Just so it’s clear: Newtonville residents really care about who represents them on the City Council.
In an off-year election last fall without higher offices or a question on the ballot, Newton voters and donors focused their attention and their dollars on tightly contested City Council races, particularly in neighborhoods where an ongoing debate over housing and growth hits close to home.
Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the city’s Ward 2 -- consisting of Newtonville, with parts of West Newton and Newton Centre -- where six candidates for City Council seats drew about $144,000, according to data kept by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
That’s nearly half of the $322,000 raised in individual donations in council races during the election cycle, according to public data.
Randy Block, president of RightSize Newton, said the amount of money and committee activity before the Nov. 5 election was a result of residents responding to local issues, particularly development.
Ward 2 is home to two mixed-use developments that faced drawn-out fights before they were approved, and is part of a city effort to revise zoning to allow denser projects with more housing and business use.
“The cost of the [election] contest reflects the increasing awareness of what is at stake, and I don’t think it’s glib to say the future of the city is at stake,” Block said. “That is what people are concerned about: What kind of city do we want to live in?”
In the race for Ward 2 local councilor, Emily Norton, who has been critical of the scale of development, was reelected after hauling in about $39,000 in contributions, according to public campaign records. Her challenger, Bryan Barash, collected nearly $32,000.
In the races for the ward’s two councilor-at-large seats, incumbents Susan Albright and Jake Auchincloss faced challengers Tarik Lucas and Jennifer Bentley.
Auchincloss raised $49,940 in individual donations, followed by Lucas with $11,005, Albright with $9,910, and Bentley with $2,179, according to public records.
The incumbents kept their seats. Albright is now the council president. Auchincloss remains on the panel while running to succeed US Representative Joseph Kennedy III. Becky Walker Grossman, one of Auchincloss’s colleagues, is also running for Kennedy’s post.
During last fall’s race for City Council, 35 candidates in all ran for office. Due to Newton’s quirky arrangement for the 24-member body, 16 councilors are elected in citywide votes; the others are local representatives of the city’s eight wards and are elected solely by residents of each ward.
Navigating a ballot with many candidates can be tricky. At the same time, changes in the media landscape have reduced the role of local newspapers as an information source, said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber.
“I think that explains a lot why people have to spend more money reaching out to voters than they ever had before,” Reibman said.
In addition to candidate fundraising, two political action committees were also active in last year’s election: Newton Democracy, which along with RightSize Newton criticizes development; and Voters for a Vibrant Newton, which supports new growth.
The groups stepped in to try to convince voters with slates of endorsed candidates on both sides of the issue.
Before the election, they spent thousands on campaign materials: Vibrant Newton spent more than $3,400 on handouts, mailers, mailing services, and a website, according to records. Newton Democracy spent about $2,200 on brochures, records show.
Newton Democracy raised $3,251 in donations from 19 donors, according to public campaign records. The group’s endorsements included Norton, Lucas, and Bentley, who were also endorsed by RightSize Newton. It also contributed about $220 each to Lucas and Norton for brochures, according to public records.
Voters for a Vibrant Newton raised $9,555 in individual donations from 57 donors, according to public records, and its list of endorsements included Albright, Auchincloss, and Barash.
Simon French, the chairman and treasurer for Newton Democracy, told the Globe last year that the City Council "should work on behalf of voters, rather than for large, for-profit developers.”
Allison Sharma, Vibrant Newton’s chairwoman, said in a statement that the group was formed very quickly to counterbalance Newton Democracy.
She said that while many voters appreciated the slates, "others expressed concern that since slates are typically organized around a single issue, they don’t necessarily reflect the individual candidates’ positions on the wide variety of issue that are important to local voters.”
In Ward 2, some have speculated that campaign contributions and PACs will play a larger role in future local elections in Newton.
Norton said she expects “well funded PACs” will be created when corporations have a financial interest in a local issue.
“In general I think it’s safe to assume more money in Newton’s democracy will benefit corporate interests here,” she said in an e-mail.
Lucas said he believes the cost of running for an at-large position will become a deterrent for some candidates.
“I think PACs will be the future of Newton elections. The negative to that is unlimited amounts of money can be spent,” Lucas said in an e-mail. “The plus side, it might help single-issue voters identify which candidates they will support and vote for.”
Auchincloss said he proposed a resolution passed by the Newton Democratic City Committee calling for full transparency in PAC spending in local elections.
“Voters deserve to know who is spending what before they go to the polls,” Auchincloss said.
Albright said in an e-mail she is concerned about the cost of campaigns.
“But thank heavens people open their hearts and their pocketbooks to help run a campaign,” Albright said. “The only way to limit campaign spending is to put a cap on it but this idea probably has no legs and may not even be legal.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.