Many Victories in a Narrow Defeat

OK, so this is a couple days late, given that the town voted on Tuesday. The votes have been counted and even the Belmont Citizen Herald has weighed in. (Though, given its editorial slant during the race, I suspect that BCH was prepared to declare Mr. Epstein the winner “Dewey Defeats Truman” -style no matter how the votes tallied. 😉 )

First: congratulations to all the folks who won election or re-election. Congratulations especially to Roy Eptsein for capturing the Board of Selectman seat vacated by Mark Paolillo.

In Judaism – which is the religion I practice – we make a point each Saturday of praying for the elected and appointed leaders of our government. Though historically directed at kings, the prayer these days is said for officials at all levels of our government: from the President and Congress on down. We pray that they be kept from “trouble, woe, and injury” and that G-d “put into their hearts and into the hearts of all their councilors compassion to do good with us.”

For a people who have been ruled over by others for millennia -often unfairly – you might consider that prayer one whose main concern is self preservation. But it serves many purposes and so I’ll pray to G-d to grant Roy Epstein and our other newly elected leaders at all levels of Town government the wisdom to lead us and to exhibit compassion, insight, and understanding. Those qualities are sorely lacking in our national politics. We should do better here in the Town of Homes.

Left vs. Right Dynamics at Play *

As for the election results: I was an enthusiastic backer of Jessie Bennett for Selectwoman. Jessie came up 128 votes short on Tuesday, despite being the top vote getter in six of Belmont’s 8 precincts. That’s a narrow loss, with Epstein capturing 49.9% of the 5,156 votes cast for Selectman and Jessie capturing 47.4%. Candidate Tim Flood captured 2.6% of the votes.

There were definitely left vs. right optics at play in this race. Epstein is registered as a Democrat but had the enthusiastic endorsement of the Town’s Republican establishment, including conservative Selectmen like Steve Rosales, Sami Baghdadi, Andy Rojas and (yes) Mark Paolillo. He hired a Republican political consultant and there were lots of Trumpian overtones to his campaign. Those ranged from the bros in pickup trucks roaring around town and flying American flags alongside their Epstein for Selectman signs to the ominous “A Storm is Coming Meme” that the campaign barfed out in the closing hours of the race. (Gross.)

A Storm is Coming Meme Belmont Barf
Left-right dynamics played out in the race for Selectman, including the use of inflammatory memes like this one from the Epstein campaign.

On the other side, Bennett was endorsed by the Town’s Democratic establishment: folks like Anne and Fred Paulsen and (of course) me. Jessie has always been an outspoken and unabashed advocate for the environment, the schools and the needs of children and families, senior citizens and small businesses. She’s a fighter – broadly speaking – for tolerance and acceptance for the LGBTQ community and other marginalized communities. Her campaign rightly reflected that – she did not shirk or equivocate. She ran as who she was, and she should be proud of that. I’m not sure the same is true of Mr. Epstein.

Many victories in a narrow loss

There are those in town who might want to do an end zone dance and say that this was a conservative win or “payback” for whatever grievance ails them. That might be the 7-12 School debt exclusion in November, the $4.5 million 2015 Prop 2 1/2 override, the easy victory of more progressive Selectmen candidates like Adam Dash two years ago or of School Committee member Tom Caputo last year, the passage of a Welcoming Town resolution? Who knows?

Jessie, Virginia Cox and that Blogging Belmont guy on election eve.

I would caution those tempted to go there that there are many messages to be read in Jessie’s narrow loss. Most are encouraging, rather than discouraging for the future of progressive politicians and progressive politics in Belmont.

Jessie ran.

First and foremost: Jessie ran. Jessie. Ran. She ran, but she’s not a townie. She ran, but she does not hail from a storied Belmont family. She ran, even though she hadn’t been appointed by the (white, male) Town Elders to one of the “important” committees like Warrant, Capital Budget, Planning Board, etc. Instead, Jessie came up through the grass roots – PTO, a parent-driven Safe Routes to School initiative, the Foundation for Belmont education, work on important campaigns including the 7-12 school and the override. Jessie has pink hair and a wife. She is not a Ph.D, an attorney, a banker, a builder or a big business owner. She ran.

