BOSTON — As towns on the Cape gear up for a spring of municipal elections, with seats on the ballot ranging from school committee to town moderator, several local political activists say some of these races — while nonpartisan on paper — have become framed in part by national politics.
Organizers on both sides of the political spectrum agreed the region’s politics can be divisive, though they disagreed on who was responsible.
Still, this new focus on local contests could help bolster civic engagement, they said, regardless of which candidates ultimately get elected.
“I do think it’s coming right down to this level now,” Paula Miller, a Brewster resident and member of United Cape Patriots, said of the partisanship. “I think the intensity is really being brought to bear.”
National politics have become a flashpoint on the Cape since the 2020 election, with rallies supporting former President Donald Trump drawing condemnation for promoting unfounded claims of voter fraud. About 35% of the region voted for Trump, while 63% voted for President Joe Biden.
The former president’s dominance over American politics has “supercharged” polarization across the country, said David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, even though partisanship in down-ballot races already had been increasing since at least the 1990s.
“We’re in an age of growing political nationalization,” Hopkins said. “And elections for offices that really don’t have much to do with those big issues are still swept into this nationalization wave.”
‘If you don’t, someone else will’
Muska Yousuf, a lawyer in Hyannis who co-founded a group to educate voters about local school committee races, said she thinks it’s important that candidates focus on diversity and inclusion. This includes ensuring marginalized voices are heard, as well as prioritizing racial justice and LGBTQ rights.
But, she said, groups like United Cape Patriots bring national politics into debates about school committee races. Some candidates this year claim to support diversity and inclusion, Yousuf added, but actually do not.
“That group is very vocal about their support of Donald Trump,” she said.
A case in point can be seen in Brewster.
Casey Mecca, who is running for Brewster School Committee, said one of the issues important to her is promoting antiracism in the district. Brewster and Nauset regional schools passed an antiracism resolution last summer, she said, but that alone isn’t enough to create equity.
“I really see the responsibility on the school committee to ensure those words are put into action,” she said, “and that we work with school administrators to ensure that we’re continually examining policies and curriculum — and implementing real change that makes sure all students feel safe and welcome.”
But Adam Lange, the founder of United Cape Patriots, said many of the diversity and inclusion initiatives championed by local progressive candidates exclude conservative voices. Locals have a lot more in common, he said, than the two major parties in Washington would lead them to believe.
“We have over 28,000 Republicans in the Cape and Islands district,” said Lange, who is from Brewster. “They deserve a seat at the table when it comes to diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of ideas.”
An increasing number of Cape voters see local races as an opportunity to ensure the values they believe in are reflected in local government, Yousuf said.
“If you don’t, someone else will,” she said. “It’s an interesting time on the Cape, where these local races are starting to become bigger deals. And I think they ought to.”
Nonpartisan group advocates for parents
Rheanna Hastings, a candidate for Brewster School Committee, said in an email that she founded a nonpartisan group called the Cape Parent Community Coalition that — while not backing any candidates — is aimed at helping parents advocate for their children in local schools.
Hastings said some of the issues she’s focusing on as a candidate include determining gaps in post-pandemic learning and establishing budgets that balance educational achievement with the community’s needs.
“It’s very important to me that as a potential representative of the schools I remain nonpartisan,” Hastings said. “I represent my entire community and want everyone to feel safe to express their ideas and beliefs.”
Mecca said she thinks national politics are encouraging more people to pay attention to local and state races, even in the high school history classes she teaches at Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis.
“I have friends in their 30s who have never voted before that are voting — not just in presidential elections, but in local elections,” she said. “I think that’s great, that more people are paying attention.”
A statewide shift
Hopkins, of Boston College, said Massachusetts voters — more so than voters in some other states — typically have been willing to break party lines. One example of this, he said, is Gov. Charlie Baker’s long-standing popularity as a Republican governor in a largely Democratic state.
Since Trump emerged on the nation’s political scene, though, the Massachusetts Republican Party has been in a kind of “civil war” between those who supported the president and his policies, and those who support Baker and his more moderate policies, Hopkins said.
This split came to a head on the Cape in January, when former state Rep. William Crocker, of Centerville, beat out Lange in a controversial race for a seat on the Republican State Committee.
Hopkins said some of the state’s moderate Democrats, who are powerful in the Legislature, also are beginning to face pressure from the more progressive wing of their party.
“Here, there’s been an ability of voters to kind of separate national politics from state and local politics,” he said. “And maybe that’s just now starting to fade.”