Editorial: Measuring council candidates in Amherst 

  • Amherst Town Hall

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The number of candidates running for the new Amherst Town Council is encouraging, though the field does not fully represent the community’s demographics.

Thirty-four candidates are seeking 13 seats on the council, which replaces the 240 elected members of Town Meeting and five-person Select Board. That is the most significant change in the new charter approved by 58 percent of residents who voted in March. 

We commend those 34 people who are willing to campaign for the council, debate the issues and describe why they want a seat on the town’s new legislative body. Preliminary elections Sept. 4 for the three at-large positions and the two seats available in each of Districts 2, 3, 4 and 5 will whittle the field to 26 candidates. The final election is Nov. 6.

However, the field falls short of mirroring the town’s makeup in several key areas: gender, race, age and home ownership. While 52 percent of Amherst’s population is female, just 13 of the 34 council candidates, or 38 percent, are women.

It appears that only three candidates are people of color, or less than 10 percent, contrasted with the town’s minority population of more than 20 percent.

The average age of the Town Council candidates is 57. In 2014, the average age of eligible Amherst voters was 39, according to statistics gathered by University of Massachusetts researchers Ray La Raja and Wouter Van Erve. 

A housing market study done for the town in 2015 reported that nearly 54 percent of the town’s housing units are rented. Yet only six of the 34 council candidates, or 18 percent, are renters who do not own a home, according to an analysis of property records.

The unrepresentative demographics are not unique to the candidates for Town Council. Researchers La Raja and Van Erve found that the average age of Town Meeting members was significantly older than that of eligible voters, and that Town Meeting also had a higher percentage of whites and home owners.

The field of council candidates has a mix of current and former town officials, as well as candidates in each district who would be new to town government. Incumbent Select Board members Alisa Brewer and Andrew Steinberg, former Select Board member Robert Kusner, Moderator James Pistrang and former Charter Commission Vice Chairwoman Mandi Jo Hanneke are five of the seven candidates for the three at-large council seats. About one-third of the 34 candidates were elected members of the final Town Meeting.

Three of the candidates own businesses in town and one is a farmer. At least five candidates work for the University of Massachusetts, and three are students.

One of the students is 21-year-old John Page, who grew up in Amherst and is entering his senior year at UMass. A candidate in District 3, Page says that his perspective as a student and renter is essential for the Town Council.

“Affordable housing is a huge issue in Amherst, and is one that’s important to students as well as everybody else,” he says. “As someone who wants to stick around and work and live in this area, I don’t know if when I graduate I’ll be able to afford a home in Amherst, or to rent.”

Another student, Dillon Maxfield, 27, is an at-large candidate. “That’s what I expected to see, fewer renters running,” he says. “Typically the people who are renting don’t have the time or resources to get involved in politics.”

One of the few nonwhite candidates is Shalini Bahl-Milne, who owns Downtown Mindfulness and is running in District 5. An Indian-American, she immigrated to the United States 17 years ago and became a citizen in 2015.

“The way I’m thinking about it at this point is reaching out to the diverse populations, the people who are living in the apartments, immigrant families especially,” she says, adding that among her campaign goals is to make sure residents who feel disconnected from town politics know that their voices matter. “To me, it’s a basic way how I think, appreciating that different points of view is a good thing. I think it is helpful to have that experience and background.”

We look forward to a vigorous campaign focusing on the issues facing Amherst — and how best to represent its diversity as a community — leading up to the Sept. 4 preliminary election and beyond to Nov. 6.