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Candidates for 3rd Berkshire District state representative discuss issues at forum in Becket

The event took the form of a question-and-answer session.

Becket — The four candidates for running for state representative in the 3rd Berkshire District took part in a candidates forum at Becket Town Hall on Tuesday, June 18. The four candidates are vying for State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli’s (D – 3rd Berkshire District) seat.

Back in February, Pignatelli announced that, after 22 years in office, he would not be running again.

The event was organized by the Becket Democratic Town Committee, and organizers said that residents from 11 Berkshire County towns attended the event.

Some of the many residents from 11 Berkshire County towns who attended the candidates forum on June 18. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Becket Democratic Town Committee Chair Nancy Chassman moderated the event. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

The four candidates who participated in the event were Democrats Leigh Davis, Vice Chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard and Stockbridge Select Board members Patrick White and Jamie Minacci and independent candidate Marybeth Mitts, who is a member of the Lenox Select Board.

The event was not a debate, but instead took the form of a question-and-answer session. The questions from event attendees were given to event moderator and Becket Town Committee Chair Nancy Chassman to read to the candidates.

Candidates were asked which bills in this legislative session were their central focus.

“I think that the Economic Development Bill and the Housing Bond Bill are the two of the most important bills [right now],” White said. “You have to kind of remember that 5,000 bills get filed a year, and only a handful gets passed. We’re not exactly great at legislating at the State House. I like what the economic development bond bill is about because there’s over a billion dollars for climate technology.”

While he did not go into detail about why he was focusing on the housing bond bill, White, who is the CFO at Berkshire Waldorf High School, said that the economic development bill could bring jobs into the area. “We’re not going to get another GE,” White said. “But what we could get is the first scale of a business where maybe they have 50 climate tech jobs. Those [jobs] are something that we can put in the district, but we’re not getting those because we’re not doing a good job of pitching them, I think we need to get better at that. I think part of this job, frankly, is not just to bring resources from the state back here, but also to bring those companies [to Berkshire County]. If you want to keep young people here, you better focus on jobs, because there aren’t good enough jobs here, and there aren’t good enough housing solutions.”

Patrick White at the candidates forum. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Davis, who is the communications and community engagement director for Construct Inc., said that she is following the Housing Bond bill in the legislature. “It’s $4.1 billion, and it is the largest bond bill ever for housing,” Davis said. “I am known in Berkshire County as a housing advocate, and before this bill was publicized, I was asked to meet with Secretary of Housing Edward Augustus to meet at his office and talk about what should be in this Housing Bond Bill. I advocated for western Massachusetts to have a voice. I felt that [housing] is a regional problem, and we needed a regional solution.”

Davis said that “housing is tied to economic development.” “It’s not about housing, necessarily, it’s about the challenges [surrounding housing],” Davis said. “It’s about job growth, incentivizing families to move here, and allowing seniors to age in place so that we can take care of our seniors, and we can make sure that they’re not forced to move away or go to a nursing home if they don’t want to. This is a big problem that’s not just about bricks and mortars. It’s about community and connection.”

Leigh Davis at the candidates forum. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Minacci said that she is following a bill that would eliminate the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) requirement for high school seniors. “If they do not pass [MCAS], they cannot graduate,” Minacci said. “As we all know, we have to have a college or high school education as a starting point. As we all know, some of us can’t test well, and [MCAS] should not be the only way to finish school.”

Jamie Minacci at the candidates forum. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Mitts said she is following the Affordable Homes Act. “The State House passed it at $6.2 billion to ensure that there are state tax credits to help build more rental affordable housing,” Mitts said. “We need to make sure that people can stay in the communities that they want to stay in. Aging in place is really important, and that way people can leave the larger homes that they may be in now, freeing them up for people with families who want to stay in the community and who want to fill our schools.”

Mitts said that Lenox is facing a housing problem because “many of the smaller homes in town have been purchased by investor owners and then turned into Airbnbs.” “We’ve tried to limit that by putting a bylaw in place so that people are only allowed 75 days by right, or 90 days by special permit, to rent these homes as Airbnbs,” she explained. “But there are enforcement problems. Getting an enforcement mechanism that has some kind of teeth is quite difficult.”

Mitts said that she supports a real estate Local Option Transfer Fee. The fee would allow municipalities to impose a transfer fee for the sales of properties over a certain set amount, with the fee being used for the municipality’s affordable- and workforce-housing projects.

Davis is also a supporter of the Local Option Transfer Fee and previously testified at a hearing held the state’s Joint Committee on Housing in support of the fee.

Marybeth Mitts at the candidates forum. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Towards the end of the 90-minute forum, Chassman allowed members of the audience to question the candidates.

Tommie Lou Hutto-Blake of Becket, wearing a “I’m a Warren Democrat” button, asked Mitts directly about her rationale for running as an independent candidate. “I know that you have been a Democrat and you have voted Democrat,” Hutto-Blake said. “But you are going to go to a State House with 160 state representatives, and there’s only one other unenrolled or elected representative with no party affiliation. Why do you believe that in representing these 18 towns that you can go into the State House, not only as a newbie and having to do it on the job experience, trying to get on a committee, much less ever chairing a committee as a non-affiliated elected representative? I just don’t get it. Why?”

