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Comerford wins Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District with write-in campaign

  • Jo Comerford, center, talks with Clare Higgins and Michael Aleo during an election night party at Union Station, Tuesday, in Northampton. Comerford won a four-way contest in the Democratic primary for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District in the state Senate. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, September 06, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — With all the votes counted Wednesday morning, Jo Comerford notched a decisive victory in the Democratic primary election for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District Senate seat.

“It’s an incredible honor to win this race,” Comerford said, “to have the opportunity to serve this district that I love so much in the state Senate.”

However, a look into the workings of Comerford’s highly organized write-in campaign showed that there was nothing accidental about her win.

A former executive director of MoveOn, Comerford led a field of four candidates with 14,196 votes, or more than 53 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. Her nearest rival, Northampton educator and women’s rights advocate Chelsea Kline, had 10,823 votes or nearly 41 percent of the vote. Kline was the only candidate whose name was on the ballot.

The other two candidates, both write-ins, were Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell who received 939 votes, and Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services Director Steven Connor, also of Northampton, who garnered 552 votes.

The Senate election drew an unusual number of write-in candidates because the district’s longtime legislator, Sen. Stan Rosenberg, resigned after the filing deadline, after a Senate Ethics Committee report found that he had failed to protect the Senate from the behavior of his husband, Bryon Hefner. Hefner is set to go on trial on a number of charges, including sexual assault.

Two other write-in candidates, David Murphy and David Morin, dropped out before the primary election,

Kline was on the ballot because she got into the race prior to Rosenberg’s resignation.

“I want to congratulate Jo Comerford on her victory, and Ryan O’Donnell and Steve Connor for running honest campaigns focused on our communities,” Kline said in a letter conceding the race. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity throughout this campaign to advocate for working families and vulnerable people who are all too often left behind. The work continues, and I will not stop fighting for real change, even when it’s not politically expedient.”

Tim Vercellotti, a political science professor at Western New England University, said the race was an unusual one for a variety of reasons, including the write-in component.

“It’s very difficult for a write-in candidate to win,” Vercellotti said.

However, he noted that, “Jo Comerford was not your typical write-in candidate.”

Of the four candidates still running on election day, Comerford was the last to enter the race. However, she amassed an army of more than 650 registered volunteers and raised more than $121,000 as of the last campaign finance report.

“That was the real takeaway — the sheer number of volunteers,” Vercellotti said.

Comerford also garnered high-profile endorsements from the likes of Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, former U.S. Rep. John Olver and political educator and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Comerford, 55, gave a lot of credit to her team, saying she had the region’s best “kitchen cabinet.”

“Some of the best minds with whom I’ve ever worked,” she said, listing Pamela Schwartz, Michael Aleo, Tom Lesser, Clare Higgins, and Elizabeth Silver.

She also noted the grassroots support the campaign drew on, prominently demonstrated by her campaign’s large number of volunteers.

“That’s extraordinary,” Comerford said, on the more than 650 volunteers.

She also gave some of the many different ways people volunteered, from sharing things on social media, to writing letters to the editor to knocking on doors.

“We had many channels firing at once,” she said, saying that the campaign encompassed both an online and an on-the-ground community.

There were also 41 public house parties thrown for Comerford, as well as private events.

“We went there first, to the people,” Comerford said.

Comerford said this grassroots effort contributed to her fundraising.

“In a good campaign, the strategies intersect,” she said.

Additionally, she said, 86.2 percent of donations to her campaign came from in-district, the last time she checked.

Comerford said she always viewed her status as a write-in candidate as an impediment to overcome.

“We did every single thing we knew how to do to break down a barrier,” she said.

Some of the things the campaign did was release a song, create videos, and come out with animations.

“Because I’m a write-in candidate … we calculated that we had to reach a voter eight times, with the message of my candidacy,” Comerford said.

She said this could come in the form of a door knock, a newspaper endorsement or a radio jingle, and that her campaign mapped out how it would make these “touches” happen.

Comerford said the campaign tried out a number of ideas.

“No good idea went unexplored,” she said.

She also noted that a number of these ideas didn’t work out. One of them was her “Cup of Joe with Jo” series, which she said was not a success because her candidacy was not enough of a draw in and of itself. Instead, she said that having individuals organize house parties turned out to be the more effective tactic for bringing people in.

Then there’s the policy component of Comerford’s campaign.

“I ran on a staunchly progressive platform,” said Comerford, noting her support of policies like single-payer health care and free higher education.

She said the “win number,” for her campaign was 7,775, based on past primaries, and she characterized winning more than 14,000 votes as remarkable.

Still, she said, the campaign never had an expectation that it would win, although it did hope.

“You pray for the bus, and then you run like hell,” said Comerford. “This is how I live. This is my own adage.”

Although this was Comerford’s first campaign for elected office, she’s been involved in politics for a long time, and noted the campaign experience working for MoveOn.org gave her.

“I got to learn from the best,” she said.

Comerford will have no general election opponents on the November ballot. In the meantime, she is going to seek a short-term job, and plans on meeting with officials in all 24 of the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District’s communities.

She also said she has been in contact with members of the western Massachusetts delegation.

“We have to map our own priorities,” she said. “We have to make those plans.”

As for what her first priority will be once she gets to the Statehouse, Comerford said she would focus on education.

The last major candidate to win a write-in campaign in the area was Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who won his first Democratic Party primary for the 2nd Hampshire District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a write-in. Scibak earned 29.5 percent of the vote in that election and won by 78 votes.

“I thought the fact that there were three write-ins actually helped,” Scibak said of this year’s Senate campaign, noting that it meant that multiple candidates were educating people about the write-in choice.

He also said he had expected a write-in candidate to win, and was not surprised that it was Comerford.

He noted Comerford’s endorsements, as well as that she had “worked her tail off.”

Additionally, Scibak observed, “She spent the most amount of money.”

Before Scibak, incumbent 2nd Hampshire District Rep. William Carey, D-Easthampton, won a write-in campaign for his seat in 1978 in the general election after losing the Democratic primary.

Scibak said he had cited this precedent of a winning write-in candidate in his own campaign, and he knew write-in campaigns in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District had cited his campaign’s success as well.

“Now you’ve got Jo Comerford,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.