Michael Case, left, Paul Mark and Stefan Racz meet Monday night for a televised debate at BCC with David Cachet of Pittsfield Community Television.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Candidates hoping to represent the sprawling 2nd District on Beacon Hill met for the second time Monday for a televised debate at Berkshire Community College that covered topics from charter schools to raw milk.
Democrat Paul Mark of Hancock, Republican Michael F. Case of Washington and independent Stefan G. Racz had debated earlier in the day on the local Vox Radio station; Monday night it was in front of the cameras for The Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television, with David Cachat of PCTV's CityLink moderating.
Perhaps the most interesting thing coming out of the night was that the three candidates weren't all that far apart. They said communities should have control and input on major developments within their borders, such as casinos and wind power, and funding for education and infrastructure — as long as the state paid its fair share.
Their differences were more matters of degree with a few exceptions, such as legalizing marijuana: Case, a retired police officer and military veteran, was against; Racz for, and Mark, an attorney and telecom worker, only for medical marijuana.
They stressed the importance of farming and open space for the largely rural, crescent-shaped region that slices through Berkshire County and into Hampshire and Franklin counties.
"We are providing some of the most gorgeous views in the state," said Racz, a Buckland selectman. "We need to preserve that for future generations."
While supporting alternative energy, he was concerned that wind-turbine siting here would mean ridgelines and the destruction of the environmental beauty. The loss of farms and failure to preserve open space could put lands at risk for developers.
Case said he supports wind turbines but only if the community has significant input and agricultural programs for farming. "I've spoken to many farmers who own a lot of land," who may be land wealthy but cash poor, he said. "They're just barely getting by. We need to give them tax breaks."
Mark said he did not support the state's wind siting law, which limits local input, but would back the expansion of raw milk sales to home delivery. He also spoke in favor of agricultural cooperatives such as Denis Guyer, the man they're trying to replace, is setting up in Dalton.
Racz said he didn't support milk price regulation; Mark and Case said they did, with Case adding only if it was not to the detriment of the farmer.
Both Case and Racz said they'd support a single destination casino in the state because, said Case, "it would draw other than just gambling because it would have shows, and other conventions ... it would be good for the economy of Massachusetts." Racz said he believed "one casino would be a testing ground for income to the state," as long as it did not infringe upon current cultural venues.
Mark said he supported the Senate bill that had planned for three casinos. "I don't think gambling is a magic cure-all but I don't see anybody else really proposing anything to make new jobs," he said. "I am against slot parlors and racinos because they don't have the job creation element so you would only get the bad parts of gambling."
All three said the state's health insurance reform had worked well to expand access but didn't think it had done well enough in controlling costs.
"I don't think it was the best solution, I think a single-payer would have been a much better solution," said Mark. "We could serve as a model for the nation."
Racz said the reform was an innovative idea but the state hadn't felt the total negative impact because elements of the federal health insurance reform will begin kicking in in Janury. "There's not enough money right now," he said, in part because insurance companies were raising rates. "We have to focus extremely heavily on insurance companies and the drug companies. ... make sure they're towing the line."
Health insurance has improved greatly, said Case, but "what we don't know yet is what the cost is going to be. I've heard as high as 42 percent of the state budget is going to health care now. ... Single-payer may be a dream down the road but not right now with the economy the way it is."
They said they would advocate for the state to pay its fair share of the regional school transportation. Racz said the state should take on the contracts for busing and let the schools use the money for education. They agreed it was important to the students to ensure so-called circuit breaker special education funding from the state and were leery of charter schools.
"It's a good idea but you don't want them taking money away from the public school system," said Mark. Case said parents should have the option, but "it's a drain on the public schol and they don't take the children who have problems."
Racz said regular public schools should be held to the same standards of review since charter schools can be disbanded if they don't live up to their mission.
Case said more incentives should be offered to attract and retain businesses. "We need to make the business climate in Massachusetts competitive with other states." Mark said the new creative economy should be supported and bringing health care costs under control and broadband to the region will help spur growth. "Local jobs mean local revenue."
Racz said one of his initiatives is the 2nd Berkshire Business Alliance, a conduit for small businesses in the district to ally and bring the issues affecting them to the attention of the representative. "You have to remember, small business carried us through this recession; they didn't get bailouts."
All three said they would have voted against last year's increase in the sales tax.
Each pledged to do their best to listen to constituents. Case said he would keep an office, likely in Dalton, for constituent services and a staffer to meet with selectmen throughout the district to help keep him apprised. Racz said he would "not favor the town of Buckland over the town of Dalton, Windsor or Peru" and he would get feedback from the towns.
Mark, at 31 the youngest of the candidates, annoyed his opponents with claims that he would keep going to all 22 towns in the district because he was "the only with the energy to keep doing it." The older men said their energy was fine, thank you very much, although Case had a little fun later with Mark by pretending to nod off during his opponent's closing remarks.
The debate will be rebroadcast on PCTV; we should have audio up later Tuesday.