Whiplash! Belmont backs Dems, Sales Tax and CPA

It was a case of  political whiplash in Belmont on Tuesday. Just months after voters in town sent a “no new taxes” message to Town officials by narrowly defeated a Proposition 2 1/2 override they were back at the polls: resoundingly backing the State’s Democratic leadership, voting down a cut to the State sales tax and voting themselves a small property tax increase by agreeing to support the State’s Community Preservation Act.

Turnout was huge, according to data released by the Town Clerk. Patch has coverage here. Fully 67% of the town’s 16,596 registered voters turned up. Almost without exception, those voters backed Democratic candidates. Among the highlights:

  • Gov. Deval Patrick and Tim Murray won handily in town, winning 59% of the vote compared with 36% for the Republican ticket of Baker and Tisei.
  • Belmont voters backed U.S. Rep Ed Markey over his opponent Gerry Dembrowski 68% to 31% .
  • We picked Democrat Martha Coakley for Attorney General by 71% to 29% for Republican opponent James McKenna. Democrats Bill Galvin took the town vote for Secretary of State and Steve Grossman for Treasurer by similar margins.
  • Belmont resident and State Rep. Will Brownsberger defeated his Republican opponent, Lalig Musserian, 70% to 30% for a third term in office.
  • Democrat Suzanne Bump garnered 52% of the votes in town for the State Auditor position.

Perhaps the biggest surprises came on the State-wide and local ballot initiatives. In particular, Question 4: a local initiative to have Belmont adopt the State’s Community Preservation Act (CPA) passed by a margin of around 200 votes. Supporters, led by former Selectman Paul Solomon, chair of the Belmont CPA Ballot Question Committee, made impassioned arguments in favor of adopting the CPA, a 10 year-old State program that will both raise local money and make matching State funds available for preserving open space, building affordable housing and preserving historic buildings in town. Prospects looked dim following the April rejection of the Proposition 2 1/2 Override, a contentious campaign that revealed deep skepticism of Town and School administration  by at least some voters. In the wake of that vote, a proposal to raise average property taxes by $100 a year to support things like “open space” and historic preservation would have seemed preposterous. But, by a margin of 200 votes, Belmont said “Sign us up!”

That could be a very good thing for town, especially with much needed repairs on tap at Underwood Pool, Electric Light Building, railroad overpass and other infrastructure.

So too the town’s vote on a couple other “small government” ballot initiatives: solid margins voted “No” on both Questions 2 to repeal the 40b affordable housing law and 3 to slash the State sales tax.

State Rep. Will Brownsberger, though always a strong favorite, won a strong mandate for a third term, with 70% of the local vote.

What does this mean? Well – one thing I think is clear is that turnout matters. The voting trends we’ve seen in recent elections are very consistent and paint Belmont as a pretty progressive town, let’s face it. This includes the Presidential election in 2008 and the special election to refill Sen. Kennedy’s seat, in which Belmont voted for Martha Coakley. So how to explain votes like last April’s? Well – tax increases are always a tough sell, that’s to be sure. But I think the tendency to shuffle these Override votes into special elections definitely helps the “No” side. Less than 40% of registered voters turned out in April to weigh in on the Prop 2 1/2 override. Even then, the question fell short by fewer than 400 votes. I think its safe to say that if the turnout was 67% – as it was today – the outcome would have been far different.

There are lots of reasons to stop relegating overrides to special elections – there’s the cost of carrying them out and the difficulty of getting voters to engage for a one issue ballot. One other reason, as this election suggests, is that Belmont’s body politic may actually look and vote very differently than one would assume by reading the tea leaves on the April special election.

My 2c. I’ll be interested to see the reactions from folks in town to Tuesday’s results.