Meg Gage and John Bonifaz: Amherst democracy in jeopardy

Thursday, November 01, 2018
Amherst democracy in jeopardy

Amherst now has an actual political party, complete with a political action committee and a slate of endorsed candidates who support its mission of increased development and reviving the defeated school proposal. Facing criticism, Amherst Forward (AF) recently attempted to disguise itself as an impartial entity, organized to educate uninformed Amherst voters. But residents should know that as of October 9, 2018, AF is a registered political action committee (PAC), the likes of which Amherst politics has never seen. Its aim is to elect a slate of candidates loyal to its interests, thereby controlling the new Town Council. It has already made substantial technological, political and management contributions to its endorsed candidates, lists and technology that cost AF thousands of dollars to obtain. The very foundation of Amherst democracy and our political civility are in jeopardy.

Early this summer, AF distributed a questionnaire to all 33 Town Council candidates asking them to answer “yes or no” to questions related to proposed zoning changes in order to increase density in downtown and village centers and support for the defeated school project. These two complex and controversial issues, zoning and schools, have divided Amherst over the last several years like nothing in recent memory and can hardly be answered with a simple “yes or no.” Many candidates, understanding that the questionnaire came from an organization that had clear expectations of loyalty to its agenda, and wishing to find more nuanced solutions to our challenges, refused to respond to it.

Amherst Forward then announced its slate of 16 endorsed candidates who had responded “yes” to the questions about development and schools, bringing AF closer to its goal of electing a slate to take over the new Town Council. It is noteworthy that AF never publicly released its questionnaire or the responses of its endorsed candidates.

Recently, facing blistering criticism for its hardball politics and seeming rejection of civil dialogue and debate about issues, AF issued a second questionnaire to all Town Council candidates, pledging equal coverage of their answers in social media, perhaps thinking the public would be distracted from the fact that significant PAC resources have been contributed to their endorsed slate of candidates. This second questionnaire is, at best, window dressing, and, at worst, a set up.

Perhaps AF thinks we have forgotten that, in the past, opinions that do not conform to its own have been systematically silenced or derided on its social media platforms. Perhaps they think that we don’t understand that the responsibility of impartially educating voters on the issues is not compatible with endorsing specific candidates and promoting political agendas. Perhaps they think Amherst has abandoned its commitment to civil discussion of controversial issues.

It’s very hard for us to vote for any candidate who has made a commitment to a PAC on positions on development and the schools before the council has convened and discussions have been held. It’s hard to vote for candidates who would accept the endorsement of this divisive organization. We will make up our own minds about which candidates we will vote for based on their individual merits and willingness to represent ALL of their constituents. We urge others to do the same.

Meg Gage and John Bonifaz


Meg Gage was a member of the Charter Commission and is a voter in Amherst. John is a constitutional lawyer and Amherst voter.