The resistance movement in southern Berkshire County — those opposed to the administration of President Donald Trump and his policies toward health care, minorities and immigrants — may be taking a breather thanks to the distractions of the summer season, but it is by no means inactive, with plans in the works for intense protest initiatives in the fall.
From the Russia investigation, to the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the recent order prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military, the Trump administration continues to fuel anger and resentment among Berkshire County Democrats. It has even helped to revive a few Democratic Town Committees that had been dormant for years.
“To be honest, [the movement] is on summer vacation,” said Michael Wise, who chairs the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee and has facilitated much of the movement over the last few months. “Meetings have been less attended. We’re gearing up for more intensity in the fall.”
Wise organized a well-attended DTC meeting in March at the Berkshire South Community Center, partly in “an effort to get people talking and coordinating” and to help reinvigorate some of the region’s moribund Democratic Town Committees.
In some cases, the efforts of Wise and of others have borne fruit. The Sheffield Democratic Town Committee is perhaps the best example locally. Filmmaker (and Edge contributor) Ben Hillman now chairs that committee. He said before the election of Trump, the Sheffield DTC “was practically nonexistent.”
The committee “held a caucus every year and sometimes a candidate would show up. But there was almost no interest in the Democratic Town Committee and there wasn’t that much going on,” he explained.
“Now we get between 10 and 20 people at each meeting once every other month,” Hillman added. “We have a few initiatives we have tried to focus on.”
Until this spring, when Joyce Hackett revived the Democratic Town Committee, much the same was true in New Marlborough. The DTC there had been dormant for years, Hackett told The Edge.
Now, the New Marlborough DTC has five members and is planning an event in late August. Hackett said the number of unregistered voters in New Marlborough is nearly twice the number of registered Democrats in the town.
“Our job is to reach out to those unregistered voters,” Hackett explained. “That will be our challenge.”
In Lenox, the DTC was recently revived and has a new chair, Lucy Kennedy, who presides over a committee that officially stands at 20 and has done several events centered around voter registration.
“We describe ourselves as small but mighty,” Kennedy said in an Edge interview. “One of our goals is to increase our visibility.”
The DTC had a booth set at the Rhubarb Festival in June and plans to have another at the Apple Squeeze in September.
Wise said Lee and Becket have long had either strong or functional DTCs. But DTCs in some of the other small towns such as West Stockbridge and Egremont remain quite small and meet only infrequently, if at all.
Marjorie Wexler recently took the reigns of the Egremont DTC after previous chair Rosemarie Siegel moved to Great Barrington. The seven members of the committee have been working on projects as individuals but the panel has not met since the election in November
Wexler pointed to other organizations such as the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, to which several members of her DTC belong, as places where much good can also be accomplished.
Wexler is also secretary of Friends of Prospect Lake and chairs the Egremont Green Committee, which focuses on recycling efforts and reducing Egremont’s municipal solid waste output. The committee recently had an article published on The Edge.
Despite having a popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts is dominated by Democrats who control both houses of the state Legislature, the state’s entire congressional delegation and the mayors’ offices of almost all the major cities.
So if you’re a progressive activist in the Berkshires, almost by necessity you have to look outward if you want to make a difference.
“Because we are firmly progressive, we look to help others,” Wise explained.
Some, including Holly Morse of Swing Left and the Green Tea Party of Great Barrington, have turned their sights to New York’s 19th congressional district, which borders Berkshire County to the west and has a freshman Republican congressman, John Faso, who is seen as supportive of the Trump agenda (he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example) and therefore vulnerable to defeat next year, when he will presumably run for re-election.
Morse says Swing Left has been actively canvassing voters in nearby communities in Faso’s district such as Hudson, Chatham and New Lebanon in Columbia County.
Morse was on the Planning Board in New Marlborough for many years and knows the value of building strength locally. But she is focused on “NY-19” because she and other progressive activists see an opportunity to flip that nearby swing seat back to Democratic control.
“There are more than 100,000 eligible voters not registered [in NY-19],” Morse said. “The working assumption is if we register those people and get them to the polls, they will vote against Faso.”
Others have focused their energies elsewhere on causes larger than their towns. Hillman said he and members of the Sheffield DTC are advocating for the Safe Communities Act, pro-immigrant legislation still awaiting action on Beacon Hill that would essentially codify many of the principles embodied in so-called “sanctuary city” proclamations such as those announced earlier this year in Great Barrington, Stockbridge, North Adams and Pittsfield. In addition, Hillman said his group is working to get the word out about pending legislation that would ban the practice of so-called “gay conversion therapy.”
Hillman and fellow Sheffield DTC member Rick Brown are also working to get U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) to come to the Berkshires for a town hall-style meeting — something Neal has appeared hesitant to do.
