PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire County residents will be able to hear pitches next month from all five Democrats aspiring for the governor's office.
The Berkshire Brigades is hosting a meet-and-greet for the gubernatorial candidates at Itam Lodge on Sunday, Jan. 26, from 1 to 4. Also expected to join the lineup are Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and other down-ticket posts, as well as state party officers. (Tickets are $25.)
It's not easy corralling (or cajoling) five gubernatorial candidates into one location, so the forum is a testament to the growing profile of the Brigades, the county's Democratic organizing arm.
"I think they all realize how important the Berkshires is to their vote," said Brigade Chairwoman Sheila Murray last week. "They saw that with the Markey campaign. They felt it was worth coming out. ...
"I think that it has made a difference to not only the candidates but to the people in the Berkshires: We are connected to Boston ... we're not just out here anymore."
Murray said all five candidates — Joseph Avellone, Donald Berwick, Martha Coakley, Stephen Grossman and Juliette Kayyem — are confirmed for the date.
All of them have already made the trip west to the Brigades' office on North Street to meet with members and interested citizens. Murray said it's a way for them to measure support, such as when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was making up her mind whether to run a few years ago.
"We've been bringing them out one at a time. It has worked well and it's given them a chance to test the waters," she said. But for voters, "it's hard to decide when you see them a month apart, or five months apart.
"It's like, who's who?"
January's event, before the caucuses for state convention delegates and as candidates are gearing up for their primary runs, gives both candidates and potential campaign workers a chance to size each other up. She's hoping for a good turnout to help get voters informed about who's running.
"Part of the reason of the forum, by lining them all up, people can see who they really like and not like and who they would want to work for," said Murray. Conversely, candidates can connect with people willing to "get out the vote." "They need to know they're here."
The state Democratic Party definitely knows now what the Brigades can do. The organization was launched in 2004 as part of the local GOTV for John Kerry's presidential bid and re-energized for high-profile campaigns after that. In 2012, it registered some 3,500 voters in Berkshire County.
The idea has been to bring the many Democrats and town committees together as a strong voice for the Berkshires, particularly pertinent in a state that's practically under one-party rule.
Murray said the founders, particularly Sherwood Guernsey and Lee Harrington, "have built a good base and we could springboard out of it."
The question, she said, was "how can we keep people involved ... not just from campaign to campaign?"
That became apparent after 2012's presidential election and Warren victory, and it led to the permanent regional office. It has also developed committees for various issues and has a public access show, "Common Sense," on Pittsfield Community Television. Campaign directors are calling, and candidates are eager to show up and have their pictures taken against the "the Wall" — the lawn sign-plastered wall in the Brigades office that serves at the backdrop for speakers.
"It's the only solid wall and it's the all of the winners with all their lawns signs and and placards," said Murray. "It's a great wall and they like standing in front of it. ... We only had a handful until the first event, then they were asking, 'where's mine?' "
She's sure the turning point for the organization was this year's special election for U.S. Senate that was won by Edward Markey.
"I still think it was the Markey election," she said. "They showed us the map and the Berkshires just kept getting bluer and bluer and bluer. I think that had a lot to do with it ... how strong we are."