Upper House, Upper Valley: The First Kline of Defense in the Race…
Upper House, Upper Valley is a series on the candidates for the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester Senate Democratic primary on September 4.
NORTHAMPTON—On March 29, Chelsea Kline set to out to do something that had not happened since 1991. She announced a challenge Senator Stanley Rosenberg in a primary. Consequently, when Rosenberg resigned in May, Kline became the only name on the ballot.
An academic, college administrator and political activist, Kline faces stiff competition for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate seat. A thinning herd of write-in candidates, somewhat culled over time, have joined the race created and rocked by Rosenberg’s fall from grace.
“Our district is vulnerable right now,” Kline said. The scandal engulfing Rosenberg called for people to stand up, she explained. “I sort of had that moment of ‘If not now, then when? And if not me, then who?’”
Public plaudits and telegraphed opprobrium met Kline’s decision to run, emphasizing the doubled-edge nature of early bid.
“She comes from outside the system. She’s willing to challenge people in her own party,” Jennifer Taub, a Vermont Law School professor who lives in Northampton, said of Kline.
The district includes Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, Pelham and South Hadley in Hampshire County, Franklin County east of and including Colrain, Deerfield, Greenfield, and Whatley, and Royalston in Worcester County. The Democratic primary, open to Democratic and unenrolled voters, is September 4.
In November The Boston Globe reported several Beacon Hill denizens had alleged Rosenberg’s spouse, Bryon Hefner, had allegedly sexually assaulted them. That news effectively ended Rosenberg’s Senate presidency. A May 2 ethics report cleared him of wrongdoing, but found he failed to protect the Senate from Hefner. Rosenberg resigned two days later, ballooning the turnover in Hampshire County’s legislative delegation.
Though too late to make the ballot, several Democratic write-in candidates announced. MoveOn.org’s campaign director Jo Comerford, Veterans Services Director Steve Connor and Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell remain in the race. Two other Democrats dropped out, but no candidates of other affiliations have announced.
Speaking to WMassP&I at her campaign office near downtown last month, Kline described her life, career and first bid for office. Her silvery-blonde hair in a bun, she was eager and energetic talking policy and her history throughout the interview, turning somber discussing the district’s struggles.
“I really think that voters need an opportunity to have a reset and chance to check in,” Kline said of challenging Rosenberg. Despite the Hefner story, Rosenberg was still popular in the district. Thus, many viewed Kline as electoral cannon fodder.
While their encounters as rivals were pleasant—Kline said they joked their wonky debates would be boring—she noted Rosenberg had not stopped painful cuts to transportation and human services.
A single mother at 19, she and her daughter moved here in 2001. Kline worked her way up to Smith College and Harvard Divinity School via Greenfield Community College. Her scholarly work delved into religion and reproductive freedom—her thesis was on modern reproductive technology and Jewish law—feeding into her activism.
Life events, like a new baby she had after completing a candidate training in 2013, inhibited her electoral ambitions. She was politically active, though. After Donald Trump’s election, she formed the Badass Activists in the Pioneer Valley, an affiliate of the national movement Indivisible.
“In talking with her, it became clear to me that she has the energy, enthusiasm and ideas for the job,” Otis Wheeler, a Greenfield City Council said via Facebook. “And I thought that getting on the ballot when no one else dared to challenge Senator Rosenberg showed courage and foresight.”
Senators Jamie Edridge and Barbara L’Italien also backed Kline, burnishing her progressive credentials.
L’Italien, currently running for Congress, likened Kline’s story to her own, seeking office following experiences as a mother. In a statement Kline’s campaign released, L’Italien also praised Kline’s positions on single payer and funding public education.
“We are seeing a new wave of women stepping up for public service, running authentically and boldly as women and mothers,” L’Italien said. “When I leave the state Legislature, I know that leaders like Chelsea will pick up the ball and keep moving us forward.”
