Filling the liberal black hole

Four candidates – only 1 on ballot – seek to replace Rosenberg

THOUGH IT’S DRAWN LITTLE NOTICE east of I-495, the race to succeed former senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst has captured the rapt attention of many voters here, who see their representation on Beacon Hill as an ever-widening black hole.

The area, where 160,000 people live in a district that includes Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield, Greenfield, Northampton, Pelham, South Hadley, Deerfield, Leverett, Montague, Orange, Royalston, and Shutesbury, is losing a lot of its political clout. Rosenberg, the former Senate president, resigned for failing to address the sexual misconduct of his husband on Beacon Hill. Rep. Peter Kocot of Northampton died earlier this year, and Reps. Stephen Kulik of Worthington and John Scibak of South Hadley are retiring.

“It will be years before we build up that influence again,” said Deanne Kloepfer of Northampton, who has attended four of the Senate candidate forums held over the past few months. “We all know the Legislature is Boston-centric. We’ve got to get the best people who can hit the ground running, understand legislative process, and have good ideas.”

All eyes are on the Senate race, which is unusual in many respects. Four Democrats from Northampton are running, but only one of them, Chelsea Kline, an administrator at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, is on the ballot. The other three – Jo Comerford, the campaign director for MoveOn, the lefty public policy advocacy group; Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell; and Steven Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services — jumped into the race after Rosenberg resigned and are running as write-in candidates.

Kline has the advantage of having her name on the ballot, while Comerford has the most endorsements, the largest campaign staff, and the most money. Her campaign finance report, released on Monday, indicates she has raised $121,971 so far this year and spent $53,092. O’Donnell said he doesn’t think being a write-in candidate is a huge disadvantage. “It’s a two-step dance,” he said. “I have to persuade voters  and also educate them about how to fill out a ballot. My perception is that people seem to get it.”

At a recent candidates forum at Deerfield Academy, a standing-room-only crowd spilled out into the lobby where dozens watched the candidates on a flat screen TV. The four candidates seem to agree on, well, everything. Though Kline initially tried to position herself as the progressive alternative to Rosenberg, her three rivals are all bunched around her ideologically. Watching them field questions at the Deerfield forum, they appeared to be nearly indistinguishable from each other.

All of them talked about the need to rein in rising health care costs and create a single-payer health care system that provides universal coverage for everyone. They all want to see a progressive income tax become law. They hope to create more affordable housing and services to support homeless, disabled, and low-income people, and provide more treatment services for people struggling with addiction. They support a $15 minimum wage and better public transportation across the state. They all want to overhaul the school funding formula to create more equitable distribution of educational resources, with less emphasis on high-stakes testing.

From left, Ryan O’Donnell, Chelsea Kline, Steven Connor, and Jo Comerford at a recent forum at Deerfield Academy.

The political perspective of the four candidates plays well with residents in this five-college region, who lean far to the left of voters in most other parts of the state.

“I’m not sure what label you want to put on me, but 20 years ago I would be called a socialist,” said Connor, who has spent decades working directly with people who have struggled with poverty and homelessness due to mental health problems, substance abuse, and disabilities.

Instead of political endorsements, his “people first” campaign posts statements from the folks he has advocated for or worked with in a variety of nonprofit and governmental organizations. He envisions his work as a legislator as redirecting the state’s resources to those who are most vulnerable, shoring up the Commonwealth from the bottom up.  “A lot of people live their lives and don’t really need state government, but there are many people who really do need support, and who don’t get enough of it,” he said.

Kline says her experience as a teenage mother on food stamps has given her first-hand experience of what it means to struggle financially. She has endorsements from unions and progressive groups, including the local Service Employees International Union chapter, the American Federation of Teachers, Progressive Massachusetts,  Mass Alliance, and Planned Parenthood, which reflects her work as an advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights.

As a higher education administrator, she says she has gained more perspective on the ways in which the state’s educational system fails students. Kline proposes to end standardized testing entirely, replacing it with a flexible education system that personalizes learning goals for each student.

Comerford has managed a variety of nonprofit organizations, which she says has given her experience finding common ground and pushing legislators “from the other side” to advocate for progressive issues. She pointed to her work leading the budget research agency National Priorities Project as key to understanding how to build a budget that reflects priorities of her district. She said the state is “cash strapped” and that more revenue is needed to support progressive educational, social, and environmental goals. Comerford looks to health care cost containment and a progressive income tax as two ways to boost state coffers.

Her experience as campaign director for the national progressive group MoveOn has helped her launch her own expansive campaign with hundreds of volunteers and dozens of endorsements from Democratic heavy hitters in the region, such as retired congressman John Olver, retired state rep Ellen Story, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, and Franklin County Sheriff Chris Donelan.

O’Donnell, who at 38 is the youngest candidate, said he may also be the most old-fashioned when it comes to campaigning. “It’s a lot of shoe leather,” he said about his hours-long, daily door-knocking routine. “I go out to a neighborhood and knock on as many doors and talk to as many people as I can.”

He adds that of the four candidates, he alone has direct legislative experience, at least on the local level. “I’m probably the only candidate who reads zoning ordinances for entertainment,” he quipped at the Deerfield forum, adding that zoning is a powerful way for local communities to ensure affordable housing, conservation, and open space. In recent weeks, he has run out a number of concrete proposals he would like to push forward if he wins, such as opening all legislative joint conference committees to the public, taxing ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft to raise money for public transportation, and expanding east-west rail service from Boston to Williamstown.

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O’Donnell said he has received little pushback from his opponents on any of these proposals. “I take it as the highest compliment. They all agree with me,” he said.

With no GOP or independent opponent in the race, the winner of the Democratic primary will move to the Senate next year.