An effort is underway to draft an article for a fall Special Town Meeting that would abolish the town caucus system in the hope of potentially limiting the influence of party politics in town elections, its organizers confirmed.
“We are trying to get rid of local party caucuses here in Hopkinton,” explained John Cardillo in an interview on Wednesday.
Cardillo was elected in May as a town constable. He also is a member of the Woodville Historical Commission, the Hopkinton Cultural Council and the Veterans Celebration Committee. (Cardillo also works part-time as a photographer for the Hopkinton Independent.)
He explained that accusations by School Committee candidate Ashley Fogg about the influence she said the Democratic party exerted in thwarting her election bid and the social media backlash that followed prompted the effort led by him and Ed Harrow to eliminate party affiliation on the ballot. Harrow is a member of the Conservation Commission and chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission.
Former Hopkinton Democratic Town Committee chair Darlene Hayes resigned from her positions on the HDTC as well as the town’s Housing Authority and Cultural Council after she admitted to making comments critical of Fogg on articles on the Hopkinton Independent and HopNews websites under several aliases. She stepped down in early June as HDTC chair after her actions were revealed. One week later, she released a public apology.
Harrow, a member of the Conservation Commission and chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission, said he first thought of the idea after the recent School Committee election, which he described as “incredible, outrageous shenanigans.” He brought his idea to abolish party designation on local ballots to state Rep. James Arena-DeRosa during his June office hours session at Town Hall. Cardillo told Harrow of his agreement with the plan, and the two set forth to bring the concept to fruition.
The pair drafted a proposed Special Town Meeting article for review by Town Clerk Connor Degan. Harrow described Degan as being “extraordinarily helpful.”
In an interview Thursday, Degan said he was happy to advise the pair on their use of language in the article in his role as Town Clerk, basing his suggestions on the work of another town that went through the same process to abolish its caucuses. He did caution Cardillo that he is not a lawyer.
“I try to not give so much help to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Degan explained, adding that he is an HDTC member. Town counsel also can review the language.
“Not having caucuses does not mean that people cannot be involved in a political party,” Degan said. “The party town committees will still meet to discuss town issues, fundraise, and hold events.”
For the petition to get on the warrant, Degan said that at least 100 verified signatures need to be turned into the Select Board via the Town Manager’s office. Then it can go on the warrant for a Town Meeting vote. If approved, the Select Board votes to authorize it to be considered by the General Court.
If approved it would be sent to Arena-DeRosa as well as state Sen. Karen Spilka, although the state rep traditionally initiates the process of submitting a home rule petition. The Legislature, Degan said, has always passed home rule petitions such as these because they reflect the will of the town’s voters.
Degan noted that using a causus to get on a ballot is a somewhat outdated, although sometimes calculated, way to get on a ballot. Party caucuses tend to happen after the deadline for collecting signatures to appear on the ballot, so at that point, it is more of an endorsement.
He explained that a candidate needs 50 verified signatures from registered voters in Hopkinton. He verifies them by comparing them to town voter lists and then signs off on them to appear on the ballot.
“If the process were done solely through the caucuses, the only people who sign the paper are the presiding officer and the caucus secretary,” Degan added. “Then the candidate can decide to sign as an indication of acceptance.”
Hopkinton is one of just 16 cities and towns in the state that has partisan caucuses preceding its town elections, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
“This is part of an effort to decrease the influence of partisan politics in the Town of Hopkinton,” Cardillo explained. “The Town of Hopkinton needs to free itself of the national paradigm and focus more on what’s good for our community.”
This will not eliminate participation in political parties, he added. It is meant to curb the influence of political caucuses.
“I always tell candidates that going out and getting signatures is your first great tool to connect with voters,” Degan said, noting that he has run for both town and state offices. “It’s a way to get your name out and talk to voters about the issues that really matter to them.”
A trend Degan noticed was that people tended to switch their party affiliation between 2017 and 2021, during the Trump administration.
