Blais pulls away, wins 1st Franklin primary

  • Francia Wisnewski talks with voters in South Deerfield during primary election voting. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Candidate support in South Deerfield during primary election voting Tuesday. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • A Natalie Blais supporter roller blades around the parking lot at Sunderland Elementary School, the hometown of Blais. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon—

  • Jonathan Edwards, of Whately, in the parking lot of Sunderland Elementary School as he looks to gain votes in the 1st Franklin primary for state representative. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon—

  • Natalie Blais waves to supporters as they pass by the center of Sunderland, at the intersection of routes 116 and 47, as she looks to gain votes in her hometown for the 1st Franklin primary seat for state representative. Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon—

Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2018 1:30:57 AM

Sunderland’s Natalie Blais pulled away late at night to win the 1st Franklin House seat for state representative in Tuesday’s primary election.

The results of the highly anticipated seven-way race that drew relatively big crowds for a state primary election looked like they were going to hinge on the votes of the hometown of candidate Francia Wisnewski, where there are likely somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 votes to be distributed. But late results proved that Blais would win anyway.

Blais, unsure of what the results might be and noting it’s been an unpredictable election cycle, said late last night that she had been up since 4:30 a.m., after being out in the community until 1 a.m. when she was delivering final materials before the election that was effectively going to determine the winner of the state representative seat since there is no Republican candidate opponent in the November general election.

“With this many candidates in the race, you have to work hard for every single vote,” Blais said before knowledge of the final results, “and I was doing that until the very end.”

Blais commanded the win with 3,109 votes at press time, distancing herself from Wisnewski, who lingered with 821.

“I’m like Yogi Berra, it’s not over until it’s over,” Wisnewski said. “We ran a strong grassroots campaign and we did everything possible we could do.”

Wisnewski’s manager Rachel Gordon understood the ground they needed to make up in Montague to win, saying they needed a “Montague Miracle.” The miracle did not look like it was going to be enough.

But it wasn’t Wisnewski who went into the night with the closest tally to Blais. Instead it was the 22-year-old insurgent Casey Pease of Worthington with nearly 955 votes, although it was unlikely he could sweep vote-rich Montague as Wisnewski might. Right behind him was Cummington’s Christine Doktor with 826 votes, but still without her hometown’s tally.

“What it tells me is that people are excited in this district for a new generation of public servants,” Pease said. “They’re excited for new ideas and new leaders, and I think the showing right now is proving that.”

While some viewed Jonathan Edwards, the Whately Selectboard chairman and president of the Franklin County Selectboard Association, as a possibility to knock off the heavily-endorsed Blais, the results did not go in his favor. He collected 444 votes by press time, with 112 votes from Whately. Edwards wasn’t available for comment by press time.

Primary Day

As voters headed to the polls on the day after Labor Day, they were being asked to settle a seven-way race among several strong Democratic contenders for the 1st Franklin District House seat – one of whom may have been given an edge by the endorsement of of the well-respected lawmaker who was retiring from the seat, Rep. Steven Kulik.

By early evening, as the after-work rush reached the polls, many poll workers saw a higher voter turnout than expected for a primary election.

Just over a thousand people had cast their votes in Deerfield a little over an hour before polls closed. About 3,000 people voted in the 2016 presidential election and about 1,200 voted in May’s contested Town Election.

The main intersection in Sunderland was lined wall-to-wall by Blais and her supporters. Blais, a Sunderland resident whom Kulik endorsed late in the campaign, waved to motorists as many headed for the polls at nearby Sunderland Elementary School.

Children with signs walked up and down seemingly every block nearby. A truck with a painted canvas “Vote Blais Today” greeted drivers on Route 47.

At Sunderland Elementary’s entry was candidate Nathaniel Waring with a small contingent, and in the parking lot was Edwards of Whately, as he toured the circuit of voting places in the district Tuesday. Outside the polls as well were some of Blais’ children and their friends.

In Montague as polls were set to close, most precincts reported voter turnout in the upper 20 percent range, which poll workers said was higher than they expected. But results in one of the largest towns in the district were not expected until the early morning hours and could shift the outcome of the race.

The race will decide the new representative of the 19-town 1st Franklin House District, which includes: Ashfield, Buckland, Conway, Deerfield, Leverett, Montague, Shelburne, Sunderland, Shutesbury and Whately, along with eight Hampshire County towns and one in Hampden County.

The candidates primarily represented Franklin County towns. Running for the seat being vacated by Kulik, a 25-year veteran and Worthington Democrat, were: Kate Albright-Hanna of Huntington, Blais, Christine Doktor of Cummington, Edwards of Whately, Casey Pease of Worthington, Waring of Sunderland and Francia Wisnewski of Montague. Although his name was on the ballot, Andrew Baker of Shelburne Falls dropped out of the race in July.

The seven candidates often fell within degrees of each other on major political and party issues, including health care, education and civil rights, so the race turned on the different level and type of experience each had.

Blais had the heavier portfolio, having worked as a staffer for former Congressman John Olver and current Congressman Jim McGovern as well as for Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the current UMass-Amherst chancellor before coming to work as executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

As the race carried on through the summer, other candidates picked up endorsements. Among the endorsements, Albright-Hanna and Wisnewski earned the support of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution. Edwards, who chairs the Whately Selectboard and is president of the Franklin County Selectboard Association, received the backing of several local town officials and of former state Treasurer Steve Grossman.

Garnering the most high-profile endorsements was Blais, who two weeks before the primary, was backed not just by the outgoing Kulik but also his predecessor, former state Rep. and state Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan L. “Jay” Healy of Charlemont.

The endorsements helped to grow the public perception that Blais was likely the leading candidate in a crowded field.

In his endorsement, Kulik said he had “no doubt” Blais has “all of the experience, knowledge and personal qualities to be among the very best and most effective members of the House and to make sure that our priorities are addressed and never ignored.”

A major talking point going into the primary was the importance of this race given the departure of Beacon Hill veteran Kulik and other senior leadership representing western Mass. in Boston.

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