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As primary approaches, four vying for state Senate seat make their cases

  • Jo Comerford  —Gazette file photo

  • Chelsea Kline —Gazette file photo

  • Ryan O'Donnell —Gazette file photo

  • Steve Connor —Gazette file photo

  • State Senate candidates Ryan O'Donnell, from left, Chelsea Kline, Steve Connor and Jo Comerford prepare for their debate Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 at Deerfield Academy.



Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — An educator who escaped poverty to build a better life for her and her family. A legislator who has helped pass a number of progressive policies at the local level. A department head who has championed the cause of veterans and other populations dealing with trauma. And a policy advocate who has lobbied for issues on the state and national level.

One of these candidates, all from Northampton, will represent the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District in the state Senate. And that person is almost certain to be determined in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary.

The candidates are Chelsea Kline, the only candidate on the ballot, Ryan O’Donnell, Steven Connor and Jo Comerford, all of whom are running write-in campaigns. The district encompasses 24 communities, including Northampton, Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield, Pelham and South Hadley in Hampshire County.

“We’re in the final stretches,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, said of this closely watched contest.

The race developed after the May 4 resignation of longtime Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, following a Senate Ethics Committee report that found Rosenberg did not do enough to protect the Senate from his husband Bryon Hefner’s pattern of “disruptive, volatile, and abusive” behavior. Hefner is set to stand trial on charges that include sexual assault.

Rosenberg had represented the district since 1991.

Because of the timing of the ethics report and Rosenberg’s subsequent resignation, there was no time for additional candidates other than Kline to get on the ballot, as the May 1 filing deadline had passed.

“That showed courage,” said Otis Wheeler, a Greenfield city councilor backing Kline, on her decision to challenge Rosenberg before he resigned. “I think it was a strong move on her part.”

Narkewicz, who is backing Comerford, publicly lobbied to have the filing deadline extended, but his effort was denied by the Secretary of State’s Office.

A lack of ballot access did not stop other candidates from entering the fray as write-in candidates, however. At one time there were five write-in candidates for the seat. Attorney David J. Murphy and University of Massachusetts Amherst employee David Morin earlier dropped out of the race.

Connor and O’Donnell were initially running on the ballot in the Democratic primary for the 1st Hampshire District House seat prior to Rosenberg’s resignation, then moved over to the Senate race.

All candidates are running as progressive Democrats, and have backed policies like single-payer health care, a treatment-focused approach to the opioid crisis and expanding rail service. Yet, while major policy disputes have not been a hallmark of the campaign, each candidate has also staked out their own distinctive identities.

O’Donnell

O’Donnell, 38, is president of the Northampton City Council. He has stressed that he is the only candidate in the race with legislative experience, and has highlighted his role in efforts like implementing strong campaign finance regulations for municipal elections in Northampton and making Northampton a sanctuary city. He’s also expressed his belief that he is the only candidate who reads zoning regulations for fun.

O’Donnell, who grew up in Amherst and graduated from Amherst-Pelham Regional High School and UMass Amherst, has talked on the campaign trail about how he grew up in affordable housing.

O’Donnell has drawn support from local politicians that include Northampton City Councilor William Dwight, state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Greenfield City Councilor Doug Mayo.

Scibak said that O’Donnell’s status as the only person in the race who has held elected office was a major factor in his decision to back him.

“It’s easy for anyone to take a policy position,” Scibak said. “It’s a bit different when you get there.”

O’Donnell has also advanced a number of specific policy proposals during the campaign, including a tax on rides with transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft to fund regional transit authorities like the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and opening up conference committees at the State House to the public.

“Ryan’s the type of wonk that’s actually the most effective in government,” Dwight said.

Dwight also noted O’Donnell’s work in resisting the expansion of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, as well as putting affordable housing requirements into the city’s zoning bylaws.

“He’s been tested,” he said.

Connor

Connor, 58, is director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services. In this capacity he serves 11 communities, a number of which are located in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District.

In the campaign, he has touted the experience this position has given him in serving individuals, as well as insight into the needs of communities. Prior to this he worked with individuals with disabilities.

“Steve really is a doer,” said Patti Chandler, a teacher at JFK Middle School who is backing Connor. “He is the person who you depend on.”