Even 14 years ago when I moved to town – let alone the Belmont of 30 or 40 years ago- a Jessie Bennett in Belmont simply would not have stood for election for Selectman, let alone win six precincts and come within 128 votes of winning it all. In that Belmont, nobody would have gotten behind a candidate like her and there would have been no infrastructure to carry her campaign to the finish line. Had she run anyway, she would have been handily defeated by the “Belmont Citizens Committee,” the old families and the (conservative) powers that be.

A progressive vote-getting machine

I’ve often commented that Belmont needs to build a progressive vote machine to push through the changes we need -whether those be capital projects or operational budget or zoning and planning. At Jessie’s campaign night party, someone pointed out to me that we already have built that machine.

Jessie Bennett supporters do their thing.
Despite being from outside of- and lacking the support of Belmont’s political establishment, Bennett garnered 47% of the vote, won 6 of 8 precincts and came within 128 votes of being Belmont’s next Selectwoman. #headsup

It’s true. In the last decade, demographic change and the serial struggles of getting Wellington built, getting the override passed, getting the Underwood renovated, passing the debt exclusion for the 7-12 school has built a substantial infrastructure that has also allowed us to elect candidates like Mr. Dash and Mr. Caputo and – this election – candidates like Andrea Prestwich and Amy Checkoway on School Committee and Cassandra Page on Housing Authority, where she knocked off chairwoman Tomi Olsen. That machine almost got Jessie elected, too, but fell just shy. Folks reading a Ford F-150 MAGA mandate in Roy’s election should read the election results more closely.

OK. So what happened?

So what happened? Why did Jessie fall short?

Wins in 6 precincts, but slim margins

I think its clear that her fate was sealed in three of the eight precincts in town: 1, 2 and 8. She won one of those, the progressive stronghold of Precinct 1, but by only 53 votes. Turnout was the highest there: just shy of 40% – impressive for an April election. Progressive candidates need to run it up in Precincts 1 and 6 to hold off more competitive precincts like 2 and (especially) 8. Simply put: Jessie didn’t do that and it cost her. From my perspective: its safe to say that some reliable Dash, Caputo, Yes for Belmont votes went to Roy this time around, maybe because they’re concerned about the town’s finances and Warrant Committee to BOS looks like a smart path. Whatever the case, you saw that on his list of endorsements. That’s a credit to him for wrangling those supporters and dividing the opposition.

A wave in P2 and P8

Turnout was high in the other two precincts as well, but Jessie came up well short in both. In Precinct 2, 29% of voters turned out and Roy mopped the floor with Jessie, picking up 442 votes to her 208 – a whopping 234 vote margin. The situation in Precinct 8 was only slightly better for Jessie. There, 33% of voters turned out and Roy collected 446 votes to Jessie’s 308, a 138 vote margin.

Frankly: those kinds of margins are tough to overcome in an election where just 5,000 people vote. In the six other precincts Jessie won, she had decent margins: 49 votes in Precinct 3, 59 votes in Precinct 6. In a typical election, those would be solid cushions, but given the outsized numbers in 2 and 8, they weren’t enough this time.

Looking down the ticket at Town Meeting, you saw the impact. In P8 Town Meeting: Steve Rosales and Mark Paolillo were the top vote getters, reflecting a more conservative voting population. Overall, the message was that incumbents had a good night (including yours truly). For the few competitive Town Meeting precincts like 6 and 8, it wasn’t a good year to be a newbie.

Votes from elsewhere

What’s encouraging to me in these numbers is that, while Jessie came up 128 votes short, it was just 128 votes. She was an outsider candidate without the backing of Belmont’s political establishment and she almost turned that on its ear: scraping 2,445 votes from….well…elsewhere.

Where is elsewhere? Who is elsewhere? Moms and dads of families who are new to town, folks concerned about the environment, folks concerned about the safety of our streets, folks concerned about the future of our schools or about our community’s support for marginalized people and communities.

That was almost enough. Those voters have declared themselves. They very nearly showed that they’re running the show. But at the very least they declared themselves a force to be reckoned with. Belmont’s political establishment should sit up and take notice.


(*) Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Republican and Democratic Town Committees endorsed candidates in the BOS race. They didn’t. Also: the 2015 override was $4.5 million, not $4 million as stated in an earlier version of this blog post. The post has been corrected to reflect that.