Eldridge underscored Kline’s activism and commitment to the vulnerable. “She is the exactly the kind of progressive leader that Western Massachusetts needs,” he said in his endorsement.
Statewide groups like Stonewall Democrats, Mass Alliance, Progressive Mass, and AFT Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood and NARAL-Pro Choice Mass are behind Kline, too. The latter two are in tune with her academic work and especially relevant.
Kline supports single payer, but reproductive issues are on her mind. Massachusetts recently repealed its vestigial abortion bans to preempt the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, Kline focused on crisis pregnancy centers.
Critics say they peddle false health information and are virulently anti-choice. The Supreme Court turfed a California law curtailing those deceptions about women’s health. To counteract that, Kline called for lower abortion age of consent laws and greater age-appropriate sex education.
The emphasis on Kline’s life story and background blunts claims she has insufficient experience with and in government.
Taub, the law professor, noted US Senator Elizabeth Warren, also an academic, had a thin government resume, too. But both women’s key credential was a willingness to act on principle. That may mean challenging a member of your party, even a beloved one like Rosenberg.
Kline’s listening skills as an educator, again apropos Warren, was helpful, Taub added. “I don’t want somebody ready to hit the ground running,” she continued. “I want them to listen to their constituency.”
For Kline, “being an activist and being a thinker and being someone who questions.”
As a professor and director of Bay Path’s WELL program, Kline oversaw multiple academic programs, particularly ones geared toward nontraditional-aged students.
Given her background and the district’s many colleges, Kline has some thoughts on college costs. She backs two years of free public college or trade school and expanding assistance programs for students attending public and private schools. Yet she indicated getting four free years through the legislature could be tough.
Private college tuition has also been spiking. Wryly noting it might get her into trouble with academic colleagues, Kline suggested universities may need to restructure and reassess things like salaries. Yet, she cautioned against targeting faculty pay.
“If you have intellectuals and academics who invest however many years into their lives and getting their PhD’s and they are experts, I believe they should be fairly compensated,” she said.
Kline has also released a proposal to cut back on testing for primary and secondary education. Rather than punishments for underperforming districts—e.g. Holyoke’s 2015 takeover—she proposed funding to target non-scholastic factors hindering student performance.
“Everything I want to do is under the umbrella of equality,” Kline explained. “Looking out for all people, our immigrants, our trans people, our low-income people.”
Elsewhere, while she backs a carbon tax, Kline mostly tied environment and transportation together in an economic context.
“When we have more connections we’re able to have an easy flow of people and ideas,” she said referring to both buses and expanded rail service. “I think that would allow more people to live here and to build their families here.”
The state-sponsored pilot expansion of Amtrak Shuttles to Greenfield is one example, but service to Boston is also key. Better transit reduces car use (and pollution) and could open the 413 as an affordable housing alternative for the East.
There’s more. Kline said her husband, an artist, teaches at Hampshire College and “brings in artists from all over place.” She continued, “they say, ‘well how do I get there?’ How ridiculous is it that we’re cut off?”
This is also a district hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. Agriculture faces challenges, too. Yet these issues may speak to an overarching theme. Wheeler, the Greenfield councilor, said Franklin County is among the commonwealth’s poorest. The disparity between his community and the Boston area will only grow without change.
“The next Senator to represent Greenfield will need to find creative ways to bridge the rural/urban divide while striving for a less unequal, more just society,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said Kline has already come to Greenfield meetings on marijuana and homelessness. He was confident she could represent his part of the district well.
Throughout the interview, Kline emphasized the “sobering” but “not surprising” pain in the district. She recalled meeting an elderly woman worried about losing her home.
“How are you going to protect people like me who are old and on the edge?” Kline remembered her saying.
Experiences like that have kept Kline grounded, the candidate said.
“I’ve known, but I’ve seeing so many individual that want to tell me about their pain and want reassurance that I will look out for them,” she said. “And that I can do. I will be thinking of them with every decision that I make.”