Connor has spoken with particular passion on the issue of combating the opioid epidemic, and has talked about how he would combat homelessness, centering his plans on a “housing-first” model.

He has also revealed that he is a survivor of military sexual assault, and has spoken about the impact that trauma has on many issues facing society, including homelessness and addiction.

A longtime friend, Chandler said Connor has devoted his whole life to the service of others, and noted that in addition to his current job, he has done volunteer work as an advocate for children in public schools, raised money to fund people’s medical expenses and started a fund to help women go back to school.

“He just believes in those things,” Chandler said.

She also said that Connor does the “grunt work” when he puts himself into an effort.

Toni Dolan, a full-time student at Westfield State University in its social work department, is another Connor supporter. In 2008, she fled a domestic violence situation with her two children and talked about how Connor was there to help.

“He stepped up immediately,” said Dolan, saying that he helped her to process paperwork to get into affordable housing in Northampton.

She said that Connor proceeded to stay committed to helping her family, including her child with special needs.

“He was always available to answer my questions,” she said.

Dolan said that Connor is one of the reasons she decided to enter social work. 

Kline

Kline, 41, is on leave from her position at Bay Path University as director of the Women as Empowered Learners and Leaders program (WELL), Humanities and Leadership while she runs for Senate.

She has talked about her life experience in her bid for the Senate along the campaign trail. As a young woman, she had a child at 19, and relied on social welfare programs to help get by, and says the Senate could use more people with life experiences like hers.

Wheeler, the Greenfield city councilor backing Kline, said he thinks that Kline’s background resonates with constituents who have a lot of the same life experiences.

“I don’t think you can govern if you’re out of touch with the people,” he said.

He also cites Kline’s energy as another reason he’s supporting her. “I think she would be very accessible,” he said, describing Kline as a “bottom-up legislator.”

Kline has drawn support from local politicians like Northampton City Councilor Marianne LaBarge and former state Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, as well as the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and SEIU Local 509 labor unions. She has also received endorsements from statewide progressive organizations, including Bay State Stonewall Democrats, Progressive Massachusetts, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and Mass Alliance.

“Chelsea has really distinguished herself as someone who has long championed reproductive rights,” said Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund spokeswoman Johanna Kaiser. The fund has backed Kline’s candidacy.

Kaiser noted Kline’s history as a student organizer for the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference, a premiere reproductive rights conference held yearly at Hampshire College, as well as having been a member of the Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps, and that she is a board member of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and a member of the Hampshire-Franklin Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

“She has long fought for planned parenthood patients in the community,” Kaiser said.

On policy, Kline has distinguished herself by calling for the elimination of high-stakes testing in Massachusetts. She has also proposed redirecting the $32 million in funding that the state is set to spend on the MCAS in the coming year on “student-centered” education.

Comerford

Comerford, 54, recently stepped down as a campaign director at MoveOn.org. Prior to that she was head of the National Priorities Project, a federal budget research organization that was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 2014 during her tenure.

A social worker by training, she’s also held positions locally at the American Friends Service Committee, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Center for Human Development.

“Jo has a capacity to handle (a) whole bunch of things,” said former U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, who has endorsed Comerford.

Education has been a prominent campaigning point for Comerford, who has called for both universal pre-kindergarten and free public higher education.

Comerford has noted that she grew up in a family of school teachers, and has been politically involved since an early age. Her wife, Ann Hennessey, is also a public school teacher and member of the Northampton School Committee.

Comerford has also released a proposed first-term agenda that includes raising the education funding budget, securing full funding to provide all communities with high-speed internet, and co-sponsoring Medicare for All legislation.

Comerford has drawn support from many prominent local political figures, including Narkewicz, former state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst; Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan. She’s also received the backing of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and UNITE-HERE! unions, the prominent peace activist Frances Crowe and Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate whom she worked closely with at MoveOn.org.

“She’s a write-in candidate, but she’s garnered a lot of support,” said Narkewicz, who cited her ability to hit the ground running and bring people together as some of the reasons he is backing her.

As for the current campaign, Scibak, who won a high-profile write-in campaign himself when he captured the 2nd Hampshire District in 2002, said all of the candidates have conducted themselves well during the Senate campaign.

“This has not been a dirty race,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to the people who are running.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.