Back in November, I responded to a letter to the editor from Tiverton Democratic Town Committee (TDTC) chief Mike Burk in which he’d made a number of false or misleading statements about things I’d written. The controversy of the day has passed, but one statement of Burk’s is of enduring importance, because it’s a recurring theme of the Tiverton 1st/TDTC crowd and a good example of the way in which their attitude is actually what divides the town.
Warming up to his topic, he wrote:
Rather than accept that the political action committee he formed, Clean Up Tiverton, failed to resonate with the voters, he resorts to the same tactics of labeling and attacking others with no facts to support his statements.
It’s the notion that the people and message I supported during the election “failed to resonate with the voters” that ought to raise suspicions. Burk’s Tiverton 1st ally, Brian Medeiros, uses similar language. According to Medeiros, Clean Up Tiverton was “rejected by voters” and “failed in the election.”
Democracy at the community level ought to be conducted with the understanding that we’re all neighbors who care about our town. Burk and his friends developed their strategy in order to win seats that would help them do the things that they think would be good for the town and the people who live here. My friends and I come to different conclusions about the best way to lead Tiverton, so we aligned with candidates more in line with those conclusions.
When elections come down to competing endorsement cards, each side collects as many votes as it can. What does it really mean, then, to say that one message or the other “failed to resonate with the voters”? There are competing messages, and it’s dismissive of a whole lot of our neighbors to say that they don’t count among “voters” because their side lost by a little.
That’s an important point. Burk and Medeiros wrote their letters too soon after the election to have forgotten that the results were very close. The following chart shows the 2014 Town Council election results. Clean Up Tiverton won two seats, and the T1/TDTC slate won five. Notably, though, the candidate who received the most votes, by a large margin, was on the Clean Up Tiverton slate.
More importantly, if the Clean Up Tiverton slate had achieved 28 more votes, about one-tenth of one percent of all Town Council votes cast, the split would have been four to three. With another 175 votes, or seven-tenths of one percent, the majority of Town Council members would now be Clean Up Tiverton endorsees.
The results for the Budget Committee election were much the same. T1/TDTC took three seats to Clean Up Tiverton’s two, with each group having one of the two highest vote getters (23 votes apart). Another 142 votes (nine-tenths of one percent) would have given Clean Up Tiverton the edge and flipped the overall victory.
Obviously, both sides can play “What if?” games, but the point is that these results hardly show that one faction’s message “resonated with voters” and the other side’s didn’t. That’s especially true in politics, because whether something resonates depends on multiple factors.
The one that Burk is implying has to do with appeal — assuming that voters heard the messages of both groups and decided that one was better than the other. But a message can’t resonate with people who don’t hear it.
A review of campaign expenditures from September through November shows that Tiverton 1st and the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee spent a total of $8,439 during campaign season. Clean Up Tiverton, by contrast, spent only $1,101. In other words, T1/TDTC spent almost eight times as much.
If we add in the groups’ respective endorsed candidates in these two races, the results are $9,259 and $1,748. So, T1/TDTC outspent Clean Up Tiverton by five times. Because the totals of all votes were so close, it turns out that T1/TDTC also spent five times as much as Clean Up Tiverton per vote that their candidates received.*
This isn’t to make excuses or to say that T1/TDTC didn’t run a more successful campaign. They’re very slick, and they’ve got a lot of money. The point is the rhetoric that Mike Burk and Brian Medeiros use to belittle their political opponents and the people who support them.
Politics is not a foot race. One team doesn’t walk away with a trophy. Candidates’ prize is that they get the privilege of representing their neighbors. A narrow victory doesn’t mean voters who would have preferred a different outcome don’t count or that their favored candidates and organizations should slink away and allow the victors to run the town into the ground.
* It would be a fair point to argue that T1/TDTC endorsed more candidates than did Clean Up Tiverton, including for school committee and state-level offices. However, they ran as a slate, meaning that all or most of their materials were geared toward the promotion of all candidates equally, and these numbers only include individual candidates’ expenditures if they were running for either Town Council or Budget Committee. Therefore, this comparison is fair, particularly to make the point about “resonating.”