BELMONT — The first time Angus Abercrombie volunteered on a campaign was in the fifth grade. He began speaking at public meetings in middle school. As he puts it, “I don’t think I’ve ever really not been involved in politics.“
Now, 18-year-old Abercrombie, tired of standing on the sidelines, is aiming for something bigger.
Currently a freshman at Emerson College, Abercrombie is running for Town Meeting member in Tuesday’s election in Belmont, a suburban community of 27,000. He knows he’s young, but he has ideas for how to grow his town’s tax base, fix its bumpy roads, staff the schools better, and fight climate change locally. And he thinks the best place to effect those changes is local government.
“Young people feel like the world is collapsing around them, but they can’t do anything about it,” Abercrombie said. “And local government is really the story of why that’s not true.”
In Belmont’s local system of government, a body of 300 elected community members — 36 from each of the town’s eight precincts and 12 at-large representatives — convene each spring to discuss and vote on the town’s budget and bylaws.
Town Meeting representatives serve three-year terms, and each year, 12 seats from each precinct are up for election. In Precinct 8, Abercrombie is among 15 people running for those 12 spots.
“It’s hard to live in a place for a long time without thinking of some things that you’d like to see improve and things that you’ve noticed getting worse that you’d like to stop from getting worse,” Abercrombie said.
To balance his campaign with academics, Abercrombie is taking three-quarters of a usual course load at Emerson College this semester. He goes home during school breaks, most weekends, and some days after class to knock on doors.
Since he is self-funding his campaign, Abercrombie saves money on fliers by printing two on each sheet of paper and going door-to-door to deliver them and get his name out to voters.
One warm afternoon in the weeks before the April 4 election, Abercrombie strolled up the driveway of a house on Chilton Street in Belmont, armed with a clipboard, a list of addresses, and campaign fliers, and knocked on the door. No one answered.
“There’s going to be a lot of that,” he said as he stuffed one of his fliers behind the screen door.
Abercrombie wants to knock on just about every door to speak with voters in his precinct, in the northeastern part of the town. He says it’s “the best way to provide someone with a space to care about town issues.”
“It’s a very smart thing to do,” said Stuart Chuang, a Belmont resident who spoke with Abercrombie on his front stoop about campaign priorities. “In this neighborhood especially, there are a lot of parents and young kids. He’s on the right block.”
Linda Levin-Scherz, chair of the Belmont Democratic Town Committee, has known Abercrombie since he started attending meetings as a junior at Belmont High School. She says he is enormously respected by those who have worked with him.
“Right away, I was impressed with his deep knowledge of state politics and national politics, his commitment to progressive causes, and his ability to articulate his concerns and his priorities,” Levin-Schertz said. “When he first started coming [to meetings], we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Whoa, who is this kid?’ He’s remarkably poised for somebody who’s so young.”
Abercrombie recognizes some people doubt he has the life experience to weigh in on legislative matters because of his age, but he cites his years of advocacy and campaign experience.
“A lot of people subscribe to the idea that Town Meetings should represent everyone in the town. That’s more than just people who have the sort of ‘life experience’ that people are alluding to when they’re questioning my age,” Abercrombie said. “If someone supports me, they’re going to see age as a positive, and if there’s someone who doesn’t support me, they’re gonna see my age as a negative. It’s not about the age. It’s about the policy.”
Many residents of Abercrombie’s precinct agree and see his youthfulness as a positive influence on the town’s policy priorities.
“He’s very young,” said Rubi Lichauco, a Belmont voter whose daughter went to school with Abercrombie. She said most of the other candidates are parents like herself. “I don’t doubt that he will bring up issues that are relevant to young people here in Belmont.”
Abercrombie sees room for improvement in the existing Town Meeting system and hopes to lower the barrier to entry and encourage other often unheard voices to seek local office. The time commitment can dissuade groups like working families, young people, and people of color from running for Town Meeting representative, which “leads to a Town Meeting which is whiter, older, and richer than the general population,” Abercrombie said.
“When we look at the decisions being made in Belmont, we see that almost always, renters are underrepresented, young people are underrepresented, people of color are underrepresented,” he said. “It’s a system that reinforces systemic biases in a very meaningful and potentially damaging way.”
Though he has bigger political ambitions, Abercrombie said he holds a staunch belief that local government serves a crucial role as ground zero for political engagement and effecting change in a community.
“Every time you drive out of your driveway onto very uneven and bumpy roads, or if you’re walking through Town Center and you have to go by three or four vacant storefronts before you get anywhere, that’s all local problems,” he said. “Local government has, hopefully, solutions, and that’s what I’m interested in.”
Correction, April 4, 2023: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Linda Levin-Scherz, chair of the Belmont Democratic Town Committee. The Globe regrets the error.