“Before 2017, party enrollment was pretty balanced,” he explained. “In 2017, that was the first year I had seen where the Democratic Town Committee put up a candidate for every seat. I haven’t seen them do that since. There was definitely a lot of ebb and flow in that time period with party affiliations. After that, it was not quite so black and white.
“I would say the tipping point was Jan. 6, 2021,” he added, which was the date of the Capitol insurrection. “People tend to switch from the Republican party to being a Democrat or an independent because it became a hard stigma.”
A lot of a caucus’s rules are set by the state, Degan noted, including by the party state committee. There can be local caucus rules as well, such as whether an unenrolled person can vote at a caucus.
One tactic that Degan said he has seen used in the past is for a challenger to a candidate to appear at a caucus. This can allow a potential candidate to garner support in a less visible way before the caucus.
Another way to get on a ballot is through a write-in campaign, which Degan said he did in his first run for town clerk.
Said Degan: “It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
“The one benefit of a caucus is that if no one pulled papers to run and no one is running for an office, someone can step up at the caucus because they feel that someone needs to do it.”
Degan said he has included party affiliation on the ballots as if the required signatures were collected.
“My primary reason for showing who got signatures is that I want to show who went out and did the work,” he said.
“Hopkinton has a lot of engaged volunteers,” he added. “I don’t think that not having a caucus would prevent someone who is really interested in running for office.”
In an interview Wednesday evening, Arena-DeRosa mentioned that the most popular question he was asked during his recent Hopkinton office hours was about how the town can move to a nonpartisan local election system.
“More than half of the comments I received were about how can we change this structure,” he recalled. “What’s interesting is that it came from all political perspectives — Democrats, Republicans and independents. It is interesting that in this time of sharp political divisions and partisan sentiment that all sides are saying that they want this. It’s like they’re all in this together.”
“It’s up to the community whether they want to do that,” Arena-DeRosa continued. “But if the town votes to pass the article, I will support it.”
Cardillo said he spoke with Arena-DeRosa about how to go about initiating this process, and Arena-DeRosa confirmed the conversation.
The latest draft text of the citizen’s petition for the article obtained by the Independent, reads:
“The undersigned is desirous of inserting an article in the Warrant of the next Annual or Special Town Meeting. Said article to be substantially as set forth below:
To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Select Board, on behalf of the Town, to petition the General Court for passage of a special law substantially as provided below, to authorize the Legislature to make clerical or editorial changes in form only to the bill, unless the Select Board approves amendments to the bill before enactment by the Legislature, and to authorize the Select Board to approve amendments that shall be within the scope of the general public objectives of this petition.
An act relative to Town elections in the Town of Hopkinton
Section 1. Notwithstanding chapter 53 of the General Laws, or any other general or special law to the contrary, a primary or caucus for the nomination of town officers shall not be held in the Town of Hopkinton. Ballots used at a regular or special town election for the election of town officers shall not have printed thereon a party or political designation or mark, and there shall not be any political designation or mark appended to the name of a candidate for town office.
Section 2. This act shall take effect upon its passage.
If the article is passed, it will change how campaigns are run, according to Cardillo.
“People will just be voting on the person and their views,” Cardillo explained. “Unfortunately, that means more work for the people who are running for office — but I think that’s a good thing.
“I don’t think people know how a caucus functions and what it actually does,” he continued. “Getting rid of the caucuses will relieve the caucuses of some degree of their power and influence and will transfer it over to the people.”
Cardillo anticipated that the Special Town Meeting on the article will be held in the fall to coincide with the vote on the article regarding the proposed new elementary school building. If it passes there, it goes before the Select Board for its approval, but Cardillo said the Select Board’s approval is somewhat perfunctory.
“It’s simply a matter of procedure,” he said. “They can’t stop it at that point.”
At that point, town counsel and Arena-DeRosa are expected to review the language and possibly make suggestions to its wording so that Arena-DeRosa can submit a home rule petition to the Legislature for its consideration and approval.
“Once it passes the Legislature, it will be enacted immediately,” Cardillo said.