Amherst Bulletin Column: Look Beyond Single Issues & Slates

Look beyond single issues and candidate slates

by Jim Oldham, Amherst Bulletin, 10/25/18

As the first election of a Town Council in Amherst draws near, the contrast in attitudes regarding what are useful criteria for voters’ decisions is striking.

On the one hand, there’s the position taken by Bennett Hazlip, one of the 10-member leadership team of the political action committee Amherst Forward, which has endorsed a full slate of council candidates. In an October 12 letter to the Bulletin, Hazlip claimed that “Whether or not they supported the school building project is the single best determination” for choosing candidates. This position is echoed, often quite aggressively, in online forums where Amherst Forward supporters dominate.

Letters in the Bulletin pushing back have included Andra Rose (Oct. 12), calling on voters to genuinely look forward and support candidates with the ability to bring people together; and Ira Bryck (Oct. 19), who highlights the ways PAC supported slates undermine democracy. Writers who point to a candidate’s many contributions over many years, as Cynthia Brubaker (Oct. 12) and Caroline Lederman (Oct. 19) have done in support of at-large candidate Jim Pistrang, demonstrate a very different thought process from that of Hazlip and his allies.

Voters who wish the best for our schools —as most of us do — should to reflect on how to achieve this. Notwithstanding current challenges, Amherst has maintained excellent schools for decades thanks to the historic generosity of Amherst taxpayers and a town-wide commitment to education that has included not just families currently in the system but also those whose children long since graduated and others with no personal connection. Such broad community support cannot be sustained through politics based on factionalism, stigmatizing and revenge voting.

Rehashing the school building debate also distracts from critical issues such as zoning and downtown development, where the Town Council will play a more direct role. Nick Grabbe, another Amherst Forward insider, offered in an October 19 guest column a defense of recent downtown development — and the potential for more of the same — that is hinted at in the campaign literature of many of the PAC-supported candidates. Essentially Grabbe argues that although “residents don’t like the size and appearance of the new five-story buildings” that are “visually imposing and too close to the street,” we should accept them for the sake of the taxes and other supposed benefits they bring.

These arguments have two critical weaknesses. First, embracing socialism for the rich, Grabbe fails to consider external costs new buildings generate, such as the increased need for taxpayer-funded parking. Second, by suggesting that the only choices are inappropriate development or no development, Grabbe demonstrates the lack of imagination that got us to this point. With the right rules in place, there is no reason that development couldn’t happen without crowding sidewalks, shadowing neighboring properties and impacting the small-town feel appreciated by visitors and residents alike. But if those who played a key role in creating the current situation are elected to Town Council, expect more of the same.

Beyond specific issues, this election is really about how we do politics in Amherst. The existence of a political action committee promoting us-or-them politics and seeking sufficient control so as to obviate the need to listen to others is troubling. Although this approach is well established in national politics, it is extremely sad to see it happening at the local level where such behavior will eventually poison many aspects of community life.

Fortunately, September’s preliminary election delivered an interesting mix of candidates for voters to choose from on November 6. Here are few to consider, one per district, most of whom I knew little about prior to the campaign.

In District 1, in a race with four strong candidates, Cathy Schoen stands out due to her training as an economist, experience with public finance, and advocacy for health insurance and low wage workers — she offers expertise, social commitment, and thoughtful listening.

I am thrilled that Pat De Angelis, a strong social justice advocate, is running in District 2. She has integrity and commitment, and will support progressive policies in Amherst.

In District 3, Dorothy Pam, a relative newcomer, combines a depth of community leadership in support of social, educational, and environmental programs with a valuable independent perspective.

Jacqueline Maidana is the only woman running in District 4 and one of just a couple renters running for any Council seat. Her open-mindedness and ability to listen make her a strong choice.

In District 5, Darcy DuMont’s well articulated positions on the schools, downtown development, and more demonstrate she is a thoughtful and well-prepared candidate.

I encourage readers to learn more about all the candidates. Links to websites and videos, a nonpartisan voters’ guide, and a recording of the Amherst Education Foundation forum for at-large candidates can all be found at the League of Women Voters website (www.lwvamherst.org/content/november-6-state-and-town-elections).

Jim Oldham remains, until the seating of the Town Council, an Amherst Town Meeting member from Precinct 5, and he serves as a member of the Community Preservation Act Committee.

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