Lively debate for 2nd Franklin district
ERVING — In front of a crowd of 70 people at the French King Highway Bowling Center, Representative Denise Andrews and her Republican challenger, Susannah Whipps Lee, both promised jobs for the Second Franklin District if elected.
With Gardner News Senior News editor Andres Caamano as moderator, it was the last showdown in the county’s only contested and fiery election before voters turn out Nov. 6.
The two are fighting to represent the newly configured district on Beacon Hill. The district was expanded to cover 12 towns, including Erving, Gill, New Salem, Orange, Warwick, Wendell, Athol, Royalston, Phillipston, Templeton and Petersham.
The third candidate, Richard F. Schober Jr., an independent, had withdrawn from the debate, citing a conflict with his new work schedule. Schober, 55, is a laid-off Web production manager and website designer-developer, running for his first elected post as an independent candidate.
From the start of the 1 1∕ 2-hour debate, Lee, the chair of the Athol Board of Selectmen, sought to strike a contrast between herself and Andrews, the freshman incumbent.
Though the two share the same gender, they differ on how they see the handling of women’s issues, such as wage earnings and job growth.
“Men, you die before us. We’re left to live without pensions and companionship,” Andrews said. “We have women without transportation and a need for jobs. I really get diversity. Harassment still happens.”
Lee, however, said the biggest problem isn’t women and the work force, but the availability of jobs in that work force.
“We need work. The biggest problem is the lack of employment and municipal aid,” Lee said. “To say woman are not able to take care of themselves if the husband passes ... I grew up with a lot of strong women.”
Halfway through the debate, the candidates had the chance to address the elephant in this election — the drug allegations Andrews brought against Lee in September to the Athol Police Department, claiming an unnamed source provided her with a tip. A police investigation, however, cleared Lee of any drug-related accusations.
“I think it is getting more air time than it should,” Andrews asserted. “What I am doing is to stay focused on my job as a state rep. I want to be crystal clear.”
Lee took the opportunity to pepper her opponent for answers and an apology.
“The original concern was Ms. Andrews making a false report. That is a closed investigation. The chief determined I did nothing wrong,” Lee said pointedly. “There has never been an apology. When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry. People in this district didn’t receive an apology when they discovered their representative was working in New Jersey ... One of us has very poor judgment.”
Andrews kept her thoughts to herself, stating she “will reserve judgment and comment” until after the Attorney General completes an investigation of the original complaint and how the Athol investigation was handled.
The two agreed the looming Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is the biggest threat to the environment, but took different approaches on the handling of the renewal of the plant’s license.
“The Massachusetts Legislature, I’m not sure how much authority they have to tell Vermont what to do. I have faith they’ll come to some sort of solution,” Lee said.
Spending 17 years in the manufacturing industry, Andrews said she takes Vermont Yankee seriously.
“What do I do? I attended an evacuation meeting in Greenfield. It’s not in my area of control, but it is in my area of influence,” Andrews said. “We can protest, get arrested, write letters to the governor of Vermont.”
The two weren’t completely dissimilar. The two candidates both profess the need for job creation in the district.
To Lee, the 43-year-old co-owner of Whipps Inc., a flood-gate manufacturer founded 44 years ago by her father George Whipps, the main issue is “jobs, jobs and jobs.”
“People are concerned on how they will support their families and continue to live their lives,” Lee said. “Jobs keep people together. When we lose jobs, people lose their homes and move to other communities.”
“The greatest display of the lack of jobs is when an incredibly qualified woman has to go to New Jersey for a job,” Lee said pointedly, referring to Andrews taking on another full-time job in New Jersey, while serving in the Statehouse. Andrews has since left that job.
Andrews also made jobs a hallmark of her campaign.
“Jobs are number one to lift everyone’s life. We have the talent. We need to get the jobs here,” Andrews said.
In the House, Andrews said she worked on labor and workforce development, helping to create a six-town district from Greenfield to Athol and convening an economic development council that met to create a 10-year plan.
Though Lee questioned whether this 10-year plan is still valid in the new district, Andrews asserted that issues are similar in both the old and new district.
Andrews and Lee struck a chord with one another when both stated their opposition to a large-scale biomass plant.
In the past, Andrews opposed such plants like the Pioneer Renewable Energy Plant.
“As an engineer, I believe in data and performance,” Andrews said. “These facilities are low efficiency and not a good investment. The concerns on the air quality and conditions put on families are unacceptable.”
As for small-scale plants, Andrews said she will do “due diligence and keep an open mind.”
Admitting to not being an expert on the issue, Lee added that the industry should be saved as an opportunity for private companies and not the government.
“This is something I’ll look to others for help. I’ll never admit that I know everything. I pride myself on being able to go to experts to find out where they stand,” Lee said. “I will also find out where the people stand. I’m not here to tell them what to do.”
Both stated they supported renewable energy, such as wind and solar.