NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — On Tuesday, the voters in the Democratic primary for the 1st Berkshire seat in the House of Representatives will choose from among four candidates who share many of the same policy positions but offer very different backgrounds.
John Barrett III, Lisa Blackmer, Stephanie Bosley and Kevin Towle each brings something different to the table as they vie to take on presumptive Republican nominee Christine Canning in November's special election to fill the seat once filled by deceased Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams.
Towle and Bosley are relative newcomers to electoral politics, but the former is the legislative aide in Cariddi's office, and the latter carries a familiar surname as the daughter of longtime state representative Daniel Bosley. Both have experience in local government — Bosley with the town of Adams and Towle in Lanesborough.
Barrett had been the longest serving mayor in the commonwealth during his time in the corner office in North Adams' City Hall. Blackmer is a current city councilor in the Steeple City and has a background in small-town government as the treasurer and tax collector in Buckland on the Mohawk Trail and town administrator in Sandisfield. Each has a statewide perspective from his and her time as president of state government groups — the Massachusetts Mayors Association for Barrett, the Massachusetts Municipal Association for Blackmer.
The quartet have spoken separately and together in a number of venues, shared countless words on social media, worn out shoe leather and collected endorsements since July. The week before the Oct. 10 primary, iBerkshires.com posed a series of questions to each of the four candidates. Excerpts from their responses follow:
iBerkshires.com: All of the candidates have addressed the issue of inadequate state funding for elementary and secondary education in the Berkshires. How do you plan to convince the majority of legislators in the eastern part of the state, who probably would want to get more funds for their schools, too, that the inequity we perceive out here needs to be addressed?
Barrett: I was there when they put the Education Reform Act in, and I saw what the basis of it was, and basically it was the result of a lawsuit that said every kid in Massachusetts should receive the same education and the same level of funding. … There's enough people getting angry out there that the state is not adequately funding education, and they have to redirect their priorities.
You need the support of the speaker [of the House to effect change], which is Robert DeLeo, and I have a long history with him going back 20 years. He understands that and understands the impact [of state education funding] on his community. … There are different ways to go at it, but you have to sell it to the speaker and the leadership, and I have a relationship. … I don't think I'm all powerful, but I can bring this awareness.
Will it take another lawsuit like the one that led to the Education Reform Act of 1993?
Barrett: There will be another lawsuit coming. Not from me. But there will be another group coming together to say the equality in education isn't there anymore.
Blackmer: I think we start with reworking the formula itself, and it's something we have a lot of support on because I've been working on it with the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. It doesn't take into account … the percentage of students on [individualized education plans] now compared to when ed reform went into effect in '93. The other issues is how things are accounted for like teachers' health insurance.
I know we work really well not just as a Berkshire County delegation but as a Western Mass delegation so we know what we need out here, knowing that there are Boston reps who represent half a city as opposed to half a county. But you find like-minded people in the Northern Tier, places like Athol, Gardner and Orange, who face some of the same problems we do. Some of the folks on the Cape face the same problems, again, the aging population, a tax base that's mostly residential and not much business. I already have relationships built up with my work on MMA.
We have to send a message that we're an entire state, and different parts of the state have different needs. We have to provide services for students across the state, not just in Boston, Worcester and Springfield.
Bosley: I think with the three-tier [urban, suburban and rural] system that I propose, actually each tier would see a little more funding than they get now but especially rural areas like ourselves. It's easy for us to think that North Berkshire is the only community having this issue, but the majority of rural areas like ourselves are having similar issues.
But are there enough votes in the Legislature to enact change?
Bosley: I think so. I don't think a lot of people are happy with the education funding structure we have. Education is a large discussion throughout Massachusetts. I think it's time for a chance, and I think it's time to have those conversations in Boston. Obviously, I'd be a freshman legislator, and it would be difficult to have those conversations, but I'm dedicated to doing so. I think Massachusetts as a whole needs to figure out our education funding structure no matter if you're an urban school or a suburban or rural school.
Towle: What that's really going to come down to is who has the ability to build a coalition around the problem. This isn't a Berkshire County problem. This is really a Western Mass problem, and I can guarantee you, a problem for every district on the Cape as well. It's something we can work on on a bipartisan basis, and it would be a common sense piece of legislation we can build a broad coalition around. Outside of Boston, I can guarantee you everyone, if they don't have a rural [school] district in their district then they can benefit from the rural districts around them.
Why hasn't that coalition already happened?
