do not work with any PACs including Amherst Forward.

      Generating the survey consisted of trying to figure out how to get the survey questions into a format that could easily capture candidate answers word-for-word into a form so that this information could then be distributed verbatim to the public. That was done by me as a volunteer because although I am over 50 I thought I had the tech smarts to figure out how to use something called Google Forms. Much to my surprise I got it to work fairly well. Again, this was done by me as a volunteer for Amherst Forward, as an Amherst resident and tax payer, on my own time and involved no contribution whatsoever by any marketing agency or professional.

      I continue to agree with you Terry that we need a Council with diverse voices, and I think it is unfortunate that you feel that Amherst Forward is fueling rancor. I think Amherst Forward has done a great job promoting dialogue around the issues that many in this community feel are critical to our future.

  12. Terry: Let me be clear. I have not received any assistance on my VoteHanneke.org website design. I picked the template (free from WordPress), wrote the copy, uploaded pictures and copy, installed add-ons, and made all the changes myself. While I cannot speak for others (and do not know who, if anyone, may have helped them get a website up an running), I would appreciate it if you stop stating that all candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward have received professional assistance, especially since I have made clear in other comments on Facebook that I have not received such assistance. Further, I designed my lawn sign and initial brochures myself, asking for feedback from a number of friends. My current postcard was initially designed by a friend, whom I had asked to help me, since that friend has more design background than I do (which is none). It is my understanding that many candidates (both those endorsed by Amherst Forward and those not endorsed) have also sought and received assistance in design efforts from friends. Most campaigns cannot be run single-handed and rely on help from friends for a variety of things, including design.

    Further, it would be helpful to acknowledge that Amherst Forward is not the only group that has endorsed candidates in this race. The Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed at least two candidates, the LGBTQ Victory Fund has endorsed at least one, Run For Something has endorsed at least one, and Elect YZ has endorsed at least two. All of these endorsements, except for the those from Amherst Forward, come from state-wide or nationwide groups, yet I have heard no consternation from individuals that these outside groups are exerting their influence in Amherst’s local election. Why is it that a group of Amherst’s residents taking part in our local election by seeking out information and then endorsing candidates in a transparent manner is somehow bad, but a state-wide organization or national organization doing the same thing is not?

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