Great Barrington — Andrea Harrington wore red the morning she met me at Rubi’s here for an interview, a color appropriate right now as this 41-year-old attorney and Democratic Senate candidate enters the political ring at a critical turning point for the Berkshires and a rural district that also includes Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.
Harrington, along with Democratic candidates Adam Hinds and Rinaldo Del Gallo, will face off in the September 8th primary.
With the slow death of traditional industry, the effect of a tough economy in these rural hills is spreading in different ways. The population is declining and aging, schools are taking financial hits, people are having trouble paying their taxes, and jobs are hard to come by. Opioid addiction and related crime is reaching crisis proportions, and rural towns are all like little Olivers begging the state to please give them more, more, to keep up with roads and bridges and, equally important, to help pay for high speed internet, one measure that may help all of it.
Harrington says these issues are all connected, and says she knows these Berkshire struggles well as a working mother of two who grew up in Richmond and Pittsfield and was the first in her family to graduate from college.
She comes from a family of farmers, carpenters, General Electric and Sprague Electric workers. Her mother had a house cleaning business and sewed curtains at night. In third grade, Harrington started helping her mother clean houses.
“When my mom was 19 and I was a baby, she would pull us to the grocery store in a wagon and take a taxi home,” Harrington said of her early life in Pittsfield.
“I bring my experiences with me,” she added, noting that at the heart of her campaign for Sen. Benjamin Downing’s (D-Pittsfield) seat is support of working families both here and across the state.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Harrington. “I know from my own life, I’ve been though struggling times,” she said, recalling her unpaid maternity leave. “Paying for kids to go to daycare and working, and all the expenses—the financial stressors are very real.”
Harrington, who, with husband Tim Walsh also owns Public Market in West Stockbridge, had to take a leave of absence from the firm Hellman, Shearn & Arienti in order to campaign. There was no other way to do it, she told me. “Litigation is very intense,” she said.
The mother of two says she “feels lucky to be running in a progressive district.”
She decries the lack of support for families in the U.S.; it harms families and really takes a toll on women, she says. She said she would also join forces with other female legislators who have made advances for pay equity, for instance.
As a former lawyer for indigent clients on death row in Florida, as well as clients in the Berkshires, Harrington says she knows the money struggle has a domino effect.
“Death penalty appeals trained me to look at the root cause of the problem.” She also sees it in family court: “Domestic abuse, drug use, divorce.”
Berkshire County has the highest poverty rate in the state, she noted. “There’s a lot of unawareness. I represent a lot of indigent criminal [clients] in district and juvenile court.” She said the vicious cycle is hard at work. “So much goes into extracting these fines and fees out of poor people. It doesn’t make sense.”
Harrington is hopeful that the Legislature, when it takes up criminal justice reform in its next session, will look at “shifting funding” to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment. From a financial perspective alone, she said, “It doesn’t make sense to incarcerate [mentally ill] people. It makes sense to treat people.”
Harrington supports a drug court for Berkshire County, one that would redirect those with drug use issues into treatment rather than grind them through the criminal justice system. Problems pile up for addicts, she added. “My clients—they have kids—they can’t just take three weeks off work to get the treatment they need.”
Town governments and schools are struggling, too, mostly with the “crushing” cost of healthcare benefits. In turn, the school increases and what she says is an “inequitable” state funding formula that puts rural areas at a disadvantage are pushing towns to “a breaking point.” That, she said, is “creating real animosity here between our towns,” referring in part to the struggle among Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge over how much each town should pay for its schools.
She says a single-payer healthcare system would relieve the skyrocketing healthcare increases brought on by a “powerful” industry. “This district is the most progressive in the state,” she said. “I see this opportunity [as Senator] as a way to push the progressive agenda in the state Legislature.”
But, she says, “I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver.”
Speaking of powerful industry, Harrington doesn’t like this idea of dumping a percentage of new natural gas pipeline construction costs onto utility company ratepayers, either. It’s something the Department of Public Utilities is considering. “It’s unprecedented,” she said, noting that Attorney General Maura Healey’s office was pursuing the tariff issue. Harrington said, as a Legislator, she would work to stop what is being called the “pipeline tax.”
Harrington has ambitious plans for finding new revenue sources. One is “closing corporate tax loopholes,” for instance. “We have a number of Massachusetts companies, big ones, that keep their money out of the country…in the Cayman Islands [for instance]. They’re not paying income tax on their Massachusetts earnings.”
This millionaires’ tax issue is something Rep. Josh Cutler (D-Plymouth) is working on, she said, and would place an extra tax on income over $1 million.
And Harrington says GE must be “held accountable” for finishing the “Rest of River” cleanup of the Housatonic River, and do it right. The company is moving its headquarters to Boston after being lured there with incentives by the Baker administration and Mayor Martin Walsh. “Boston can’t roll out the red carpet for GE and not have a commitment that we are not going to have toxic waste dumps in the Berkshires or anywhere in the district.”
Harrington said this is critical for economic development. “The beauty of the Berkshires, she said, “is a brand we rely on.” Part of that brand, she added, is “food tourism” here, and the draw of the farm-to-table movement and local food products.
This is one road to a stronger Berkshires economy, she said. “We could market our region to other companies like Etsy or specialty manufacturers. This is an amazing place to live.”
The economy in the eastern part of the state, she said, is growing at a “faster rate than the national economy. “We have the most aggressive economy second to Silicon Valley,” she said, adding that the west should use an “aggressive approach to building a connection to these eastern Massachusetts industries.”
Here is where things get sticky, however, since there isn’t a single town in the Berkshires with a fiber optic infrastructure and high-speed Internet to support large companies who might want to relocate here. As it is, some large local companies are paying a lot for their own broadband connections and others say they must sometimes forgo business that requires high connection speeds. While some towns are finally on the way to building an infrastructure with the help of a newly invigorated MBI (Massachusetts Broadband Institute), it’s been a long struggle that does not appear to be ending anytime soon.
Harrington says she’s a supporter of the WiredWest cooperative model of bringing towns together to solve this funding problem. “It makes intuitive sense,” she said, noting a Harvard University study that also said it was a good idea. She said she was also open to other solutions, however. Harrington says she will work with towns and the MBI and “really push for progress.”
She worries about the possibility of the telecom industry’s influence in keeping the status quo here, and the “crazy insane profits Verizon makes,” for instance. She wondered if there was a way to make these companies “kick in money” to wire up the rest of the state. “Nobody’s talking about this,” she said. “Is it a political nightmare? Why is this not happening?”
Harrington has so far been endorsed by several unions: Local carpenters SIEU 888, carpenters union local 108, mental health workers SIEU 509, and the Massachusetts Womens’ Political Caucus. A building trades union will announce soon, she said.
She sees her job in part, she said, as “going to Boston fighting for dollars and better policies to support our area.” Back home, she says, she will “support collaboration–I’m a strong advocate for a region-wide approach to economic development.”