Easy being Green

Before he stepped down to become clerk magistrate of Ware District Court in May after nearly 27 years in the State House, Democratic state Rep. William P. Nagle of Northampton hadn’t faced a serious challenger in 20 years. That made his 1st Hampshire District seat seem safe to hand down to his longtime aide, Peter Kocot. But Nagle’s allegiance to House Speaker Thomas Finneran, which rankled liberal activists here, has drawn two candidates of the environmentalist Green Party into the race for representative against the former majority leader’s heir apparent. With no special election in sight, these two political upstarts are making their case that the House could use a fresh perspective–and the district a new voice on Beacon Hill.

Michael Aleo, 28, a South Hadley High School special-education teacher, and Paki Wieland, 57, a family therapist and professor at Antioch New England Graduate School, in Keene, NH, a Waldorf teacher-training college, are both vying for Nagle’s seat, sensing what Wieland calls an opening for “a different kind of politics.” If elected, Wieland or Aleo would be the only Green Party representative in a state-level office nationwide, and the only member of the Massachusetts Legislature who is not a Democrat or Republican. Neither has run for elected office before.

Although they can’t start collecting signatures to get on the ballot until an election date is set, Wieland and Aleo, both of Northampton, have formed committees and are on the campaign trail already. The district includes Hatfield, Southampton, and Westhampton.

Kocot, meanwhile, can’t even talk about a campaign publicly for fear of breaking state election laws. As a state employee, he is barred from electioneering on the job. Kocot plans to tend to Nagle’s constituent work until the date for a special election is announced by Speaker Finneran.

Finneran has declined to comment on why it is taking so long to do so. State Rep. Paul Haley of Weymouth, former chairman of House Ways and Means, left office on January 1 and James Murphy was elected to succeed him on May 22. Some say Finneran’s waiting for redistricting to be completed first. But if he doesn’t call an election soon, there won’t be time to hold one before the regular election in 2002.

In the Pioneer Valley, the delay has been taken personally. “Finneran may be dragging his feet on setting a date to even some political score, or he may. . .be stalling simply because he can. The reason does not matter,” the Daily Hampshire Gazette editorialized in late summer. “His behavior is a dereliction of his duties, and shows an arrogance and disregard for voters that has no place in our Legislature.” In September, three residents of the district filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court demanding an election, backed by a petition signed by more than 1,000 voters.

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Aleo and Wieland both say that Finneran’s inaction is typical of a government that’s become unresponsive to the people it serves. “Part of the Green voice is to say it’s not just Finneran but that for any Speaker to have so much power is a mockery of the political process,” says Aleo.

But Finneran’s is not the only mockery going on. Calling the empty legislative seat a matter of “taxation without representation,” Wieland threw a Revolutionary War-style tea party over Labor Day weekend. Amid some high-flown rhetoric, including talk of “bringing the bully to heel,” about 40 enthusiastic Green Party supporters threw a box of tea–green, of course–into the Connecticut River. Being environmentally sensitive, they had it attached to a tether and fished it out–and then threw it in again.