Partnering up on the campaign trail

Candidates joined forces in Milton, Needham

RUNNING FOR OFFICE tends to be an every-man-for-himself type of pursuit, but candidates in two recent municipal elections found success by partnering up on the campaign trail.

In campaigns in Milton and Needham, like-minded candidates in races with two open seats pooled resources, staff, and voting lists in a bid to broaden their name recognition and their base of support. In both cases, the tag-team approach was successful; each member of the team won with almost identical vote totals.

Elizabeth (Lizzy) Carroll and Beverly Ross Denny won two open seats on the Milton School Committee, each garnering 28 percent of the vote with only 35 votes separating them. Lakshmi Balachandra and Marcus Nelson won the two open seats on the Needham Select Board; Balachandra won 33.5 percent of the vote and Nelson 32 percent.

In both communities, the candidates shared similar philosophies and goals and the campaigns themselves raised equity issues that appeared to resonate with voters.

The political collaborations in Milton and Needham – nonpartisan municipal races where candidates do not run under a party banner – were reminiscent in some ways of other efforts in other communities to promote candidates who share views on particular issues. Teacher unions often promote candidates supportive of their agenda, and there have been other municipal races where a specific issue (like getting kids back to school or removing a school system from state receivership) has galvanized a push for a group of candidates. Cambridge, with its proportional representation voting system, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballots, has a long history of candidates running as part of slates tied to specific issues.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a former member of the Cambridge School Committee, said slates of candidates were initially put forward in Cambridge to build support for good government reforms and later rent control, but have become more rare in recent years because of the absence of any mobilizing issues.

Koocher said many communities south and southwest of Boston are seeing an influx of people of color and with them a growing emphasis on racial and equity issues.

Milton, just south of Boston, might fit that pattern. The Milton Anti-Racist Coalition formed in 2020 in response to what it saw as “systemic racism” in the community and the negative effects of the coronavirus. “While many other communities chose not to mobilize and organize in response to these pandemics or imagine how to pursue local transformation, we are proud to be in a community where this is exactly what we did,” said the coalition in a year-in-review letter.

Carrol and Denny are both members of the coalition. Carroll is White and Denny is Black and their backgrounds made them strong candidates when two seats opened on the school committee.

Beverly Ross Denny, who won a seat on the Milton School Committee.

Elizabeth (Lizzy) Carroll, who won a seat on the Milton School Committee.

Carroll, a former classroom teacher and graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, currently works as program director of the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which, according to its website, “uses the lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.”

Denny, who has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, an MBA from Harvard, and previously worked in the central office of the Boston Public Schools, is currently managing director of Grantmakers for Education, which bills itself as the largest consortium of educational philanthropists in the nation.

“We were interested in building a diverse coalition,” said Carroll. “We thought, why not do it together,” added Denny.

Carroll said she and Denny ran as individuals but worked as a team. The two candidates each had their own campaign signs, but the signs were designed similarly to suggest the connection of the two campaigns.

Staff for both candidates cooperated in putting together events. Ads promoted both candidates, with the tagline “Stronger Together, Moving Milton Forward.” As Election Day approached, the connection between the two campaigns became stronger as a truck with signs promoting both of their candidacies made its way through key neighborhoods urging residents to get out to vote.

Even at debates, the two candidates tended to provide a one-two punch, with one candidate answering a question and the other reinforcing and amplifying what the first said. Instead of two individual candidates trying to take votes from each other, they encouraged their supporters to back both of them.

“A lot of the people that would support one of us would support both of us,” Carroll said. “It looks like it worked. A lot of people did vote for both of us.”

In Needham, Balachandra, a woman of Indian descent, and Nelson, a Black man, didn’t give their partnership a name. They say it grew organically.

Balachandra, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, said her initial interest in municipal government grew out of frustration she felt in trying to locate the person at town hall who could help her with repairs to the sidewalk in front of her house. She went on to join Town Meeting and again became frustrated as the all-white Select Board dealt with issues surrounding police accountability.

Nelson was known in Needham because of his former job at the local YMCA. He went on to work at the Dorchester Y and then at the Y’s corporate headquarters, before more recently leaving to take a post at Dedham Country Day School.

As people of color running for office in an overwhelmingly white community, Balachandra and Nelson faced similar challenges in getting noticed and heard.

“A lot of people knew the two incumbents, but they didn’t know us,” said Nelson. “We were really trying to reach as many people as possible.”

Balachandra said the biggest challenge in local political races is first-time candidates are not well known. “It’s really hard to get brand awareness,” she said. “The more name recognition you build in any way the better. That’s really all it is.”

Balachandra said her campaign manager worked with campaign aides to Nelson and Rebecca Waber, a like-minded candidate for school committee, to coordinate election efforts. If someone signed up online to hold signs for one candidate, Balachandra said, they would be directed to a web page where they could sign up to participate in a standout benefitting all three candidates.

The three candidates also sent out a joint mailer targeting 5,000 voters in Needham.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Nelson said the joint effort drew a lot of attention and positive buzz to the race that translated into winning campaigns for him and Balachandra. Waber, however, did not win her race.

“We brought out a lot of newer voters who had never voted,” said Nelson, hailing the joint campaign effort. “In this situation and the times we’re in, it definitely made sense.”