U.S. Rep. John W. Olver's 1st Massachusetts District is under the gun for redistricting of the state's congressional seats that calls to lose one representative.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire County sent a powerful message to the State House on Saturday — Berkshire County is one.
The special Joint Committee on Redistricting hearing Saturday at City Hall drew more people than any of the seven prior hearings the committee held across the state and had about double the amount of testimony, said committee Chairman Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.
The committee heard 35 testimonies over more than two hours and nearly all delivered the same message — do not divide the county into separate districts and keep two representatives in Western Massachusetts.
"I urge you as a committee to reject any plan that would come before you that would split Berkshire County," U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst said during his testimony.
The committee has been gathering opinions and information from the meetings and will later draw out new district maps. Saturday's was the eighth hearing and residents and local officials made it clear that Western Massachusetts needs two districts — one for the Springfield urban area and one for small cities and towns.
Olver said the challenges the county faces — such as expansion of broadband, regional health systems and transportation — are not shared by the urban areas.
"All of Berkshire County together are one — as a whole — community of common interest," Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., Central Berkshire registrar of deeds, said. "Cutting out representation by 50 percent would be a terrible outcome. Small towns and small cities — like my hometown of Pittsfield — need a representative."
Most commonly cited were proposals drawn by the Boston-based organization Fair Districts Mass. That group's plan would place Springfield into the same district as the county — pitting Olver and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, against each other in the next election. Other cited proposals would bisect the county into north and south regions.
Many who testified felt that resources and funding would then be shuttled off toward the city instead of to the rural towns and the county's two small cities. Additionally, residents feared they would gain a congressman who does not have a true understanding of the issues.
"We have tremendously benefited from Representative Olver's complete understanding of the county," Pittsifeld Mayor James Ruberto testified. "I strongly urge, I strong encourage, that Berkshire County not be divided and maintain the integrity of the rural district."
Mayor James Ruberto was one of many local officials who testified Saturday asking the committee to keep the county's seats in tact.
However, the 1st Massachusetts congressional district lost population and that district must grow by about 82,000 people, so remaining the status quo will not happen.
"This is a math problem and we need to add 90,000 people to this district," committee member Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, said.
Nuciforo, a former state senator who previously announced plans to run for the 1st Mass. seat, proposed adding Northampton, Hadley and South Hadley as well as some rural towns in Worcester and Middlesex counties to maintain the district.
Most of the discussion was based on the U.S. House of Representatives because the state is being reduced from 10 representatives to nine.
The committee also needs to redraw lines for the state House of Representatives and Senate, which could result in the loss of one representative for the county. Very few of those testifying referred to the more local issue, which is not unusual for these hearings.
"Everybody is trying to defend their congressional seat," Rosenberg said.
While those who testified did not voice specific concerns with the state representation, the concern over dilution of Berkshire County's say in government remained.
The committee has four hearings remaining before it begins to redraw the maps.
"We're not going to begin drawing maps until all 13 hearings are complete," Rosenberg said. "This stage is all about listening and learning."
Testimonials came from the county's various towns and organizations, elected officials including state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, James Larkin from the state Farm Bureau, Washington Selectman Michael Case and Middlefield Selectwoman Noreen Suriner, who both ran for state representative last year, Ross Dindio of Dalton, Rockwell Museum's Laurie Norton Moffat, 1Berkshire CEO Staurt Chase, and Jeffrey Ferrin of Pittsfield.
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Berkshire County represents 1.2% of the state's population and has lost people over the last decade. When Billy Bulger was president of the Massachusetts Senate he once summed up the power that Boston/eastern Mass. holds over the big decisions in state politics - "When the rubes go home, we cut the cards." Western MA is not exactly dealing from a position of strength here.