Barrett Challenger Says He’s In “For the Long Haul”

By Susan BushPrint Story | Email Story
City resident Walter L. Smith Jr. is planning to challenge North Adams Mayor John Barrett III during the city's November election.
North Adams – Since acquiring mayoral nomination papers on July 22, Walter L. Smith Jr., 53, of East Main St., has been collecting the necessary 50 voter signatures required to launch his campaign. During an hour-long July 26 interview, Smith said his “number one reason” for challenging Mayor John Barrett III is because “I believe people have a right to a choice.” “I’m getting an idea of campaigning and I’m in it for the long haul,” Smith said. “I’ve heard enough grumbling to know that people want change but nobody is stepping up to the plate. I’m a great believer in this country and in democracy, and in having a choice. There is no choice when someone is unopposed.” Smith said that he plans to return the nomination papers on July 29 or August 1. The deadline to return nomination papers for the November city election is 5 p.m. Aug. 9. Smith said he has no plans to drop out of the election, and said that he will remain in the contest even if another mayoral candidate emerges. He is aware that additional candidates would generate a preliminary election, he said. Hurdles Ahead An employee of a Curran Highway Wal-Mart store, Smith said that he will not leave his job of unloading delivery trucks and stocking store shelves during a campaign. “I have no ‘war chest’ [of campaign funds],” Smith said. “I’ve spent all of 88 cents so far and that’s because I needed new pens. I can’t afford to quit my job to run full-time for mayor, so it will be like two full-time jobs and right now, only one pays.” Supporters may be asked to create their own campaign signs using their computers and printers, Smith said, partly because he is unable to fund such campaign items and partly because he is an advocate of citizen involvement. “If you support me, make your own sign that says ‘Vote for Walt,’ or something like that,” he said. “ How much more grass-roots can you get? I want this in the hands of the people. I plan to be accessible and my door will never be locked to a resident of the City of North Adams.” Smith acknowledged that a mayoral challenge will be an uphill climb. He moved to North Adams from Chicopee about two years ago, and acknowledged that his recent city residency could generate an “outsider” image. Presently, Smith has no home telephone and relies on a cellular phone. He is not a homeowner and lives in a rented unit owned by city property owner Charles “Rusty” Ransford. Smith said he has no previous experience seeking public office and termed himself “a political novice.” He’s already experienced some “heat” since taking out nomination papers; a city woman approached Smith during the interview to heckle him about his decision and termed him a “laughingstock.” Smith discussed his background, and said that he knew his life would endure scrutiny because of his decision to oppose Barrett. “I’ve heard that my going to the food pantries and soup kitchens will come out [during a campaign],” he said. “I welcome that. There’s no shame in it.” Smith’s father was in the U.S. Air Force, and Smith traveled from state to state as a child, he said. “So I was an Air Force brat,” he said. Smith was married when he arrived in the city; he has since divorced. He has no children, he said. A two-year period of unemployment that began in Chicopee and ended when he found work at the city-based Wal-Mart proved humbling, Smith said. “I did utilize the local food pantries, the free lunch at the First Congregational Church, the food baskets,” he said. “I’m sure anyone in that economic position would do anything to keep food on the table. I was hesitant to do something like that [seek food help]. When I was in Chicopee, I didn’t avail myself. I had my pride.” Employment Struggles Smith defined himself as “blue-collar,” and spoke about a factory job he lost in Chicopee, which he said was a consequence of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and finding employment in North Adams. “I was out of work for almost a year after coming to North Adams, and I started work at Wal-Mart just before Christmas,” Smith said. “That job was my Christmas present that year.” Smith said that while in Chicopee, he worked “on and off” for 18 years at a Facemate Inc. facility on East Main Street. “That was a multi-million dollar business until NAFTA,” he said, and added that post-NAFTA, jobs were sent out of the country and the company ceased its Chicopee operations. “When I moved to North Adams, it was for a fresh start,” he said. “Employment wasn’t available and about eight months after I moved to town, unemployment [benefits] ran out. It was literally hand to mouth for awhile.” The job at Wal-Mart made Smith feel productive again, he said. “When you gain employment, it’s a real boost.” Which, Smith said, is why he believes that Barrett should cease his opposition to a First Hartford Realty Corp. K-Mart Plaza development plan. Barrett’s opposition has reportedly stemmed from his concern that stores involved in a proposed plaza development plan are not of a caliber that would benefit the city. Smith's Views on K-Mart and Eminent Domain Smith disagrees. “Looking at the economic instability since I’ve been here –and it doesn’t take long to realize that this area has economic problems- any job is needed,” he said. “That plaza has so much potential. This is a multi-million dollar piece of property sitting idle.” Smith said that the First Hartford group bought a similar property in West Springfield, leased space to a Big Lots store and a Price Chopper supermarket, and “turned that property completely around.” When asked if he had concerns about certain retail and supermarket chains offering primarily part-time jobs that lack health insurance coverage, Smith articulated mixed feelings about those issues. “A lot of retailers and supermarkets do have the part-time – in some families, one person can work full-time and have the benefits, while the wife can’t take a full-time job,” he said. “This way, [with part-time job options] the [part-time] jobs are there.” “But yes, there is a concern,” he said. “And not just a city or regional concern, it’s a national concern. It needs to be addressed nationally and I have no answers for that.” And lingering unemployment can be life-shattering, Smith said. “I lost my home and vehicles because of lay-offs,” he said. “That put me in such a hole that I never recovered. It doesn’t take much to put someone on the brink over the brink.” Smith said that a recent United States Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of a municipality acquiring private property for economic growth through eminent domain proceedings might encourage Barrett to increase city eminent domain acquisitions. “I know the city has taken property by eminent domain,” he said. “Property owners have taken the city to court several times.” Smith said he questioned the cost of court battles, and also wondered what protection is available to property owners. “Is there any security for property owners?” he asked. “What properties will the city want for economic development?” Smith suggested working with property owners to “rejuvenate” properties and allow the sites to remain on city tax rolls under private local ownership. He said that he would advocate for a downtown youth/community center possibly stationed inside one of the vacant storefronts. “What better way for a corporation to give back than to give a storefront center?” he said. Smith said that he supports establishing a Northern Berkshire-region Emergency Operations Center that would aid emergency responders with communications during emergencies. Smith said that EOC's are beneficial during emergency situations. He is an amatuer ham radio operator and has some experience with such centers, he said. "They work," he said. "One Heck of a Learning Experience" When asked about issues involving the Hoosac Water Quality District, the city’s public schools, and other city matters, Smith said that he isn’t “up to speed” on those topics. “I admire the teachers,” he said. “They try to do the job but they have nothing to work with. And their hands are tied. They are told ‘this is the curriculum you have to teach.’ Parents need to be more involved. There can never be too much parent involvement.” Doing “homework” about city issues and seeking resident input about a direction for the city are front-burner campaign steps, Smith said, and he added that if elected, he would not “sweep out and start fresh” at City Hall. “These are people who know their jobs and I would rely on that knowledge,” he said. Embarking on a quest to oust the state’s longest-serving mayor and lead the city himself is “one heck of a learning experience," Smith said. “Outside of marriage, it’s the biggest challenge I ever faced,” he said. “I will run an honest campaign. But I’ve seen the issues, not all the issues, but I have seen issues. Sometimes it takes that fresh eye to see what can be done. I know I have a lot of homework to do.” “I know it will be hard. Sometimes someone runs unopposed because people are happy and sometimes it’s because of fear. I may very well be on the losing end of things. But people will have a choice.” Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush123@adelphia.net or at 802-823-9367.
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