After four failed tries and 104 years, Framingham voted to become a city in April. The newly written city charter barely squeaked by in a town referendum, winning by 112 votes — a clear indication of a community nearly evenly divided over its path forward.

In the seven months since, divisions in the Boston suburb of 70,000 haven’t healed. Days before the new city’s first mayoral elections, the community seems to be just as divided — and along similar lines — over who will serve as its first mayor. Many of those who led the charge to make Framingham a city have lined up behind one candidate, while many of those who fought against the new city charter are backing the other.

This divide is especially clear in the campaign finance data, which reveal by far the most expensive election in the town’s history. Many of the donations have come from outside Framingham and from owners and managers of businesses, real estate developers and construction companies.

What this means for Framingham’s future — as it evolves from a town meeting form of government to leadership by a mayor and city council — depends on with whom you talk.

Mayoral Candidates Yvonne Spicer and John Stefanini face off Tuesday in a tight race. Though Spicer won more than 50 percent of the vote in the preliminary election, Stefanini has raised more money. As of Oct. 20, Stefanini had raised about $113,000, while Spicer had raised about $70,000, according to public campaign finance reports.

Spicer, though, has donations from more people. Approximately 510 donors have given an average of about $136. Sixty-five percent of her contributors have addresses listed in Framingham.

By contrast, Stefanini’s funds have come from about 380 people. The average amount donated to his campaign is just under $300 per contributor, and 41 percent of his donors have listed addresses in Framingham.

More than half of the 42 donors that gave Stefanini $1,000, the maximum amount allowed by law, are the owners or managers at real estate development firms, construction companies and Framingham-based businesses.

Of the 14 donors who have contributed the maximum $1,000 to Spicer’s campaign, more than half list their employer as retired, self-employed or not employed.  

Mayoral Candidates John Stefanini and Yvonne Spicer debate at the "Framingham Coming Together" political forum at the Greater Framingham Community Church on Oct.19.
Emily Judem/WGBH News

Campaign war chests of $70,000 and more may seem small relative to other cities, but they are new to Framingham. To put this number in perspective, between 2010 and 2014, no individual running for public office in Framingham raised more than $20,000 in one year, and most raised less than $12,000, according to the campaign finance reports available on the town clerk's website.

Raising big money for elections started in 2015, with the formation of Framingham First, an organization dedicated to promoting Framingham’s change to a city form of government.

Framingham — one of the most socio-economically, racially and ethnically diverse communities in Massachusetts — once held the title of the largest town in the United States. The community has long debated whether a town meeting, with its roughly 200 members, was the most effective way to govern.

Framingham voters are grappling with a number of key issues, including four under-performing schools, high taxes, and what many say has been historically ill-distributed representation in government between the wealthier north side of town and the poorer south side.

Those who supported the charter argued that a city form of government could better address these problems and improve accountability. The now-city attempted a few times to change parts of the town government structure without changing the form of government altogether, which didn’t address all of the problems, said Charter Commissioner Adam Blumer.

“We put in a stronger [town] manager, and a different size board of selectmen, and we still found that it wasn’t quite solving all the problems of governance that we wanted to solve,” he said. “There are some pretty complex issues that town meeting wasn’t able to deal with in a timely way.”

Town meeting had made other reforms as well, including voting in 2016 to reduce its members from 216 to 162 over the span of three years, with the goal of equalizing representation between the north and south sides of town. But these changes were never given a chance to play out, said town meeting member Mel Warshaw.

“We finally got [this reform] through, and it was too late,” he said. “And it didn’t come across that the southern part of Framingham would now have more power.”

Framingham has held five votes on whether to become a city since 1913, and until this year, every effort failed. The last city charter before 2017, which was on the ballot in 1997, was voted down by a 2-1 margin.

Framingham First was founded by town residents who were long-time proponents of making Framingham a city. Dennis Cardiff became the group’s treasurer and was also vice-chair of the charter commission. Cardiff was involved in the 1997 city charter movement and in another effort in 2014 to form a charter commission, which failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The challenges they faced in 2014, he said, “would not be overcome unless we were able to organize a group of folks and find the donations to help get these signatures, so we organized Framingham First. … And Framingham First was organized to bring forward a charter movement to make Framingham a city.”

In two years, Framingham First raised nearly $90,000, which was unheard of in town politics, according to John Stasik, a former state representative and town selectman. Stasik is also the former chair of the Not This Charter campaign, a group opposed to Framingham becoming a city.

“We never, never had an election that was anywhere near that,” he said. “Ten grand was a lot of money in Framingham to spend on an election. And, you know, we were so afraid that once we became a city that we were just going to be dealing with this whole … power, corruption, special interest thing.”

According to public campaign finance reports, of the nearly $90,000 that Framingham First raised between January 2015 and May 2017, at least $32,000 came from real estate or construction businesses, or leaders of such businesses. At least another $37,000 came from town businesses or leaders of town businesses.