Towle: That's an excellent question. My suggestion on that would be we haven't been seeing the effects of population decline up until this point. It's finally getting to the point where we're starting to experience the negative impacts of that situation. And I'm not going to just say it's the rural schools. There was a report recently on iBerkshires that there were almost 100 fewer students this fall in the Adams-Cheshire School District. Even North Adams is seeing this to a lesser extent. Population decline is a statewide issue. There's not one area that's immune to it. It just happens to be popping up worse in Berkshire County.
There has been a lot of talk about transportation on the campaign trail, including discussion roads, buses, trains. What one priority do you see as most attainable and worth fighting for in the next year?
Barrett: The biggest thing is making sure we get more funding for the [Berkshire Regional Transit Authority]. … That's the key to getting more employers here. Right now, there's no bus service on a Sunday, no bus service after 7 at night.
Blackmer: The biggest thing to do is increase funding for Chapter 90 because that's doable. In the past, we had $300 million in the budget. There's a need of over $600 million across the state per year to keep our roads in good repair. Obviously, $200 million [the funding level] is not going to do it, but $300 million at least gets us halfway there. It's good because people see it, people see people working on the roads. There's a visual they understand; people are filling that pothole, building that road, that sidewalk. And when we build those roads, it puts local people to work, and that's important.
Bosley: I think of course the most attainable thing would be getting more funding for infrastructure, so making those road improvements. But the thing I'm most passionate about and really want to focus on is our public transportation system and making it more accessible for people coming in and out of the area like visitors and young people attending college here. That's what I'm passionate about, but I wouldn't ignore the fact that we need money as far as improving roads and bridges and things like that.
Towle: The No. 1 thing is focusing on bus transportation. The bottom line is we need to increase funding from the state to fully fund the regional transportation authorities. … And the key difference for me from the other candidates is I want to make sure that increase in funding is tied to the ability to increase the needs of the local population. That means expanding hours past 7 p.m., before 7 a.m. and on Sundays.
A quick personal story: My wife works in hospitality, and sometimes they have to turn down qualified candidates simply because they can't get to work. At 7 a.m., you're talking about a shift change, and if the bus doesn't run until then, you can't hire that person.
Other than training the workforce to make it more attractive for employers, what can state government do to help attract new businesses to the area?
Barrett: First of all, the state shouldn't give one dime to a project unless it's going to create jobs. It spent almost a million on a MassWorks grant for Heritage State Park in , and that didn't create one job. In fact, it lost jobs. … The state can start demanding the same way we did when we built Mass MoCA that they show that it's going to create jobs.
I think the other thing is there has been no effort really in North Berkshire recently to cultivate small businesses. When we were building Mass MoCA, we didn't stop with Hardman Industrial Park. … I don't want to see us go back to being a one-industry community. I want to see economic diversity and build a stable economy.
I think the Greylock Glen, that is economic development. A hotel/motel with a conference center, a restaurant, a small bed and breakfast. All that goes into the local economy and town economy. It broadens the tax base and helps the schools. … I think that's what I'll address first.
Blackmer: Businesses have criteria when they're looking to relocate, and when we're talking about large business, they're looking for certain population levels, certain skills. Actually, taxes are not the highest priority.
What can state government do? It can promote what we have to offer. … People complain about taxes, but people move to Massachusetts because this is where they want to be.
And we need to make it easier to build a business and get some of the infrastructure in place. I know some of the challenges we face in Berkshire County is you have to drive an hour just to get to the highway — whether it's east, west or south. North is not even an option.
Bosley: I know you don't want to me to talk about about training, but one thing the state can do is fund our public education like MCLA and BCC to have programs to translate into the jobs we have existing in North Berkshire. I've heard from General Dynamics that they might need an engineer in a specific field and MCLA doesn't offer that program they needed, so making sure they have the dollars so they can expand the program within MCLA is important.
I should add that we need to make sure things like Lever Inc. are funded so they can train the entrepreneurs who want to stay in North Berkshire. Make sure they have the resources they need so they can stay and create jobs here.
Towle: I pushed for and worked with Rep. Cariddi on a program similar to what New York has with its Start-Up NY program. It's a system by which tax incentives can be granted on the state level. Why this benefits Berkshire County is we have the space, we have the work force and we have the strong feeder schools in secondary education and higher education.
You do tax increment financing at the state level, which is something the towns do a lot anyway. By removing that from the local level, we're shifting the burden of the tax revenue to the state, who can absorb more of the loss, instead of putting it on the municipalities. Many of our municipalities are at their tax levy limits. This would allow them to continue to collect the local real estate taxes and provide tax benefits at the state level.
