By Bob Rakoff
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, when I was heavily involved in Amherst politics, friends and work colleagues would come up to me before local elections and ask whom they should vote for. And I would give them the bullet list of my favorite candidates. (Later on, I passed this task onto my Hampshire College colleague, Jim Wald).
That’s how folks got their political info in the old Town Meeting days. Local politics was personal. It was assumed that voters could rely on their friends and neighbors for political advice. Even if you didn’t know the candidates, someone you knew and trusted would know them.
It’s been clear for years, however, that this sort of personal politics has been overtaken by the changing demographics of the town and by the increasing complexity of local government. A growing and diversifying and more transient population, along with ever more complex and consequential decisions on capital spending, zoning and development, meant that the old informal processes for informing citizens regularly fell short. The result was declining participation in local government, rising distrust of the governing elites, and growing alienation from local politics for many people.
Over the last few years, however, ever since the battle over the last school building project, all this has started to change. Politics in Amherst has gotten more organized, better informed, and more transparent. We now have a growing array of political parties (or party-like organizations), and we are better off because of this. Political parties, ballot question committees, unions, political action committees (PACs), special interest groups — they all play important roles in defining problems and issues, informing voters, and creating narratives that help us make sense of the public choices facing us.
But many Amherst people are suspicious of these developments.
When I first ran for Town Meeting in the early 1980s, I was pretty new in town. I had a background in housing issues and had been involved with a group that promoted a form of rent control in town. Some of us decided to run for Town Meeting as a progressive slate. On my first canvassing outing, I handed a neighbor my flyer and gave my spiel about being part of a progressive slate. His response was “I don’t like the sound of that!”
This is not an uncommon response from many longtime political activists in town. During the campaign for the inaugural Town Council in 2018, one member of the League of Women Voters was reported to be so upset about Amherst Forward, a new PAC, that she vowed to not vote for any candidates it endorsed. She would make her own independent choices!
But that election saw the highest level of turnout for a local election in decades, testimony both to the popularity of the new regime and the impact of Amherst Forward, which had succeeded Amherst For All, a group that formed to promote adoption of the new town charter. Amherst Forward, an official local PAC that endorses candidates for office, continues to play an organizing and information role for many voters and activists.
There has always been organizing around local politics, of course. But in the past it was done in the local equivalent of back rooms, with little transparency about whose interests were at stake and who was planning strategy. Bringing these efforts out into the light of day is one of the best things that has happened in our local political scene.
And we need more of this. The recently announced Progressive Coalition of Amherst, a PAC whose platform focuses especially on issues of racial justice, offers another positive addition to the local political conversation.
What we really need, however, is a genuinely conservative party or PAC, one that brings a public voice to traditional concerns with the size and cost of local government. Who knows: I might even vote for their candidates!