Cardiff said raising this amount of money and getting business support was key to the charter passing.

“We did spend a lot of money to get [the charter] promoted and marketed, but I think that’s what it took to do it, and it was because Framingham First was a strong organization with its membership spanning across both residents and business owners. Business owners were key,” said Cardiff. “They became very active in the movement, and they’re still very active in the city movement. They felt they didn’t have a voice in government, and they wanted a voice.”

In advance of Tuesday's election, a sign sits outside of the Framingham Memorial Building downtown.
Emily Judem/WGBH News

Vaios Theodorakos, founder and chief executive officer of the real estate company VTT Management, which is headquartered in downtown Framingham and has bought and sold more than 300 properties in the now-city, donated a total of $6,500 to Framingham First. He has also donated the maximum allowed $1,000 to the Stefanini campaign. He said as a business and property owner, he found the town’s processes slow and difficult to navigate. 

“It was fractured,” said Theodorakos. “You'd go in and talk about, you know, pulling a permit for something, then you'd go from one room, to another room, to another room, to another room, and there was no cohesion. There was nothing that was fluid.”

Theodorakos said he thinks this has slowed down the business growth and development that Framingham needs.

Stasik said he agrees that more building and business in Framingham can be a good thing, as long as the impacted neighborhoods are given enough time to air their concerns about traffic, air quality and other considerations. That’s one thing he’s worried about.

The Not This Charter Committee was formed in 2017. Critics of the city charter said they believe it consolidated too much power, increasing the potential for special interests to be put ahead of the needs of the residents.

The pro-charter movement’s criticisms of town meeting, said Stasik, are valid. Before the charter was written, he favored Framingham becoming a city. But he said he has concerns that this specific city charter created a government that was too small, with a mayor with too much power.

“It’s just that their solutions were far too … far too prone to special interests’ influences. That’s what bothers me about reducing the numbers too much,” Stasik said. “You cannot corrupt town meeting. You just can't. If you want something to go your way at town meeting, you have to convince 135 people to agree with you, and if you’re lobbying, that’s a very large number to lobby.”

Teri Banerjee, town meeting moderator and the lone charter commissioner who came out against the city charter, said she thinks moving things faster isn’t always better.

“The Democratic process is not all that pretty, and it’s not all that efficient,” she said. “It's a curse of town meeting, and it's also one of the positives. … You get so many different points of view.”

Not This Charter raised approximately $8,000, almost entirely from small donations from Framingham residents. But with only a few months to organize, it was too late to stop their opponent’s momentum.

“I think that if we would have been a little more efficient with our electioneering we might have … we might have prevailed in the end,” he said. “But there was no point in going down that road any further.”

The community was divided over the best path forward, just as it is today, said Cardiff.

“I believe there’s a very, very large divide,” he said. “That’s kind of indicated the fact that we have a lot of healing to do.”

Many of the contributors to Framingham First and Not This Charter are popping up again now. Many of the donors to Framingham First are supporting Stefanini, and many contributors to Not This Charter are supporting Spicer. There were approximately 57 donors to Framingham First listed on the group's campaign finance reports, and roughly half of these have also donated to the Stefanini campaign. Two have donated to Spicer, but those two donors also gave to Stefanini. Of the 36 listed donors that gave to Not This Charter, 28 donated to Spicer, and one gave to Stefanini, but that one donor also gave to Spicer. Donations of $50 or less are not required by law to be itemized on campaign finance reports.

And, several campaign organizers overlap with either Framingham First or Not This Charter. For example, Mary Kate Feeney, the former chairwoman of Framingham First, is also the Stefanini campaign’s spokeswoman.

Norma Shulman, a former member of Not This Charter, is also the Spicer campaign’s field organizer.

“There are a few key members of the team who were part of Not This Charter,” said Shulman, “and people who have joined us because they want to see Yvonne Spicer be the first mayor.”

As Blumer points out, it’s not a one-to-one split. He cites himself as an example of this, as a supporter of Framingham becoming a city who is now supporting Spicer.

And to a certain extent, each candidate wants to avoid being stereotyped by the overlapping contributions.

The Stefanini campaign said it has assembled a diverse coalition that goes beyond Framingham First. "John speaks to everyone — neighbors and local small businesses alike — and believes we need to come together and collaborate on the issues facing Framingham," his campaign said in a statement.

Spicer echoed similar sentiments, noting that her team includes people on both sides of the city charter debate.

"The donations to my campaign reflect the people of Framingham," she said in an email. "It's a grassroots campaign that has motivated people to get engaged, to come out and make a difference and have an impact on their local government.”

Though they may disagree on who will lead them in the right direction, both Spicer and Stefanini supporters agree that whatever the outcome of the election, what the community needs now is to move on and come together.

"The voters spoke," said Shulman, "and therefore, we need to move forward to make [Framingham] the best city we can."

Who can best accomplish that task is what voters will decide Tuesday.

Emily Judem is a digital producer for WGBH News. Follow her on twitter @ejudem.