When Neal came to Great Barrington Town Hall last month to announce a $300,000 Brownfields Community Wide Assessment grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, this reporter asked him whether he would commit to doing a town hall in the Berkshires.
“We’ve talked about it. We’d like to do one in the fall,” Neal said. “I’m not averse to doing them and I’ve done them earlier on in my career.”
Neal quickly pointed to an experience he and fellow Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Worcester) had eight years ago at a town hall at the UMass Medical School in Worcester. In a packed lecture hall, the two were heckled and booed by a hostile crowd while trying to rally support for the Affordable Care Act.
This event occurred at the height of the Tea Party’s feverish opposition to the initiatives of President Barack Obama, who had been in office only a few months. According to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, “McGovern was likened by an attendee to Josef Mengele, the Nazi officer who performed experiments on concentration camp survivors.”
See video below:
“So I think that we always want to make sure that it’s not about entertainment but about information,” Neal said of town-hall-style events. “I was mayor of a pretty big city so you can handle tough groups. Springfield is 100th largest city in the country, so I pretty much heard it all, so I’m not averse to holding [town halls].”
Hillman dismissed Neal’s concerns: “He had one bad experience and he hides for the next 10 years? One bad thing and he shrinks away from his constituents? Jim McGovern speaks all the time at town halls. [Neal] does show up for photo ops every now and then, though.”
Hillman added that Neal’s reluctance to make a town-hall appearance in the Berkshires “has angered a lot of people,” including himself and Brown.
“So that’s another issue we’re trying to deal with, but it’s not the end of the world,” said Hillman.
Another activist, Richard Squailia of West Stockbridge, firmly believes that change happens most effectively and efficiently from the ground up. Squailia is a member of Our Revolution Massachusetts (ORMA), a coalition of Democrats that includes many former supporters of the presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Squailia established the first ORMA chapter in Berkshire County and is actively recruiting more members.
But he was also active in effecting change in West Stockbridge, which saw longtime Selectman and Board of Health Chairman Earl Moffatt soundly defeated in both his re-election bids in November. As selectman, Moffatt was replaced by reformer Bernie Fallon.
“NY-19 is good but there’s a big vacuum in municipal government,” Squailia said in an in interview. “There is so much work to be done in West Stockbridge to inculcate liberal Democratic values in our town. Until recently, we had Republicans and Trump supporters running our town government. We need to take Democratic values and apply them to local government, apply it at the grassroots.”
Squailia has started a West Stockbridge Neighbors group on Google to “to educate., motivate and mobilize.” He is also working with Wise, the Great Barrington DTC chairman, to establish a website for South County Democrats.
And in the absence of strong and effective party leadership on the national, state and county levels, Squailia thinks the towns themselves should do what they can to promote Democratic values.
Many Berkshire County progressive activists used to be active in the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, which bills itself as a “grassroots Democratic organization, supporting progressive issues and candidates locally, statewide and nationally.”
But the brigades seem to be in a state of disarray and, at the moment, without leadership. Frank Farkas, who had been the interim head after the resignation of Sheila Murray about eight months ago told The Edge he is no longer heading the organization and that as of this week, there was no one at the helm.
“We’re going through a reorganization,” Farkas said in a phone message. “We actually don’t have a chair at this point.”
Two other local activists, Robin Zeamer and Lynne Posner, earlier this year started the Southern Berkshire Action group with an eye toward facilitating communication and coordination between the various groups. Zeamer told the Edge as of this week there were 115 members.
Zeamer has also become active with Lift+Every+Vote, an energetic voter advocacy group founded by Hackett. Zeamer has also been helping Green Tea Party canvassing efforts in Columbia County and is excited about the prospects of unseating Faso.
“Everyone I’ve talked to there has anti-Faso sentiments,” Zeamer said.
In the end, Hackett is convinced that one of the best answers that Democrats have to Republican gains is to get out the vote, though she and virtually every other Democrat interviewed by The Edge acknowledges it will be difficult to defeat Gov. Baker, who is up for re-election next year and, according to polling, has the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country.
“He has done a incredible job of being likeable,” said Squailia. “But he avoids saying very much on as many things as possible.”
In the absence of a marquee Democrat like Attorney General Maura Healey, who has declined to run, Baker will be hard to beat. The three announced Democratic candidates for the Corner Office are little known: former state administration and finance secretary Jay Gonzalez; environmentalist and businessman Bob Massie; and Newton Mayor Setti Warren. All spoke at this year’s state Democratic convention last month.
“I saw them at the convention in Worcester,” Squailia said. “Nobody’s heard of them and they will be up against the most popular governor in the country.”
“If Healey ran, everyone would become wildly excited,” added Hackett. “She got screams at the convention.”