(Editor’s note: The Bedford Citizen asked each of the candidates for School Committee and Select Board along with several community members, to reflect on their experience of the 2022 Town Election. The quotes that follow are excerpts from comments by those who responded.)
The local political spotlight has pivoted – as it does every year – from the campaign and election for municipal and school offices to Annual Town Meeting.
But does Bedford need to heal from the unusually intense campaigning that culminated with the voting on March 12? Some of the candidates and their supporters think so, although their rationales are different.
Eight residents – including two seeking re-election — competed for four positions on the Select Board and School Committee. Select Board member Emily Mitchell ran for re-election; other candidates were Dan Carroll, Shawn Hanegan, and Ronald O’Brien. The incumbent on the School Committee ballot was Brad Morrison; also running were Eleanor Gorsey, Kelly Horton, and Sheila Mehta-Green. Alison O’Connell challenged incumbent Bea Brunkhorst for a seat on the Board of Health.
This rarified altitude of electioneering engendered what is believed to be a record turnout of almost 3,000 voters. Indeed, of Bedford’s more than 10,000 registered voters, more than 70 percent didn’t take part in the election.
The lead-up to the election was influenced by the pandemic and by social media, but was unique because four candidates for positions on three boards publicly aligned under the slogan “Better Together.”
All three incumbents were comfortably re-elected, and of the two newcomers, one had previous success at the ballot box for another office.
The persistent coronavirus precluded formal live campaign events – “coffees” and forums were on the Zoom platform. Some candidates went door-to-door, but what was unprecedented was the proliferation of lawn signs. There was intense activity on social media, about which many voters were oblivious.
Publicly, the campaign was polite and respectful, and there were few differences on issues. Kelly Horton, running for School Committee, said she looked forward to having coffee with one of her opponents, Sheila Mehta-Green. Dan Carroll, who ran hard for three months for Select Board, personally congratulated Shawn Hanegan on his election as the results were announced at John Glenn Middle School shortly after the polls closed. Indeed, two candidates for Select Board—incumbent Emily Mitchell and challenger Ron O’Brien—play in the same band.
Beneath the surface, there seemed to be bitterness and recriminations, at times suggesting a fissure among residents. The candidates stayed above the fray; their supporters were aggressive not only in social media posts but also by posing targeted questions during Zoom sessions.
“I do think the community needs to heal after this election cycle,” Mehta-Green commented. “There were several contested races, which showed us there is great interest in participation as well as a desire for change. There were spirited conversations, especially over social media, which ranged from supporting candidates’ positions to accusing candidates and their supporters of sabotaging their opponents. It was very polarizing.”
“The day after the election I was in the grocery store and was feeling uneasy because I really felt like someone was going to come up and start yelling at me because I was elected and not the person they supported,” Mehta-Green continued. “We are all neighbors and we owe it to ourselves, families, and community members to listen and talk with each other, so together we can build an amazing community that we are all proud to call our home.”
Hanegan agreed. “I know from social media and from talking with people around town that passions are inflamed. I don’t believe the election caused this divide, but rather exposed it. I have plans to meet with both of the Select Board candidates that didn’t win the election. As I mentioned throughout the campaign, I respect both Dan and Ron and believe that they want what’s best for Bedford.”
“I’d like to see Bedford get back to a place where we can disagree civilly. I want to have a dialogue with all those interested in town government where we can at least understand the different points of view in our town, and be respectful even if we disagree.”
Mitchell observed that the tone was exacerbated by the limitations of the pandemic. “I suspect many of these ongoing conflicts — chiefly between individual rights and collective responsibilities — fed into this year’s election. I heard concerns from many voters about the level of partisanship displayed in the contested races and the type of discourse running rampant around town and on social media.”
“I would have hoped that a common enemy such as the virus would have brought us together, but instead it did the opposite. Issues like mask mandates, remote schooling, and vaccination status have become very political. I hope going forward that there can be more focus and passion on other things that the town government does that affect our lives.”
Former five-term Selectman Joe Piantedosi, who worked on behalf of the “Better Together” group, also feels there needs to be healing. “Let’s start by rejecting those that are trying to divide us by spreading lies and misinformation and attacking people who are trying to voice valid concerns that they disagree with.”
