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Students press state Senate candidates

  • Ben Moss-Horwitz of Northampton High School, front, moderates a student-organized candidates forum Wednesday at the school. The forum heard from candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg. For The Recorder/Sarah Crosby



For the Recorder
Thursday, June 14, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — On Wednesday evening, the candidates for Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate seat fielded questions from a group of Pioneer Valley residents who have become an increasingly notable political force in 2018 — local students.

“Our voices aren’t represented in a vote, so I think it’s really important for us to help our community decide who to represent us on Beacon Hill,” said student organizer Cherilyn Strader. “Through the power of our questions and our knowledge and our organizing power, we can help choose the best representatives for our community.”

The forum, which drew about 200 people, was hosted by Northampton High School Democrats, Environmental Club, Feminist Collective, Gender Sexuality Alliance, along with youth activist groups Pioneer Valley Students For Gun Control and Youth Rise Together. It was co-sponsored by two dozen local advocacy groups.

Only Chelsea Kline of Northampton will be on the Sept. 4 primary ballot because the results of the ethics investigation into state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg were released a day after the deadline to submit nomination papers. Rosenberg, who was originally planning to run for re-election, resigned from the seat after the report concluded he had violated the trust placed in him as Senate president by inaction concerning his husband, Bryon Hefner, who is accused of sexual harassment and assault and of interfering in Senate business.

Five other candidates, however, have launched write-in campaigns for the seat: David J. Murphy, an Amherst attorney who was a former aide for Ted Kennedy; Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell; Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services Director Steven Connor of Northampton; UMass Amherst faculty senate graduate assistant David Morin; and Northampton resident Jo Comerford, a former campaign director for the progressive advocacy organization MoveOn.org.

The crowded candidates table agreed generally on many issues, such as emphatically supporting single-payer health care, passing the Fair Share Amendment to tax millionaires and pushing for renewable energy, but had their own focus points for the issues.

Comerford focused on her activist work, providing specific examples of times when she mobilized to push for a national gun control measure by bringing common-sense gun owners to lobby in Washington, D.C., or, just this week, called on senators to advocate for carbon pricing, banning pipeline expansion and creating renewable portfolio standards as part of a Senate energy bill currently in the Statehouse.

She said her strengths include her policy and organizing expertise, and “love of participatory democracy.”

Connor emphasized his upbringing by his “first feminist role model,” a mother who was the primary breadwinner for the family, and a father who was asked how he “baby-sat” so often.

Connor also spoke about his work helping marginalized communities, particularly veterans and people with disabilities. He said he would fight to increase state supplements to Social Security income for vulnerable people.

“I spend every day with people who are barely making it,” Connor said.

O’Donnell referenced the stances he’s taken and work he’s done on the Northampton City Council, suggesting ideas like using campaign finance reform to decrease the health care industry’s lobbying power to in turn lower the cost of health care and improve its quality.

“I have concerns that a region that already struggles and is already neglected by Boston will be further left behind,” O’Donnell said. “We need a senator who will be ready on day one.”

O’Donnell said western Massachusetts needs legislators who will push for the region’s ideals, even in the face of opposition or lukewarm response from others, such as the governor.

Morin described how he will be self-funding his campaign because he does not want to be beholden to donors.

“If you elect me, I’ll slap that ‘state legislator’ bumper sticker on my 1997 Toyota Corolla and drive to Boston to represent you,” Morin said.

Along with supporting strict gun control measures, opposing pipeline expansion and wanting “no fracking in Massachusetts whatsoever, ever,” Morin said there needs to be more emphasis on mental health care, the lack of which, he said, is at the core of many problems in our society today.

Kline said she “knows what it’s like to struggle and be vulnerable” and said a particular issue she’d like to work on is ending homelessness. This, she said, she would work to accomplish by addressing the myriad causes of homelessness with criminal justice reform, building more job creation and training programs, and providing affordable housing.

“There are some who say I should stop talking about my experiences and focus on policy,” Kline said. “But we need authentic advocates with lived experiences.”

Murphy said he doesn’t see much difference in policy between his fellow candidates, but said the region “needs someone who knows how to get things done on Beacon Hill.”

He said he would push for national gun control measures and named income stratification as the issue he thinks is most underrepresented, saying a strong middle class is key for a healthy democracy.

Student organizers also asked how the candidates would advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, how they would make schools safer in light of school shootings and the recent lockdown scare at JFK Middle School and what legislative actions they would take in light of the MeToo movement, which has highlighted issues of sexual harassment, assault and abuse of power across the country.

At the end of the first candidate forum of their campaigns, Morin said he thinks the region will be in good hands with any of the candidates on the stage, and other candidates said having a choice serves the voters well.

“The region is in the midst of a seismic shift,” Comerford said. “But this could be an opportunity for great regional transformation.”

Candidates for 1st Hampshire District for the House of Representatives also answered questions as part of the forum.