On the eve of the recent town election, I received a call from an old acquaintance reminding me to vote the following day. I thanked her, but then she urged me to vote for the four incumbents on the School Committee, and the call became something quite different. I told her that I did not plan to do that and what might have been a useful exchange of views ended before that exchange occurred.
What I would have said is something like this: I know and respect the incumbents and have voted to support several of them individually in the past. But when they run as a slate I cannot support them. And when they refer to themselves as a team I shudder. Several of their comments quoted in the Gazette the day after the election reinforce my concern. Now, they say, they can show the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) that the town is united behind the superintendent’s plan for a new elementary school. As it happens, I too support the superintendent’s plan but claiming that the town is united when it isn’t is both disrespectful and dangerous.
When, in a town the size of Amherst, candidates for elective office run as a slate, something unsavory is afoot. In this case, it is the existence of a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Amherst Forward that is afoot. Or rather that wants to put its foot on the voters of Amherst who might have opinions or priorities different from its own. Amherst Forward has a history and we should be reminded of it. Its origin is in the effort of Baer Tierkel more than a decade ago to identify Town Meeting members who agreed with him. Baer, later joined by Claire Bertrand and Andy Churchill, had a series of ideas about what Amherst’s future should look like, and he devised a formula for analysing the votes of Town Meeting members to name those who shared his vision…
Now, the sad thing to me is that Baer has many good ideas, but one very bad idea. The good ideas, found under rubrics such as “Amherst Center,” “Sustainable Amherst,” and now “Amherst Forward” are all worthy of serious consideration and debate. The bad idea is that Baer wanted to suppress debate and put into elected office only those who agreed with him.
Of course, that is what we all want—to elect candidates who agree with us. But what we all should also want is a vigorous and civil debate among our elected officials about the important issues facing the town. Even those of us who take similar positions on these issues may have different priorities among these issues. As we prepare for ranked choice voting for candidates we should acknowledge that we already have ranked priorities among the things most of us support.
Amherst Forward apparently does not agree, and has the ambition to become the voice of a unified Amherst by having its own political agenda, questioning candidates about whether they support that agenda, and then creating a slate of candidates who support it. That scares me. I want candidates who are not beholden to any outside group, who are capable of independent thought, and who are willing to exercise it. PACs have debased our national politics through the aggregation of money and influence. I don’t want that to happen in Amherst.
Why is it happening? It does seem unnecessary and it leads to the divisiveness that it then decries. Claiming unity when there is none is itself divisive. Using experience and expertise as weapons when they are often blinders actually misunderstands the valuable roles that they play, not in decision-making but in strategic planning. Amherst Forward wants to control Amherst’s politics, and even when I agree with some of its positions I must oppose that control. It is unhealthy and oppressive, and we have seen it play itself out on so many levels in American history that it is surprising to me to find a group of neighbors—whom I know to have broad and liberal sympathies—so eager to control local politics.
Perhaps this will change over time. Perhaps the advent of Ranked Choice Voting will mitigate the impulse to advocate for slates of candidates. As the Town Council and Town Manager work out their relationship, perhaps we will see a balance of power in town governance that will validate the importance of disagreement in democracy. Perhaps Amherst Forward will come to see itself, not as a PAC or even an advocacy group, but as a forum in which concerned Amherst residents can learn about, discuss, and even disagree about the issues the town is facing. Perhaps.
In the meantime, I will devote what energy I have to valuing dissent and disagreement and advocating for those political forms that make them productive. That’s what I would have told my friend when she called me before the election.