First Franklin District: 8 Dems look for an edge in crowded field







  • nathaniel WARING

  • Francia WISNEWSKI

For the Gazette
Published: 5/23/2018 10:48:09 PM

Across nearly 511 square miles — encompassing 19 towns spread across three counties — eight Democrats have been gathering signatures in preparation for a rare contest for a state House seat that’s been held for 25 years by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington.

The 1st Franklin District, stretching from Middlefield, Chester and Huntington in the west to Shutesbury in the east, includes Williamsburg, Worthington, Cummington and five other Hampshire County towns, and it’s up for grabs by Democrats because there is no Republican candidate slated for the November general election.

But with the filing deadline for nomination papers with the secretary of state’s office at the end of this month, the candidates have been picking up speed in crisscrossing the district as they work toward the Sept. 4 primary — in addition to campaign kickoffs, appearances at town meetings and gathering with potential supporters, town boards and other events. It’s also been a race to launch websites and Facebook pages, to knock on doors and gather whatever endorsements they can to boost name recognition.

The hopefuls — Kate Albright-Hanna of Huntington, Andrew Baker of Shelburne, Natalie Blais of Sunderland, Christine Doktor of Cummington, Jonathan Edwards of Whately, Casey Pease of Worthington, Nathaniel Waring of Sunderland and Francia Wisnewski of Montague — will faced off in a forum Wednesday (see page A1).

With eight people running, said Waring, who’s been busy wrapping up a semester as a computer science student at Greenfield Community College, “I don’t have to convince 51 percent of the people in my district that they need to vote for me; I need to convince maybe 20 percent of the people to vote for me. That allows you to be a little looser, with less worrying about broad appeal to the masses.”

Blais, another Sunderland resident, who has the advantage of being Franklin County Chamber of Commerce executive director with experience working for U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern and former Congressman John Olver, says, “I’m just trying to be present in these communities, listening to constituents and hearing about what matters most to them.”

But as residents of the district hear from the candidates — as they did at a Sunderland forum last month and will continue to do at forums planned for next month at Mohawk Trail Regional High School and in Leverett — “voters are going to hear a lot of the same things, because we’re all for progressive issues,” said Blais, who touts her experience working in communities around the region and working with businesses and local government officials and dealing with local, state and federal officials.

Especially given the seats that need to be filled following the death of Rep. Peter Koccot, D-Northampton, the departures of Kulik and Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and the resignation of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, she said, “If I was a student of political science at UMass right now, it would be a fascinating time to be studying politics in the Pioneer Valley.”

Also touting their years of experience working on local and regional issues are Edwards, Baker and Wisnewski.

Edwards, who has been a Whately selectman for 14 years and the president of the Franklin County Selectboard Association for six years, believes that experience — along with his years as a coach and president of a youth baseball league — gives him an edge, although he’s also making the rounds of the 19-town district.

“I’m the only one to have that kind of expansive experience in municipal government,” said Edwards.

Yet Baker, a special projects coordinator for the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board who has also done workforce training projects for seven years at GCC, and headed the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association for seven years and Hilltown Community Development Corp. before becoming a school committee member and a Shelburne Select Board member, is no slouch.

Still, says Baker, “With eight candidates on the stage, that doesn’t give you a lot of time to set yourself forth, but each one of us has been doing our best to define the space that identifies us as the candidate to elect. All of us will be starting at the bottom of the ladder, whoever gets elected, in a very hierarchical system.”

Wisnewski, who served two terms as vice chairwoman of the Greenfield School Committee before moving to Montague in 2016, now serves on the Shea Theater Board while working as senior program manager at Raising a Reader Massachusetts, an organization that works to close the literacy gap in the state.

She’s someone who prides herself on her connections, not only in the community, but also across the region: chairwoman of the Hampshire and Franklin Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, a Montague Town Meeting member and on the Montague Democratic Committee, as well as a past participant in the Emerge Massachusetts program to inspire women to run for office. And Wisnewski says she has a leg up in running for state office — she’s a runner who has completed the Boston Marathon.

“That means I’m a person who’s highly disciplined, goal oriented and process oriented. I don’t get tired easily.”

Doktor, who grew up in a small Berkshire County town and worked for a law firm in New York, works in two pro-bono law practices — First Family Advocacy Project and Hilltown Legal Services — as well as working as a part-time sheep farmer who also raises chickens and seasonal hogs.

Doing that while also knocking on doors and attending meetings around the district, she says, “has been a whirlwind. … But it’s not like working 100-hour weeks for a law firm in New York City.”

Albright-Hanna, who was an intern in the Clinton White House and worked for CNN, MSNBC as well as the Obama campaign and the Department of Health and Human Services, moved to Massachusetts in 2016 and now has a media consulting firm — Tarbell Industries — from which she’s taking a leave while running a full-time campaign.

A member of the Huntington Planning Board, Abright-Hanna says that while she’s from a part of the district that’s farthest from Franklin County, “I have the advantage of understanding what’s going on in the towns we have down here, while a lot of the candidates might be battling it out for some of the other towns.”

She also got the endorsement of the Chester Board of Selectmen and managed to take part in last month’s Turners Falls Spring Parade and also a campaign event Sunday at Thomas Memorial Golf Course in Turners Falls.

“I’ll be at probably every parade and fair,” Albright-Hanna said.

As the youngest candidate — he turns 21 this week — Pease is chairman of the Worthington Democratic Committee, and inspired by his grandmother, Worthington’s first selectwoman, on a clear path to public service.

“Yes, as a young person, my opponents have more experience, but at the end of day, it isn’t always the person who’s most experienced who can do the job the best,” said Pease, who’s also been a volunteer firefighter in town for five years and is taking time off as a political science student at UMass.

“Sometimes it’s the person who has the energy, motivation and passion to do what’s best for district and to commit himself completely to doing that.”

Pease says that he was born and raised in the district, where he was inspired by Kulik himself, and that this helps him stand out as a candidate with the unique perspective of a young person who wants to see more young people involved in politics. “It’s tough in a crowded field with eight folks,” he said. “It comes down to the perspective I bring to the race.”

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