In 3rd Hampshire, a Primary Built from the Background up…
UPDATED 2:26PM: For a correction. A prior version of this post called the 2016 primary a five-way race. In fact, six candidates competed for the Democratic nomination that year.
UPDATED 8/4/18 6:51PM: Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose has dropped out of the race. The Democratic primary is now all but tantamount to election for the 3rd Hampshire.
AMHERST—In 2016 voters in the 3rd Hampshire District were treated to a rare electoral treat: a six-way Democratic primary. As with the soon-to-be vacated in nearby districts, legislative seats here are held for decades at a time.
Technically, the 3rd Hampshire seat is not open. Yet the drive into this college town reveals the region is the full throes of election. After the 2016 victor, Solomon Goldstein-Rose, shed his Democratic party label, so began a two-person footrace for the right to take him on in November.
Amherst School Committee Chair Eric Nakajima and Amherst Survival Center Executive Director Mindy Domb are vying for the Democratic nomination. As a recent debate seemed to underscore, their core beliefs are broadly similar. Rather, resumes and, to a certain extent, differing priorities define the race.
The 3rd Hampshire District consists of Amherst, Pelham and a precinct in Granby.
Nakajima crossed swords with Goldstein-Rose in the 2016 primary. As a current Amherst officeholder, near lifelong resident, and alum of Deval Patrick’s administration, he has something of an advantage this time. Still, Domb is no pushover. Even Nakajima’s people have conceded they drew a strong opponent, given her prominence leading the Survival Center.
Compared Granby’s precinct and Pelham, to the home of UMass, Amherst College and Hampshire College overwhelm the district. That’s not just a numerical or political reality. It manifests itself in sociocultural approach to politics. Wonky, even academic expositions—progressive of course—are par for the course.
While students can have a big impact in November election, they may not make up much of the primary electorate. The September 4 primary—the first day of class at UMass—and the August 15 registration deadline limit student participation further.
Consequently, the audience at the July 18 debate skewed older. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters and local media, the debate touched on numerous subjects.
Both agreed Goldstein-Rose was robbing the district of influence by exiling himself from the Democratic caucus, which effectively makes all House decisions.
“You need to be in the room, talking to people,” Domb said. “If you’re not in the room, you can’t advantage the district.”
Goldstein-Rose’s decision to disaffiliate from the Democratic party prompted head-scratching, but also condemnation. Goldstein-Rose has disputed his critics’ assertions.
It was not uncommon for the two Democrats to declare agreement. On a question about opioids, Domb said the full spectrum of treatment should be accessible wherever drug users are. Nakajima concurred.
“To be honest with you, I like Mindy’s answer,” he said. “I support interventions on every level.” Perhaps this was a concession to an issue in her wheelhouse, but it seemed genuine and typical of the debate.
This acclimation reoccurred on infrastructure and climate among other issues. It was similar on guns—both think Massachusetts is doing well—though Nakajima said he worried about interstate trafficking.
At the same time there was variation on style. Nakajima served as assistant secretary for innovation policy under Governor Patrick and later director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. He sounded like someone who frequently spoke to large groups. Domb has a long history working with vulnerable populations like HIV patients, often one-on-one. She had a lower more intimate tone. Each approach has its advantages.
However, biography surfaced not just in style, but also in emphasis. For example, both Domb and Nakajima affirmed the need to separate charter school funding from money for traditional schools. However, each responded to it in different ways. Nakajima, a sitting elected official, pointed to the stress charters placed on local communities.
“For towns like our school district where we try to make sure and maintain investments here in Amherst,” Nakajima explained, “it puts enormous pressure on property taxes as on our municipal budgets.”
Domb likened the funding battle to the way she saw appropriators pit healthcare programs against one other. Before separate line items were allocated for HIV, she said, the disease was often competing with other ailments like diabetes.
“People who support charter schools should make their case, they should document why they believe,” she continued, “but public schools should not be robbed” to fund charters.
The debate featured healthcare prominently. In addition to mainstays in a district this blue like single payer—both support it—there were questions about how to convince legislators and abortion.
They were both supportive of efforts to scrub antiquated unenforced laws that prohibited abortion in Massachusetts. Following the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote on women’s reproductive health, the issue has gained additional attention. Indeed, since this debate the legislature and governor have repealed these arcane laws.
However, their answers on how to get single-payer into law were also revealing. Domb suggested a coalition of doctors, nurse, and legislator as well as a benchmark study. Nakajima was more blunt.
“We are probably going to need a ballot inititiave as we’ve seen with the $15 minimum wage and paid medical family leave,” he said. “You need to put pressure on the legislature in order to get things passed,” Nakajima continued, pointing to the opposition from health insurers.
For now, only anecdotal evidence and dispatches from blogs parachuting into the district offer hints about the state of the race. Campaign finance reports, due next month, will offer more solid clues.
Even if the calendar—or indifference—sidelines many students, other factors could alter the number of voters who show on September 4. Intuitively, a day after Labor Day primary would probably yield relatively meager turnout. However, Amherst will be electing councilors for its new city government that day, too. That could juice turnout compared to the commonwealth and region generally. The race for Stan Rosenberg’s old Senate seat could have an impact, too.
Indeed, the wider region was on the mind of the 3rd Hampshire candidates as well. Should the winner of their primary prevail in November, nearly the entire delegation in Hampshire County will have changed over in one cycle. Retirements, a resignation, and death have ensured the other three rep seats covering the county and the region’s main senate seat will have new members.
Domb and Nakajima emphasized the need for the new delegation to stick together to advocate for the region’s needs.
But again the split came in how their backgrounds would differ. Domb recalled when she built an AIDS coalition in the Berkshires. That was not easy because the reported cases were so low. It required finding common ground and effective partners.
“My skills are those skills,” she said. “Through conversation, discussion, getting to know each other we build a foundation that will find common ground and we build a relationship. I intend to do that.”
Nakajima again pointed to his background working in town and state government in multiple capacities. Specifically, he highlighted one of his first jobs working for Governor Michael Dukakis, which helped him learn how to work with people with different views and backgrounds and experiences from himself.
“At an early age, frankly the same age that Solomon is as a legislator, I learned to develop those skills of listening, outreach, partnership,” he said. “What I think I can do is find common interests where we can work together and bridge what may appear to be differences to form legislation.”