But he was emphatic that only one side – the candidates he supported – were victims. “I am shocked and angry after learning how each of these five candidates: Dan Carroll, Ron O’Brien, Kelly Horton, Eleanor Gorsey, and Alison O’Connell along with some of their spouses were attacked by a small group of people who were supporting one candidate for re-election were spreading lies about them throughout the town.”
He cited social media posts attacking them. “All five of these candidates who I got to know are very decent and highly qualified people who ran very respectful campaigns. They did not deserve any of this.”
Mitchell commented, “I kept hearing chatter about rumors flying, but I could never get a straight answer on what the rumors were or who was allegedly spreading them.”
Piantedosi provided “one preposterous example: A new resident of our town who attended a meet and greet event for these five candidates wanted to know if the messages he was receiving that these candidates were being supported by the Trump organization and that they were part of a planned takeover of our town was true.”
There were emails circulating that suspected the “Better Together” candidates were part of a well-publicized national effort by the Republican Party to take control of local government. Although there was no evidence that this was anything more than a conspiracy theory in Bedford, the candidates never publicly refuted the allegation.
Mehta-Green observed, “‘Better Together’ implied a slate/ticket. It created an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset for many of our community members. It is natural to align yourself with candidates who share common philosophies, but in a way that promotes inclusion vs the perception of exclusivity.”
“I think some people approached this election as a referendum on town leadership, and specifically the town manager,” Mitchell said. “I make no secret of my strong support for Ms. Stanton, her professionalism, and her expertise. I’m gratified, therefore, that by a nearly two to one ratio, voters affirmed their confidence in me and by extension, her.”
Neither Carroll nor O’Brien took any public positions suggesting a vote of no-confidence in professional leadership. However, that did not extend to supporters, who raised issues at Zoom coffees on topics like turnover and morale of town employees. Meanwhile, other candidates’ surrogates framed their own targeted questions.
The only candidate to take a controversial position was Gorsey, who was not part of “Better Together.” She criticized not only the school district’s emphasis on equity and diversity but also curricular content about gender and U.S. history.
Last week she wrote in an email, “I believe all the families in our town should have a voice. I hope I was able to express the concerns of some of our parents and students. In Bedford, we should always have freedom of speech and civil discourse.”
The winning candidates shared contrasting experiences from the campaign. “I am not sorry to have this race behind me. It’s been draining, to say the least, and so different from my first contested race in 2019,” Mitchell commented.”
Hanegan wrote, “My experience was very positive. I enjoyed meeting new people in town and hearing different ideas. I’d like to believe the outcome is a result of voters recognizing what I’ve done so far in town government and having faith in me to serve.”
“While I did not vote for Shawn Hanegan, I always heard good things about him and know he will be missed on the Planning Board,” Piantedosi said in his email. “I also had a long talk with him prior to the election and liked what he stood for. I have high hopes that he will promote positive change on the Select Board.
Mehta-Green observed, “One of the most important conclusions from my campaign experience is that everyone’s thoughts and perspectives are important to understand. You may not agree with them, but it is important to listen first before you react. Additionally, it’s OK to agree to disagree, be neighborly with your words and actions, and remember that all candidates that ran were interested in volunteering their time to serve our community, which is admirable.”
Piantedosi had a message “to the newly elected school committee members: I hope you take a very close look at the current curriculum and encourage an honest one on one dialog with all parents and make positive changes that put more focus on education to prepare our students for their careers.”
Mehta-Green wrote, “We need to offer our community members the opportunity to share their views in a way that we can understand their perspective and then prioritize the biggest challenges and opportunities for us. I would like to be an integral part of establishing a survey and listening tour, so we can capture this feedback and align our short and long-term education plans to directly align to the needs of our students, families, educators, and community. “
“Although I know town meeting is coming up soon, I hope we can all take a break and take a breath from the stress of the election — for a few days, at least,” wrote Mitchell. “We still have important, complex decisions to make about the future of our community, covering everything from critical public safety infrastructure to our ongoing commitment to sustainability. I look forward to getting back to work for Bedford.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763