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West of the River, Rep Candidates Rumble…

UPDATED 10/22/12 12:31

This is the Second in a Series on Massachusetts State House Races in the Pioneer Valley

Debate Stage in Agawam (WMassP&I)

AGAWAM—In a tense showdown between two candidates personifying the two dimensions of the swingy, somewhat working class Third Hampden District, Republican State Representative Nick Boldyga and Democrat Sam DiSanti traded barbs on jobs and the incumbent’s record.  The Thursday night encounter here, included jabs at each other’s motives, ethics and associations, especially Boldyga’s.

The race for this district, which includes Agawam, Granville and Southwick, may be, along with the Second Hampden across the river, the most competitive in the Springfield area.  Agawam, a city with many Springfield transplants and Southwick a booming suburb of sorts to Springfield and Westfield define the makeup of district.

Boldyga’s win in 2010, which was otherwise a watershed year for Republcians nationally, was the party’s only significant gain in Western Massachusetts and among only a few statewide.

The format of the debate included several questions posed by the moderator followed by questions between the candidates, which proved the most contentious.  The debate was sponsored by the West of the River Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. Boldyga, left, after the Debate (WMassP&I)

As the incumbent, Boldyga’s record was on trial with both the incumbent vigorously defending his work and DiSanti trying to undermine it.  Generally speaking Boldyga positioned himself as working with Democrats while DiSanti countered he only held onto Democrats’ coattails and claimed glory for himself.  DiSanti also questioned Boldyga’s claim, printed on the latter’s lawn signs, “People before politics” by connecting him to national lobbying groups and a 91% record of voting with House Republicans reported in the Lowell Sun based on a Roll Call analysis.

Boldyga also made some claims that are difficult to independently confirm by post time.  He proposed an amendment to the casino legislation that would have required Massachusetts residents be given preference in casino jobs.  According to legislative documents, that amendment ostensibly was, added to the legislation in the House, but its language does not appear in the final version of the bill.  Senate language to the same effect may have been used instead, but it is not apparent that this is the case.

The question of education also demonstrated the conflict between Boldyga and DiSanti’s interpretation of the former’s record.  Boldyga took credit for increases in education funding, but DiSanti counted that these as proof of Boldyga showboating over the legislature’s work.  Indeed, the budget passed nearly unanimously in April, 150-4, including Boldyga, making it impossible to ascertain either one’s claims.

The subject of medical marijuana also came up with neither candidate actually answering the question of support.  Both appeared to want to let voters make that call, although Boldyga did say that there are issues given that federal law continues to reject medical marijuana.  However, he also cited a suspension of medical marijuana in Oregon, which does not appear to exist according to the State’s website.  Some Oregon dispensaries have been shut down, but there is no indication this is due to a statewide suspension.

Sam DiSanti, center, after the Debate (WMassP&I)

By far the most fireworks took place as the candidates trained their cannons on each other’s associations and ethics.  In particular, Boldyga charged that DiSanti failed to properly fill out his disclosure form, although he did not explain clearly how the alleged omissions were in violation of the law.  DiSanti took umbrage at Boldyga’s claims of illegal activity.  WMassP&I is in the process of requesting both candidates’ disclosure forms from the state.

DiSanti, for his part, attempted to make hay out of Boldyga’s co-chairmanship of the Massachusetts branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC came into the public consciousness first after Wisconsin passed its union-busting bill last year, but gained new attention after it was revealed to be behind voter-screening and stand your ground laws.  Following ALEC’s unmasking, big corporations, particularly those that cater to the public, much of which could be harmed by such legislation, left the organization.

Beyond legislation that seemed to target certain groups, ALEC has also produced model bills that appear to favor large corporations and the wealthy.  Boldyga tried to dodge this charge by saying that the group is non-partisan, pointing to his co-chair in Massachusetts, a Democrat.  However, it would be inaccurate to call ALEC, at least in the last few years a Republican organization.  Rather, given the conservatism of its token Democrats members, it is more correct to call it a non-partisan, but deeply conservative group.

Boldyga, during the candidate questioning period, also demanded that DiSanti identify an ALEC bill that he supported.  DiSanti adroitly pointed out that the organization’s activities are not widely advertised and therefore it may not be possible to actually identify an ALEC bill.  Boldyga has only filed six bills while in the legislature and four were on hyper-local boilerplate issues.  However, one of those bills and others he has cosponsored, do mimic goals in other alleged-ALEC legislation passed in other states.

Beacon Hill (WMassP&I)

Boldyga tried to waive off the concerns, dismissing the complaints as “Washington talking points.”  The tactic may be effective, if residents, as Boldyga appeared to suggest, are ignorant of ALEC‘s activities.  Moreover, it could be difficult to actually demonstrate ALEC’s agenda given that virtually none of it can pass a Democratic legislature and receive Gov. Patrick’s signature.

Incidentally, Boldyga inadvertently welcomed further scrutiny of his associations in thanking the National Federation of Independent Business for their endorsement.  That group was the lead plaintiff in the national health care lawsuit and sought the law’s total revocation.  The NFIB has been criticized as being unrepresentative of all small business and for a record of near-universal support of Republicans recently despite claiming to be non-partisan.  However, DiSanti did not make this point.

Boldyga also tried to blunt DiSanti’s ALEC assertions by saying his campaign was built on the grassroots, touting his 2010 campaign that raised $1,000.  However, that $1000 was only the seed money for his 2010 campaign raised throughout 2009.  According to campaign finance reports, Boldyga would ultimately raise close to $20,000 by the time he beat incumbent Rosemarie Sandlin by a close plurality in three-way race.  In, 2008, when Boldyga ran as an independent he raised just over $9,000.

As of the last campaign report, Boldyga had $17,500 cash on hand while DiSanti had $2500.  Boldyga contributions came largely from Republican campaigns and a few Boston sources, a not-uncommon tactic for incumbents, but notable for one who touts his grassroots support.  DiSanti has benefited from Democratic groups as well, but, among itemized contributions, he appears to have received more money from local people (as opposed to campaigns) than Boldyga this year.  Both have raised about the same amount in 2012 so far, around $9,500.  Both candidates have loaned money to themselves, too.

The Third Hampden House District in Blue-Grey (malegislature.gov)

Although this district is actually perfectly primed for the right kind of Republican, it had been held by Sandlin and her predecessor Democrat Daniel Keenan for many years and could be ripe for a flip back to Democratic control.  Like Marie Angelides in the Second Hampden, Boldyga has little political infrastructure to help him, but perception may matter as much as reality.

Despite association with groups like ALEC and the NFIB, he, like Scott Brown running for Senate, seems to be trying to portray himself as un-Republican as possible.  However, unlike Brown statewide, Boldyga may owe more of his success to extremely conservative voters who may not like even a hint of a shift to the moderate.  Such voters may not vote for DiSanti, but they may just as easily leave that ballot line blank.

DiSanti, does have Democratic infrastructure, but one immeasurable factor that could lift or sink his campaign will be how person-to-person contact goes.  Agawam and Southwick in particular, can and will vote for a person as opposed to party or ideology. If DiSanti succeeds on that, he may have little problem winning.

Thursday’s crowd seemed evenly divided between supporters of each candidate, making it hard to divine any sense of the race from those present.  It may be impossible to know for sure what the rank and file in the Third Hampden are thinking until Election Day.

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