A Menagerie of Candidates Competing to Represent ZooMass…
UPDATED 10:47PM: To reflect additional comments from the forum’s organizers.
AMHERST—A once in a generation opportunity to snap up the indigo-blue state rep seat here was always certain to have a crowded Democratic primary. A forum held Wednesday night displayed not only the size of the field, but also the spectrum of backgrounds and qualities from which voters will have to choose come September.
State Representative Ellen Story, who has held the seat since 1993, announced her retirement in January, prompting a mob of political activists, businesspeople, and state and local officials to clamor for a seat that includes the beating liberal heart of college-town Western Massachusetts.
Notably, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg once held the seat, too, and political promotions could be the horizon for the next rep from the 3rd Hampshire District.
The UMass-Amherst chapter of MASSPIRG sponsored the event which attracted all of the declared candidates. The field includes Amherst School Committeewoman Viraphahn Douangmany Cage, climate activist Solomon Goldstein-Rose, Amherst Business Improvement District Executive Director Sarah la Cour, Democratic State Committee member Bonnie MacCracken, former Deval Patrick staffer Eric Nakajima and teacher and labor activist Lawrence O’Brien.
The 3rd Hampshire District includes Amherst, Pelham and a precinct in Granby. Among the most liberal districts in the House, the primary is widely viewed as tantamount to election. No non-Democratic candidates have filed with the Office of Campaign & Political Finance yet.
During the two hour-long forum, held in a theater-style lecture hall on the UMass campus, the candidates showed considerable agreement on climate change, taxation, social justice, charter schools and healthcare. Dean Robinson, a professor of political science at UMass, moderated the forum.
MacCracken, who ran for Register of Deeds in 2010, displayed a note of political experience, ably folding an anecdote about a women she met in Boston into a pitch about her experience. “Kate was there to tell our legislators her story one day about how she was on the very edge of losing her home,” she said. “Kate needs a voice in the legislature and someone who knows how to navigate the legislative process.”
O’Brien, who said he has often been “the only person willing to be the grievance officer,” for the various unions with which he has been affiliated offered his skills in conflict resolution and advocacy. “I’ve had to assess the validity of their claim—most of the time it is very valid—and I’ve had to represent them.”
Douangmany Cage invoked her story as an immigrant from Laos and living in affordable housing her. La Cour pitched her breadth of experience in business and coaching children while Nakajima cited his work in the Patrick administration and as head of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.
Goldstein-Rose, a senior at Brown University, capitalized on his youth. “The difference that I see for me is that I am young and energetic and I’m going to get things done. Now,” he declared with an eagerness that matched his words, but with a polish of someone older.
For a forum for the district that represents the commonwealth’s flagship university campus, only some time was devoted to higher education. The candidates agreed debt and tuition—or more often, fees—were a problem. However, each responded to the question differently.
Douangmany Cage touted the proposed Millionaires Tax as a way to college costs, “We do not need to burden our students with debt when they graduate.”
Goldstein-Rose echoed this point and emphasized that tuition was not the only problem, “Fees keep going up and up and up.”
MacCracken noted that the issue of access to educational institutions was not just about costs of attendance itself. She observed that transportation can be a big issue for students going to UMass, Amherst’s private colleges, Westfield State or the region’s community colleges. From Holyoke, she said, a trip to Amherst can be an hour-long ordeal by bus.
Nakajima lamented the legislature’s failure to take up Patrick’s proposal to add progressivity to the tax code, but also current Governor Charlie Baker for not maintaining the goal of the state providing half the cost of a UMass education—the other half coming from the student’s contribution.
All of the candidates supported aggressive efforts to control climate change such as carbon taxes, although some preferred that particular idea as a national policy. Organizers told WMassP&I that issue was of particular importance to them.
“Currently, we are running a campaign to repower Massachusetts with 100% clean energy,” said Phillip Duarte, one of MASSPIRG-UMass’s members who organized event. “It was great to hear some of the candidates support this idea for the future of Massachusetts.”
They also broadly agreed with the idea of a public option for healthcare (typically defined as individuals buying into a publicly administered plan like Medicare or Medicaid) with a goal of single payer, if not in the foreseeable future.
Ultimately the agreement kept redirecting the contrast to the candidates themselves.
Responding to a question about the Black Lives Matter movement, Douangmany Cage noted her work the American Civil Liberties Union in the 413 helping people assert and protect their civil rights, “This is my work and my passion.”
La Cour mentioned her business background, but, in response to a question about conservation, noted her efforts helped protect 3000 acres in Levertt and Shutesbury.
The University loomed large in their formative years as well. Nakajima recalled participating in protests against apartheid and tuition hikes. O’Brien said he started as a union organizer during graduate school.
MacCracken recalled her earliest work was advocating for childcare and drew on her experience running a title research business, amid shifting trends and competition, “I know what it is to recreate yourself and change with the economy.”
There were flashes of tension, such as when Goldstein-Rose, MacCracken and Nakajima all claimed they had gotten legislation through Beacon Hill—or in Goldstein-Rose’s case, the State House in Providence.
But that was the exception. Lucy Longstreth, who lives out of the district, but supports MacCracken, said she was “impressed at how the candidates were actually listening to one another” and responding to each other as much as the questions. During the Q&A, she had thanked the candidates for their “cooperative and conciliatory approach to one another.”
Duarte agreed, noting that none of the candidates spoke ill of each other and the forum stayed positve. “The candidates presented themselves in an extremely professional manner,” he said. “Six candidates is a lot for a debate, but they were very respectful toward each other in terms of taking turns speaking and trying not to go over time.”
Other metrics of the candidates will be difficult to track in the short-term. Legislative candidates do not need to file fundraising numbers until shortly before the September 8 primary, (a Thursday so as not to conflict with religious holidays). Most candidates with experience running campaigns or organizing for causes showed a clear grasp of the complexity of the issues and had crisp delivery.
“I’m a candidate whose political GPS is set on social justice,” O’Brien said.
However, given the prospect of an opening in the State Senate—or even for the US House of Representatives—opening in the next decade, the future was clearly on the minds of some candidates.
“We need to think big,” Goldstein-Rose urged in his closing. Noting that many of the young people being elected in the past few years are Republicans, while many Democratic electeds are much older, he called on voters to start electing the next generation.
“We need everyone engaged!” he said.