Tommie Lou Hutto-Blake of Becket. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“If I’m elected your representative, I’m not just going to be representing the blue team or red team, I’m going to be representing everybody in Berkshire County,” Mitts said in response. “I think that the polarization that’s been going on for the last four years, at least more like eight, has been like a poison pill, and I’d like to bring things back to the center. I think that everybody has to be listened to. Everybody has to make people comfortable coming to you, sharing their concerns, whether they’re red or blue or purple. So that’s what I’m about. I’m going to be serving everyone in the 18 towns, not just the red people, not just the blue people, not just the purple people.”

“I’ve worked with Marybeth for four years now, and she’s awesome,” White said. “Everybody up here, I think that they’re all awesome, and I think that any of us would be great at this job. I will say this, though, Smitty represented everybody as a Democrat. State Sen. Paul Mark represents everyone as a Democrat. You don’t need to be an independent to represent everyone, and I am certainly going to represent everyone.”

In response, Davis spoke about her family’s background. “My father was a Republican, and my mother was a hardcore, liberal progressive,” Davis said. “The reason why I mention this is because our dinner table conversations were balanced. They were respectful, and they came from different perspectives, and I learned a lot.”

Davis added, “I’m a proud Democrat, but I respect people and I will listen to them.”

“I will compromise, and I will be balanced, but I will always stick to my values,” Davis said. “And my values are Democrat.”

“I respect Marybeth’s decision to go in the middle,” Minacci said. “I agree with her about it, that the world has gotten on two sides. People are angry and disenchanted, but I am going to stay true to being a Democrat. I do believe I’m a conservative Democrat, but I am more in the middle and very fiscally prudent.”

Minacci said that she is not a progressive but is “open minded.” “I listen to people of different viewpoints,” she explained. “My religion is one that is not common, but I don’t think that’s a part of my political field, and I don’t need to talk about it unless I want to. But I don’t think we just need to focus on ‘are we a Democrat or a Republican or independent?’ It’s about the person and what they can bring.”

The one question that got applause from the audience was posed by Stockbridge resident Brad Fitzgerald. “How high a priority is saving the natural environment, and how do you plan to do it?” he asked the candidates. “Against all of your proposals tonight, all four of you, economic development, ripping down woods, asphalting roads, more jobs, bringing up more people [into the area], that is not helping the planet.”

Fitzgerald told the candidates that he was asking the question because the candidates did not address environmental issues during the forum. “The world is on fire, and I don’t mean wars, I don’t mean blue and red, I’m saying the planet,” Fitzgerald said. “There are people like me that first came to the Berkshires because of nature. I wonder if I made a mistake. There are people like me who think to protect wetlands, that doesn’t mean asphalting roads. There are people [in the area] with eco anxiety.”

Stockbridge resident Brad Fitzgerald. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

In response, White cited his environmental experience. “I’ve been one of the three Berkshire County representatives appointed to the Governor’s Community Climate Advisory Board, and I was vice president and treasurer of our local land trust in Stockbridge,” White said. “I’ve been in this fight for decades. The first project out of the gate when I got elected to the Select Board was when I put forth an emergency proposal to save an old growth forest which was subject to invasive pests. The same way we talk about climate refugees that are humans, the exact same thing is predicted to happen with animals. They’re coming north to escape heat. I think we’ve got to really balance housing needs around the preservation of the rural character of these communities, especially the forests.”

“We need to heal the environment, and we are in crisis mode,” Davis, who is a member of the Great Barrington Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force, said in response to Fitzgerald. “I am going to try to heal [the environment] by bringing back money to western Massachusetts. I feel strongly that we are offering so much to the rest of the commonwealth [through the environment] that there should be ways that we receive funding, through our carbon sequestration, that we are able to bring that money and preserve our land and heal our water and clean our air. We want to make sure that we are getting credit for having beautiful and clean air, and having forests and wetlands. If people who are coming to western Massachusetts are enjoying that, we should be receiving money back from the state, because we are a carbon sequestration place that the rest of the Commonwealth needs.”

Minacci, who is the chair of the Stockbridge Bowl Stewardship Commission and is a member of the town’s Land Trust Conservation Commission, said that “we need to be careful with zoning and how we build our homes.” “We have to be mindful of materials that we use [to build homes] and how we heat them,” Minacci said. “We don’t need to tear down [existing] buildings. We have abandoned buildings that we could revitalize, and they could be homes for people or businesses. Why not try to rethink things and try to do them in a different way?”

“As far as Lenox goes, we have a Master Plan that lays out 12 different issue areas,” Mitts said. “One of the most important things in our Master Plan is preserving a corridor for animals to successfully transect from Kennedy Park to October Mountain [state forest area]. That was one of our goals of our Municipal Vulnerability plan.”

In her response, Mitts, who said that she is a member of Caretaker Farms in Williamstown, emphasized the need of preserving local farms as part of helping the environment in the area. “I think that there are also ways that we can work with the Conservation Commissions and the land trusts to preserve our environment and also help people,” Mitts said. “People need places to live, and we can apportion some land out in order to build more rental housing and to build more homeownership programs.”

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