Whipps seeks third term in 2nd Franklin seat


Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2018 8:28:23 AM

ATHOL — Rep. Susannah Whipps says “It’s all relationships” – both on Beacon Hill and back in the 2nd Franklin House District.

Whipps, a former selectwoman and a business owner, has plenty of connections in her native town of Athol and neighboring Orange, and her decision last year to switch party affiliation from Republican to Independent has changed the nature of her relationship with fellow legislators, and perhaps, with some district voters.

The 49-year-old, seventh-generation Athol resident has come a long way since narrowly losing her first bid for the seat to Orange Democrat Denise Andrews in 2012, then in 2014, defeating Andrews 55 to 45 percent following a primary battle.

Running unopposed in 2016 for the last time as a Republican, she was re-elected. (She also changed from her married name, Lee, after a divorce.)

With 65 percent of district voters unenrolled in a party, she said at the time, the change to independent “will allow me to more effectively utilize the relationships I have developed with the members and leadership on both sides of the aisle, and will allow me to better serve all of the people of my district, without the obligation of toeing any particular party line,” Whipps continued. “I want my party affiliation to reflect my position as an independent voice for the people of my district.”

If re-elected on Nov. 6, she said she’s looking forward to caucusing with Democrats, who make up the overwhelming majority of the House.

The switch cost Whipps her minority-party seat on the Ethics Committee, but she’s continued to serve on the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery and is also on the Elder Affairs, Municipalities and Government and Tourism committees.

“We’ve got a lot of need in this area,” says Whipps, in whose Main Street office her aide provides constituent services. “So many people are reaching out to us on a daily basis, especially with the opioid crisis. There’s a lot of pressure on families locally, and the real work is when somebody comes in door.”

Whether referring people to an appropriate resource, simply offering a place for people to walk in for a cup of tea and a chance to share their ordeal or interceding with an agency, Whipps says the connections and relationships she has made are key.

“They’re raising their grandchildren and want to stay under the radar with (the Department of Children and Families) because they’re nervous, or we’ve had people with questionable legal status in this country coming in talking to us,” she said. “It’s very eye-opening the level of fear people have.”

Whipps has also affected policy, as when she learned that MassHealth stipulated that anyone seeking medically assisted treatment needed to get a doctor’s prior approval.

“That was a barrier to treatment,” she says. “We explained it and got it straightened out, so now people don’t have to jump through those hoops.”

Especially at a time when the Western Mass. delegation is facing tremendous turnover, “Experience matters,” Whipps says, pointing to the slogan on a blue campaign flier.

When Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, also elected in 2014, vetoed opioid task force funding in the budget, she told him she planned to vote an override. His advice, “You need to vote your district,” fueled her sense of independence, she says.

Whipps called out members of the Baker administration to defend a group fighting current plans to log old-growth trees in Wendell State Forest.

“I’ve talked with my colleagues about coming up future legislation where (the state) can’t log strictly for profit. We understand forest management, but with regard to century old trees, wetlands, habitat and wildlife, maybe some of this stuff we need to just let be and not look at a quick buck and cut down 100 year-old oaks.”

For Whipps, “Massachusetts isn’t really Republican versus Democrat. It’s more of an up and down, haves/ have nots. The rural reps do stick together, the Western Mass reps have one voice. We rely on each other.”

She points to local activists and House colleagues who “educated me” when a gas pipeline was planned to cut through the district. Whipps often vote with the largely Democratic Western Mass delegation, even filing bills jointly with Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, such as one calling for a study Payment in Lieu of Taxes to towns.

Yet in May, she was one of only 18 legislators voting against House 4517, the “red flag” gun license bill, calling that “kind of a protest vote in the sense that I wanted to talk about adult male suicide, about suicide in general and the issues that lead up to that. If you look at the area between Winchendon and Erving, we have the highest rate of adult male suicide in the commonwealth. When it came to the floor (for a vote) it ended up being more of a gun bill than a mental health bill. In protest, i just said no.”

Whipps was also one of only 15 House members to vote in June against House 4670, which empowers the courts to take firearms away from “dangerous individuals,” which she said the digitizing of juvenile crime records included old crimes, and there needs to be a way for people to expunge their record of old, nonviolent crimes.

Democrat John Arena of Gill, who’s challenging her re-election bid, criticizes her for working part-time at her family’s manufacturing company, Whipps Inc.

Whipps says she feels “a lot of guilt” after leaving the business she co-owns with her siblings. “I do the contract negotiations, so Irun in once a week, grab my folders and like normal people might read their kids a bedtime story, I sit in bed and read contracts.”

Having a connection with workers there and other people in the district is part of why Whipps feels she deserves to be re-elected.

“I think my life experience, never mind my experience in the Legislature – has set me up to do this job very well,” she says. “When people come in the door (for help), I think they feel more comfortable talking to someone who gets it, who has life experience, who has the network of contacts we’ve built up.”

On the Web: www.repwhipps.com

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