Politics is Local: An Amherst Student in Amherst Town Meeting

Submitted on Friday, 10/26/2012, at 11:04 AM

By William Sweet

Daniel P. Rivera ’16E is arguably one of Amherst College’s most powerful students, at least when it comes to running the town in which they live.

This past spring, Rivera was elected representative to Amherst’s Town Meeting, becoming one of only two or three current college students, and the only Amherst College student in recent memory, to serve in this legislative body. For Rivera, getting elected is not about wielding power; it is about giving back to the community and advocating for the town’s 16,000 resident college students, he said.

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Daniel P. Rivera ’16E

New England communities take pride in the institution of Town Meeting, the centuries-old tradition of putting voters together in a room to hash out town matters. Amherst goes about it in greater depth than many other communities, with its Town Meeting members often spending several evenings in the spring deliberating on policy, taxation and zoning and sometimes taking stands on national and international controversies.

For Rivera, who grew up in suburban Texas, this tradition is a mix of alien and quaint, an inspiring curiosity for someone who has been following politics since he was a third-grader tracking the fortunes of vice president and presidential hopeful Al Gore. Rivera is currently working for Obama for America.

“The idea of the Town Meeting was something that we read about in seventh-grade American history textbooks,” he said. The Town of Amherst doesn’t strictly have the traditional “open” Town Meeting where anyone who shows up can vote—residents instead elect 240 representatives to deliberate—but it’s quite different from what many outside New England experience, Rivera said.

“There’s a lot more control over what voters can actually achieve and accomplish and see put forward and enacted in the town itself,” he said. “That grassroots effort is something that is really foreign to me, but really exciting. There’s nothing like that in Texas—at least nothing that I know of.”

Rivera got his kick-start into local politics through a chance meeting with a stranger on the PVTA bus to Amherst. “I got on the bus, and this woman turns to me, out of all other people, informing me that the Amherst town government had just redistricted, so all those seats [in the Town Meeting] are available, and how there should be more student representation,” he said.

While Amherst College’s Center for Community Engagement enjoys a healthy amount of participation in civic projects, college students are traditionally lacking from Amherst town government. Oddly, in a town in which 40 percent of the residents are college students, you can count the number of student Town Meeting representatives on one hand.

Rivera was convinced. “As soon as I got off the bus, I went to the town clerk’s office and registered my name on the ballot,” he said.

For Amherst Town Meeting, representation is split up into 10 precincts of no more than 4,000 residents each. Each district is represented by 24 residents, who serve one to three years, depending on how many votes they receive in the election, according to Amherst Town Clerk Sandra Burgess. To run, you simply need to be a registered voter.

“I went around my neighborhood,” Rivera said. “I knocked on doors and talked to people and explained who I was and what I was doing.” His campaigning paid off: with 129 votes, he was elected to a one-year term and served for sessions in April and May.

“Dan has been a strong, thoughtful and articulate presence at Town Meeting. He has impressed,” said Amherst College’s Director of Facilities Jim Brassord, who also serves as a Town Meeting representative.

“Dan was there for most of it, right in the front row,” said Aaron Hayden, who is capital projects manager and campus utilities engineer for the college and a selectman for the Town of Amherst.

Like many freshmen legislators, Rivera faced disappointment when an article he favored was defeated: A smart-growth proposal to rezone areas in North and South Amherst, in order to create village centers, failed to get the required two-thirds majority. Some opponents feared that the zoning change would encourage the development of high-density apartments, attracting too many college students to certain areas. When the debate got hot, Rivera understood that he was also an ambassador for college students.

“There is a lot of student-bashing by a small number of Town Meeting members, and they are really vocal about it,” he said. “I tried to provide some balance as best I could. I’m only going to speak what I know, and I’m a student.”

It’s one thing to study government and quite another to see it in action, said Hayden. “People have issues they want to address, and they can grow hot. As adults, we’ve experienced these emotions, but I imagine it’s new for [Rivera] to see adults behave this way.”

Hayden welcomes the participation of Rivera and other students. “We adults tend to get full of ourselves. The ingénue who asks ‘why’ is a valuable thing.” Having students involved, and Amherst students in particular, is a good development, he said.

“A lot of what a good, constructive Town Meeting member does is be quiet,” Hayden added. “When you put your hand up and speak, you add something constructive.… Town Meeting is a big seminar class. You listen and exchange ideas.”

Hayden joked that he didn’t recognize Rivera as an Amherst student at first, because “he wasn’t wearing his shirt.” But when he learned who the new representative was, “I remember being impressed. The kid’s a liberal arts student. He understands this stuff.”

“Amherst really emphasizes great communication, through both writing and presentation-giving,” Rivera said. “Across-the-board adherence to spot-on writing has really helped me reach out to a lot of Town Meeting members.”

Rivera, who has spoken to students in the CCE about his work with Town Meeting, wants to encourage other Amherst students to run. He feels that greater student participation could help bring positive change. “I’d love to have some of my peers serve with me,” he said.

He intends to run again, and he hopes that, with a little more name recognition now, he can get enough votes for a two- or three-year term.

“I want to fight the idea that I’m a carpetbagger, that I’m just here to get my degree and go off,” he said. “As long as I am at Amherst, I want to be as active as possible. Who knows? I might want to run for the Select Board later down the line.”