Town Council Regular Meeting, 6/17/19

The big issue was: Campaign finance reform! (This is part one of a two-part column.)

The proposed campaign finance reform bylaw returned for a vote at tonight’s meeting. Put forward by Councilor’s Mandi Jo Hanneke and Evan Ross, it would significantly limit the amount of donations than can be made in Amherst’s local elections. At this meeting, as at the last, debate brought back unresolved resentment over the role played by political action committees in town politics.

Hanneke and Ross’s bylaw would further tighten Massachusetts’ rigorous campaign contribution limits that already restrict individuals to giving $1000 or less to state and local candidates annually and PACs to $500. (See the full chart of state limits here.) Hanneke and Ross had originally sought to reduce these limits by three-quarters, to $250 and $125 respectively. After meeting resistance from other councilors, they amended this to half the state number, or $500 and $250. Although councilors were first tasked with voting on the amendment before voting on the final bylaw, conversation immediately began to range over larger issues.

Cathy Schoen began by proposing that while this law is a good first step, it will only succeed if undertaken as part of a larger package of reforms that would more broadly address barriers to effectively running for office. She listed the need for website support, voting list support and other measures that would make campaigning less expensive, and called for the formation of a work group to examine such issues in conjunction with lowering campaign contributions.

Shalini Bahl-Milne, Lynn Griesemer and Andy Steinberg expressed their support for the bylaw as a means of leveling the playing field. Steve Schreiber, Alisa Brewer and George Ryan were opposed to it. They felt that the state already has strong enough campaign contribution limits and that candidates should decide for themselves whether or not to further limit donations; many councilors expressed that they did impose such limits during their campaigns.

A number of other councilors, including Darcy Dumont, Pat De Angelis and Dorothy Pam, agreed with Schoen that further measures need to be taken to reform elections in town. All mentioned the support provided to a slate of candidates during the run-up to the election by the Amherst Forward PAC.

Having moved to Amherst a few years ago and not being familiar with all the political players in town, I was curious to learn more about the background of local PACs and other donors. I wondered: What would I find out by following the money and how has it influenced town elections?

I was able to use the town’s website to track Amherst Forward’s backstory, as well as the broader history of local campaign finances. I was also privy to an email sent on 9/3/2018, the night before the preliminary election for town council, from Amherst Forward Co-chair Ginny Hamilton, which filled in more of the picture for me.

In this email, Hamilton describes Amherst Forward as “a group of volunteers from the Vote Yes elementary school campaign and the Amherst for All pro-charter campaign.” Records on the town’s website’s records date to 2015 and show that the Amherst for All Ballot Question Committee was formed on 8/26/2015 and the affiliated Amherst for Change PAC was formed on 2/26/2016.

As per their statements of organization, Amherst for All’s purpose was “to submit to the voters the question of revising the town charter” and the Amherst for Change PAC’s purpose was to “support the election of charter commission candidates” by promoting a slate to be on that committee, including future Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke. Adam Lussier chaired Amherst for All and Jerry Guidera chaired Amherst for Change. MaryAnn Grim was the treasurer of both. The largest single contribution to either was $500 from Barry Roberts, made to Amherst for Change on 3/7/2016.

On 2/15/2017, the Vote Yes for Amherst Ballot Question Committee was formed with Johanna Neumann as chair and Grim as treasurer in order to support the previous elementary school project. In a two month period they raised almost $10,000. Their biggest contribution, for $400, came from Jerry Jolly, who had served on the previous charter commission formed in 2001. Almost all other contributions were $100 or less. I voted in favor of the project, although I wasn’t a financial contributor to Vote Yes.

On 8/7/2017, the Amherst for All 2.0 Ballot Question Committee formed with Neumann as chair and Grim as treasurer to support the ballot question on the new town charter. They raised over $25,000 largely in increments of $100 or less.

Around the same time, three opposed Ballot Question Committees, Not this Charter, Town Meeting Works and Vote No on the Charter, arose on the opposite side of the issue. Not this Charter also raised over $25,000 and accepted much bigger campaign contributions from individuals including a $2000 loan from Maurianne Adams, a $1000 loan from John Fox, and $1000 from Terry Johnson. The other two raised an additional few thousand dollars. I signed a letter of support for Not this Charter, although I was not a financial contributor to any of these committees.

Finally, on 9/27/2018, the Amherst Forward Political Action Committee was formed by Hamilton, with Katherine Appy as co-chair and Grim yet again as treasurer, “to engage Amherst residents and elected and appointed officials on critical town issues, [including] smart growth and development, high quality services and infrastructure and responsive government.” As per Hamilton’s email and their website, Amherst Forward was and continues to be advised by Neumann, among others who were involved in related earlier campaigns.

When Hamilton wrote her email, Amherst Forward was not yet an official PAC. She writes, “Despite rumors to the contrary, Amherst Forward has not made any financial contributions to any candidate or campaign. We are not using any online database tool and no money has been spent or raised.”

The reference to an “online database tool” that Hamilton makes is to VAN (Voter Activation Network) software previously used by Amherst for All. Such software was developed by the Democratic Party and used in Barak Obama and Hilary Clinton’s national campaigns to help get out the vote. As Scott Merzbach reported in the Gazette, Amherst for All paid $660 per month to use the software, and its members were enthusiastic about its ability to target voters and win the election, which they did by a large margin.

Hamilton writes that Amherst Forward has provided to a slate of candidates* “trainings on financial reporting, contact lists to inform voter outreach and tips for campaigning on a shoestring as well as a shared campaign event calendar.” A few weeks later, Hamilton, Appy and Grim filed to make Amherst Forward an official PAC, allowing it raise money directly for candidates’ committees. In the end, as listed on published campaign finance records, Amherst Forward gave Mandi Jo Hanneke, Shalini Bahl-Milne, Alisa Brewer, Lynn Griesemer, John Page, Evan Ross, George Ryan, Steve Schreiber, Andy Steinberg and Nicola Usher $120.19 (some reported .18) in-kind for, as all listed, “flyers, post cards, mailer, facebook ad.”

Here’s where things get thorny and where I’ll pick up in part two: Councilors DuMont, De Angelis, Pam and Schoen weren’t recipients of Amherst Forward’s support (nor was Swartz, who was absent from this council meeting), leading to their comments and creating tension when Katherine Appy spoke during public comment in favor of the bylaw on behalf of Amherst Forward.

In my next column, I’ll tackle how hard it is to limit in-kind contributions, the importance of Ballot Question Committees and current difficulties regulating them, and whether or not Amherst should be concerned about local campaign finance reform and undue influence on local politicians.

*Amherst Forward’s slate was, in the order listed: Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Dillon Maxfield, Andy Steinberg, Sharon Provinelli, Nicola Usher, Lynn Griesemer, Victor Nunez-Ortiz, Peter Vickery, John Page, George Ryan, Evan Ross, Stephen Schreiber, Shalini Bahl-Milne, Paul Bobroski, Aaron Hayden. Their slate won eight seats on the council out of thirteen, giving these councilors the ability to vote in a block should they choose to. As I’ll discuss in my next column, this hasn’t seemed to be the case and there’s reason to be optimistic that it won’t be.