US Sen. Elizabeth Warren fires up local politicians, community organizers at annual municipal conference

Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered an analysis Saturday of the federal government’s impact on local communities that provided her audience of local elected and appointed officials reasons for hope and anger — in just about equal measure.

Warren was the keynote speaker for an annual conference sponsored for 24 years by state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst. Rosenberg said this year’s conference drew a bigger crowd than ever, about 240 town and city officials from around the region, compared to 175 who typically take part.

New at this year’s conference was a greater attention to technology, with the keynote talks aired live on several community television stations — and live tweeting from the event under the hashtag municom14. “There have been 150 tweets already,” Rosenberg said around the lunch hour.

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Later, he seemed even more thrilled about the tweeting when he said, while introducing Warren, “We set up a Twitter account and we hashtagged this thing, so it’s very exciting!”

In her talk, Warren extolled the virtues of the western Massachusetts region — its natural beauty, relative affordability and the influence of higher education in the form of so many colleges and universities — saying the area is primed for economic revitalization.

“I really do love being here because I see such potential for this area being on the cusp of the next form of how we create a vibrant economy,” Warren said. “The opportunity to make this an area of growing jobs and more money are, I think, enormous.”

Key to making that happen, she said, are strong local, state and federal partnerships to develop initiatives and key infrastructure for technology and transportation along the so-called “knowledge corridor.”

“If we could just get the right key pieces in place — where the federal government could be a partner — there’s more opportunity here,” she said.

“The federal government has no business telling local governments what to do,” she said. “On the other hand, the federal government can be a superb partner.”

But she was blunt in her assessment of what she sees as dysfunction in Washington.

“I think the sequester is an example of the worst form of federal government that we have seen in decades,” she said, referring to the automatic budget cuts that kicked in last year when Congress was unable to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. And while there is a two-year hiatus from the sequester, she said she has little doubt that it will return with the potential to do even greater damage to the federal budget.

“Our spending should be aligned with our values, and I believe that it is not the case now,” she said, drawing applause from a highly appreciative audience.

She described budget battles in Washington, which she said are skewed heavily in favor of the wealthy. She repeatedly referred to a pet topic of hers — closing “tax loopholes for billionaires” — who she said pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

“How can this happen in America? The answer is that it’s a rigged system,” Warren said. “There are a bazillion lobbyists to fight for every one of those loopholes. Those who have money and power have the capacity to influence everything that happens in Washington and by golly, we must fight that.”

Warren mentioned the 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable installed as part of the Mass Broadband initiative and the progress in getting commuter rail back into the region as examples of good federal-state-local partnerships.

Rosenberg’s role

Rosenberg said he organizes the Conference for Franklin and Hampshire County Officials every year because he believes it is essential that local officials — many of whom are volunteers for their communities who hold day jobs that get in the way of travel to Boston — need an opportunity to meet face to face with state policymakers.

And this year, they had the added benefit of meeting with a federal policymaker when Warren accepted his invitation to address the crowd.

In an interview before Warren arrived, Rosenberg said the annual event has been “extremely effective” in educating local leaders about the ways of the Statehouse — and enlightening Boston politicians about the ways of western Massachusetts.

“Every year we get at lease one legislator who will say, ‘I’ve never been there and I had no idea about the issues out there,’ ” said Rosenberg during an interview punctuated by local leaders interrupting to shake his hand and thank him for organizing the conference.

One of the morning speakers was state Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, whom Rosenberg has invited three times to address the annual event.

Kaufman is an advocate of tax reform as chairman of the Tax Fairness Commission.

“We tend to focus on how the money is distributed and not how much is distributed,” said Rosenberg.

Haydenville resident Paul Dunphy, who is in charge of constituent services in the Deerfield office of state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said he appreciated what he said was “a good back and forth about tax policy” in Kaufman’s presentation,. He said the talk addressed the need for a graduated income tax, which has been on the ballot and failed to pass about five times.

In introducing Warren, Rosenberg called her “a terrific new voice for us and for the country,” and said she holds great support in the region.

“You are the star of YouTube and we love it because you are holding people accountable,” Rosenberg said. Referring to the audience gathered in the Clarion Hotel ballroom, Rosenberg said, “They really, really like you.”

Indeed she was warmly greeted when she arrived shortly after noon Saturday, prompting those gathered to stop eating their lunches so they could offer her a standing ovation as she strode through the ballroom.

After her remarks, Rosenberg invited the audience to ask questions. Here is a sampling of the back and forth:

Ashfield Select Board member Ron Coler asked: “What is your stand on corporate personhood?”

Warren: “I feel like a batter standing here, and it’s low and slow over the plate,” she said, prompting laughter. “Let’s first get that out of the way. Corporations are not people.”

To a question about a proposed pipeline, Warren said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of a particular permit application because she didn’t have the information to do so, but she said this: “I am very concerned about a regulatory agency that is only able to say ‘yes, yes, yes.’ That’s not the job of a regulatory agency.”

To a questioner who said she is alarmed and frightened about the recent United Nations report on climate change, Warren said: “I’m scared about that, too. I have children and grandchildren and I worry about the world we are going to leave them. I believe in science. Unfortunately, I work in a place where that is controversial.”

She said the scientific evidence continues to mount that the planet is in danger.

“The bad news is there are armies of lobbyists in Washington for the oil industry and the coal industry ... who are determined that they will retain their privilege and they will continue to pollute this Earth and beat Congress into submission,” she said. “The good news is I think we are getting louder on our side.”

Climate change, Warren said, is a “hard fight,” but “if we don’t fight aggressively, I don’t know how we can face our grandchildren.”

To a question from Buckland Select Board member Cheryl L. Dukes, about how local governments are meant to actually work with state and federal politicians, Warren acknowledged it’s not an easy task, especially in light of what she termed the current “bad tilt” — in Washington.

“There’s a fundamental notion that those who have money now plan to hang onto it and those who have power are going to hang onto it,” she said. “Well, I gotta tell you, the rest of us, we’re going to get organized.”

She also observed, “All we’ve got is each other, but we’ve got a lot of each other.”