Students query candidates

  • Ben Moss-Horwitz of Northampton High School, front, moderates a student-organized candidates forum Wednesday at the school. Candidates for the 1st Hampshire District in the Massachusetts House Lindsay Sabadosa, left, and Diana Szynal await questions, at back. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lindsay Sabadosa, left, and Diana Szynal, both candidates for the 1st Hampshire District in the Massachusetts House, answer questions June 13, 2018 during a student-organized candidates forum at Northampton High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Liam McBride of Northampton High School's gender sexuality alliance asks 1st Hampshire District in the Massachusetts House candidates Lindsay Sabadosa and Diana Szynal what changes the legislature can make to ensure all citizens are educated, safe and protected in light of the sexual harassment, assault and abuse of power highlighted by the MeToo movement June 13, 2018 during a student-organized candidates forum at the school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Published: 6/14/2018 12:08:27 AM

NORTHAMPTON — On Wednesday evening, the candidates for the 1st Hampshire House and Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate seats fielded questions from a group of Pioneer Valley residents who have become an increasingly notable political force in 2018 — local students.

“Our voices aren’t represented in a vote, so I think it’s really important for us to help our community decide who to represent us on Beacon Hill,” said student organizer Cherilyn Strader. “Through the power of our questions and our knowledge and our organizing power, we can help choose the best representatives for our community.”

The forum, which drew about 200 people, was hosted by Northampton High School Democrats, Environmental Club, Feminist Collective, Gender Sexuality Alliance, along with youth activist groups Pioneer Valley Students For Gun Control and Youth Rise Together. It was co-sponsored by two dozen local advocacy groups.

Strader, an NHS junior and founding member of Pioneer Valley Students For Gun Control, said the student organizers selected 12 questions in total for the candidates, but ran into an unexpected challenge. They’ve spent so much time in recent months trying to push for solutions that they had to take a step back to think of the problems themselves, and then develop questions for the candidates.

1st Hampshire

For the first hour, the students queried Diana Szynal and Lindsay Sabadosa about issues such as protection for immigrants, transportation and the opioid crisis in Massachusetts if they were to win election to the late Peter Kocot’s seat.

Before Kocot died in February, Szynal had served as Kocot’s district director since he was elected in 2002. Sabadosa is a Northampton translator and women’s rights activist who was the director of the Pioneer Valley Women’s March earlier this year.

Ben Moss-Horwitz, president of the NHS Democrats, moderated the first panel and opened the forum by describing some of the activism the youth organizers have done recently.

“I’m going to ask you not to applaud too much during the forum, but you’re welcome to applaud for some local youth activism,” Moss-Horwitz said.

From transitioning to reusable silverware at the high school to organizing school walkouts, the examples of local youth activism drew loud applause.

In her opening statement, Sabadosa spoke about watching her daughter participate in a walkout at Jackson Street School and one student who refused to come in because 17 minutes weren’t enough to honor the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sabadosa said she was that student when she was younger, and she still stands up for the issues she believes in today, touting her women’s advocacy work.

“I feel with every fiber of my being that the status quo needs to be challenged,” Sabadosa said.

Szynal spoke about her 16 years of experience supporting Kocot’s “progressive mission” and said the community benefited for many years from the representation of Kocot and former state senator Stanley Rosenberg.

Both candidates said they support legislation to protect immigrants in Massachusetts, like the Safe Communities Act, and spoke of their support for civic education, youth activism and transportation improvements for the commonwealth.

They differed, however, when asked what issue they feel is underrepresented in the legislature.

Szynal said it’s important to her to “make sure agriculture doesn’t fall by the wayside,” and urged support for farmers, stewardship of the environment and funding the Healthy Incentives Program, which reimburses people on food stamps for purchases of local produce.

“I hear you on farming,” Sabadosa said. “But we talk about that. We don’t talk about reproductive rights at all.”

Sabadosa said there are problems with access to reproductive health care, funding and protestors standing outside clinics that “don’t get any attention in the Statehouse,” which would be a priority focus for her.

Senate candidates

Then, the students turned to the state Senate seat held until recently by Rosenberg, who resigned in May following an ethics investigation.

Only Chelsea Kline of Northampton will be on the Sept. 4 primary ballot this fall because the results of the ethics investigation were released a day after the deadline to submit nomination papers.

However, five other candidates have launched write-in campaigns for the seat: David J. Murphy, an Amherst attorney who was a former aide for Ted Kennedy; Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell; Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services Director Steven Connor of Northampton; UMass Amherst faculty senate graduate assistant David Morin; and Northampton resident Jo Comerford, a former campaign director for the progressive advocacy organization

The crowded candidates table again agreed generally on many issues, such as emphatically supporting single-payer health care, passing the Fair Share Amendment to tax millionaires and pushing for renewable energy, but had their own focus points for the issues.

Comerford focused on her activist work, providing specific examples of times when she mobilized to push for a national gun control measure by bringing common-sense gun owners to lobby in Washington or, just this week, called on senators to advocate for carbon pricing, banning pipeline expansion and creating renewable portfolio standards as part of a Senate energy bill currently in the Statehouse.

She said her strengths include her policy and organizing expertise and “love of participatory democracy.”

Connor emphasized his upbringing by his “first feminist role model,” a mother who was the primary breadwinner for the family, and a father who was asked how he “baby-sat” so often.

Connor also spoke about his work helping marginalized communities, particularly veterans and people with disabilities. He said he would fight to increase state supplements to Social Security income for vulnerable people.

“I spend every day with people who are barely making it,” Connor said.

O’Donnell referenced the stances he’s taken and work he’s done on the Northampton City Council, suggesting ideas like using campaign finance reform to decrease the health care industry lobbying power to in turn lower the cost of health care and improve its quality.

“I have concerns that a region that already struggles and is already neglected by Boston will be further left behind,” O’Donnell said. “We need a senator who will be ready on day one.”

O’Donnell said western Massachusetts needs legislators who will push for the region’s ideals, even in the face of opposition or lukewarm response from others, such as the governor.

Morin described how he will be self-funding his campaign because he does not want to be beholden to donors.

“If you elect me, I’ll slap those ‘State Legislator’ license plates on my 1997 Toyota Corolla and drive to Boston to represent you,” Morin said.

Along with supporting strict gun control measures, opposing pipeline expansion and wanting “no fracking in Massachusetts whatsoever, ever,” Morin said there needs to be more emphasis on mental health care, the lack of which, he said, is at the core of many problems in our society today.

Kline said she “knows what it’s like to struggle and be vulnerable” and said a particular issue she’d like to work on is ending homelessness. This, she said, she would work to accomplish by addressing the myriad causes of homelessness with criminal justice reform, building more job creation and training programs, and providing affordable housing.

“There are some who say I should stop talking about my experiences and focus on policy,” Kline said. “But we need authentic advocates with lived experiences.”

Murphy said he doesn’t see much difference in policy between his fellow candidates, but said the region “needs someone who knows how to get things done on Beacon Hill.”

He said he would push for national gun control measures and named income stratification as the issue he thinks is most underrepresented, saying a strong middle class is key for a healthy democracy.

Student organizers also asked how the candidates would advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, how they would make schools safer in light of school shootings and the recent lockdown scare at JFK Middle School and what legislative actions they would take in light of the MeToo movement, which has highlighted issues of sexual harassment, assault and abuse of power across the country.

At the end of the first candidate forum of their campaigns, Morin said he thinks the region will be in good hands with any of the candidates on the stage, and other candidates said having choice serves the voters well.

“The region is in the midst of a seismic shift,” Comerford said. “But this could be an opportunity for great regional transformation.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at

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