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What mattered in Brookline’s town election: Incumbency, name recognition, and a slight ideological shift

A voter enters a Brookline polling place on May 7, 2024. Photo by Clare Ong
May 13, 2024  Updated May 14, 2024 at 11:23 p.m.

Tuesday’s town election held true to a few time-honored principles in local politics: name recognition matters. Incumbency is a big advantage.

However, the election also pointed to what some observers see as a subtle ideological shift toward the center left in town politics.

In town-wide races for School Committee and Select Board, two candidates who billed themselves as most progressive, Alec Lebovitz and Miriam Aschkenasy, came up short.

Overall turnout, 25% of registered voters, was significantly lower than the 30% in last year’s election, which was animated by controversial ballot questions on raising taxes.

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In an interview, Bernard Greene, the incumbent Select Board chair who decisively won reelection as the top vote getter among five candidates, pointed first to his name recognition and campaign organization.

‘I’m notorious,” Greene joked. “Everyone knows me. They know what they hate about me, and they know what they like about me.”

His campaign gained strong support from the senior community, Greene said, and he made an effort to reach out to a group of influential voters in South Brookline who were concerned about public safety.

He also, however, said that the results reflect a town voter base that he believes is gravitating to the center left. During the campaign, Greene identified himself as a “thoughtful progressive” and criticized past efforts in town politics to defund the police.

“Politics ebbs and flows. We went far left at one point, and we’ve begun to gradually shift back to the center left,” he said. “It’s still progressive politics and thinking, but not at what some people would call the extreme.”

Greene finished with 5,234 votes. Second place finisher David Pearlman, outgoing chair of the School Committee, was elected to the second open seat with 4,705 votes, similarly running with strong name recognition and as a center-left Democrat. Lebovitz came in third place with 3,043 votes, followed by Susan Park with 2,575 votes and Sana Hafeez with 889 votes.

A year ago, Lebovitz managed the Select Board campaign of self-described progressive Arden Reamer, who lost to the more moderate Paul Warren by only 26 votes.

In the School Committee race, Asckhenasy finished in last place by a large margin out of four candidates for three seats.

‘A different ball game’

Raul Fernandez, a former progressive member of the Select Board and current executive director of the nonprofit Brookline for Racial Justice and Equity, agreed that there has been a rightward push in recent years in town politics.

“What we’ve seen is a coming together of the right and center right in Brookline with the center left,” he said.

He attributes that change in part to the divisiveness of housing policy debates, which have dominated Town Meeting and overall Brookline politics over the last few years, most recently as the town worked to pass a major rezoning of Harvard Street in line with the state’s MBTA Communities Act,  which requires more multi-family zoning in communities with public transit.

“Before that, some of the biggest bills were around the environment,” said Fernandez, who served on the board from 2019 to 2022. “There’s strong unanimity around supporting efforts to mitigate climate change. Around housing, it’s a different ball game.”

While two rival housing advocacy groups came to an unexpected agreement on the rezoning last year, differences over housing policy remain an animating factor for candidates and voters in town government.

One bright spot for Brookline progressives was the election of Kimberley Richardson, who won a seat on the Brookline Housing Authority Board of Commissioners in her second try for the position. She narrowly lost her bid last year to incumbent Sue Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in public housing.

Richardson, a resident of Brookline public housing and a Town Meeting member involved with several local organizations, ran on a combination of her lived experience and ability to navigate Brookline’s political structures.

Town Meeting results

In Town Meeting, the town’s legislative body where around 90 seats were up for election on Tuesday, campaigning is often more personal as candidates can win their precinct with just a few hundred total votes.

“At the Town Meeting level, you have to be really careful about extrapolating too much. The details of each race are different,” said State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, a longtime Town Meeting member. “The local details really shape the outcome in ways that demonstrate that the act of campaigning matters.”

However, in Town Meeting contests, as in the town-wide races, the power of incumbency often prevailed.

In contested races, 89% of incumbents won re-election, while just 46% of non-incumbent candidates were successful, according to data compiled by several Town Meeting members and reviewed for accuracy by Brookline.News.

“Based on the research I’ve seen, the biggest determining factor in whether someone decides to vote for a candidate is whether they’ve voted for that candidate before,” said Lebovitz, a Town Meeting member in Precinct 8, the only precinct he won in his unsuccessful bid for Select Board.

Brookline by Design, which advocates for a robust planning process and opposes haphazard growth and development, saw 75% of its 69 endorsed candidates win.

Brookline for Everyone, which advocates for more multifamily housing, saw 70% of its 63 endorsed candidates win.

The Brookline Equity Coalition, which supports candidates who the group says will support “material, systemic change for racial, social, environmental, and economic justice in Brookline” saw 67.5% of its 40 endorsed candidates win seats.

Brookline PAX, formed in the 1960s as an anti-war advocacy organization, which in recent years has supported more moderate candidates for office, endorsed 80 candidates, and 86% of them won.

A low turnout year

Overall turnout in Tuesday’s election was 9,845, down from last year’s town election, which saw more than 12,500 votes cast.

The major difference was the inclusion last year of controversial ballot questions on raising taxes to rebuild the Pierce School and to help fund schools and town government.

“Voters show up when the outcome that affects them is right there in front of them in the ballot,” said Vitolo. “Elections with tax questions are always going to poll higher. Elections where the quality of my neighborhood school is on the ballot are always going to poll higher.”