What is the best use for the former North Adams Regional Hospital campus, and how, as a legislator, can you ensure that it comes to pass?
Barrett: I said it two years ago: We need a facility there to deal with, obviously, the mental health issues and equally an opioid addiction center. That campus has enough room to do that. … In the Legislature, we can toughen up the laws in the state about when someone receives Narcan they can't immediately leave. You have to keep them there for at least three days.
The Baker administration recommended keeping patients three days. The Legislature, for some reason, didn't go with it. Now there's been even more experience saying you have to do it.
Blackmer: The hospital has reinstated a lot of its services. That's part of it. For the part that's not being used, I think putting in some sort of addiction treatment program makes sense. I'm not an expert on addiction, but I know there are different levels of it.
Part of the legislation around that would be how it's covered by health insurance and requiring longer term treatments for patients … to make it more economically viable and more effective for the patient.
Bosley: I think that a legislator is a good connector and a good conversation starter. I think that's something this position can allow for. One of the things I'd be interested in is learning more about [Berkshire Health System's] plans for BMC North and how many services they plan to reinstate.
As I've talked about on the campaign trail, I'm very passionate about making sure we address the opioid crisis with more programs, services and rehabilitation. That's something I'd like to see either at the BMC North campus or maybe somewhere else that Berkshire Health System could be a piece in.
Towle: My No. 1 priority, and my campaign has been endorsed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, is to expand services there as much as possible. Realistically, that's probably going to involve some pretty vigorous advocacy in the state budget process to make that happen. It's pretty clear Berkshire Health Systems doesn't want to spend the money to reopen it. I would work through the budget process or bonding to see if we can restore that hospital. That left 30,000 people in North County without the ability to have their health care needs addressed.
The No. 1 priority is reopening the hospital. If that can't be done, I'd like to look at how we can use the facilities to address the opioid situation and open the space for addiction recovery.
Can you name one priority or policy proposal from one of your opponents that you disagree with.
Barrett: Most of them after I made my announcement adopted my policies. They started talking about workforce development, started talking about the Greylock Glen at least a little bit. No one mentioned it before I did. Nobody mentioned broadband except for the last mile. If nothing else, I got them talking and hopefully the area's leaders will, too.
I don't really think they talked about education funding, really. That's because I've been there and dealt with it, which is the main reason I got into this race rather than sit around and do nothing.
I didn't propose any outlandish things. I didn't say I was in favor of something without knowing the price tag of things, and I do believe most of the things I'm talking about can be paid for by the reallocation of resources. If I'm there long enough, they'll come around. I'm convinced of that. I've seen it in my other treks into politics in the past. You try to sell them on the merits of a plan, and, eventually, they'll come around. I learned that from the best, Ted Kennedy: You go in there and explain it and eventually they'll come around.
Blackmer: I think my differentiation is more about my experience than my policy positions. We're all Democrats.
We're all informed by our experiences. I'm a parent and a grandparent. No one else gets the balancing of family, career and civic obligations like I do. I've also worked in the private sector. … I've been the head for a statewide agency that advocated for all 351 cities and towns. My experience working at the state level is current and relevant. … I've worked in different sized communities. I've been in town hall and heard people say: We don't have broadband, we don't have this or that.
I guess that's where my difference is as opposed to different policies.
Bosley: I think that there's not really a policy position that I disagree with. I think we as candidates all have different backgrounds and experiences that inform the way we're going to implement programs and services and the way we're going to view this job and how it should be done.
I can't think of one policy I've heard my opponents discuss and said, ‘No, we shouldn't do that.' What differentiates us is our background and experience and the way we're going to go about things. We've all identified the same areas we could offer improvement for North Berkshire.
Towle: There's nothing that's blatantly obvious that I think would be the wrong direction. The big issues are economic development, transportation, education, and I think we all pretty much agree on the substance. The key difference that sets us apart is our background and our approach to addressing those problems.
I'm the only candidate running who has any experience working with the Legislature. I've worked in the Legislature for the last year every single day. Ever since Gail passed, I had to step up and take over the local office and overseeing both offices. I've built relationships with other members of the delegation and, in some form or another, I've worked with every member of the house or senate on issues and on these issues in particular.
The other approach is working with others and building coalitions. … I don't expect on Day 1 to march in and see the governor or the speaker of the house and say, ‘This is the way it's going to be. You need to support me on this.' It's about working with others, often in the background, forming coalitions. And I have that experience. I know exactly who to see on particular issues and exactly who I need to go to for assistance.
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