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On Berkshire County visit, gubernatorial candidate Diehl discusses Trump endorsement, criticism from fellow Republicans

Geoff Diehl.jpg
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Geoff Diehl.

Former Massachusetts State Representative and Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl campaigned in Berkshire County Thursday. In his last statewide venture, Diehl lost a 2018 bid for Senate against Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2018. He fared particularly poorly in the Berkshires, failing to secure a single municipality in the region against Warren, who cruised to re-election.

This time around, Diehl has an endorsement from former President Donald Trump as he tries to succeed two-term Republican Governor Charlie Baker.

Diehl sat down with WAMC in Pittsfield to talk about his message, accusations from fellow Republicans that he is a far-right candidate, and his thoughts on Baker’s legacy.

DIEHL: In 2010, I supported Charlie. In ‘14 Again, and even in ‘18. But we've had some policy differences. And I think one of the big ones most recently was his trying to push TCI, a Transportation Climate Initiative. And back in 2014, he and I both supported work I was doing on a repeal of indexing our gas tax to inflation, for example. That was part of a 2013 bill that Deval Patrick had put in place. And what my argument back then at the time was, was that the gas tax really hits middle to low income families the hardest. It's not just what they pump into their car, but it's also the goods they purchase – there's an extra cost to it because of transportation of goods – and also property taxes. So no municipality is exempt from the gas tax as far as police cars, fire trucks, ambulances. So we said, it's really a regressive tax that hits those families the most. Their cars are less fuel efficient. So you know, he was with me then. We repealed that. And by the way, thank goodness, we repealed indexing our gas tax to inflation, because if you can imagine now, where, with gas costs, what it would be if it was still tied to inflation. It would be quite a bit higher than what we're seeing even today. But, you know, Governor Baker had pushed TCI a few years ago, another attempt to try to create an additional cost to fuel in our state. And I think it was just something where he and I very, very differently saw where that should be going. So luckily, he pulled that that plan, and it's not going forward. But overall, I think what Charlie Baker was focused on and what I want to continue to do is make sure Massachusetts is a great state for an opportunity to grow. You know, unfortunately, last year, we lost 50,000 residents. We had a net loss of 50,000 people total, in our population. I want to make sure Massachusetts is an affordable state to live in, not to leave. And I think part of that is making sure that government is transparent with where they spend the money and that it, government delivers on the services they promised. And I think that's something that he was trying to work on. Something I want to run, take the ball and run with.

WAMC: what's your read on your current rivals in the Republican primary? Chris Doughty and his running mate Kate Campanale have distinguished themselves from you by describing you as farther to the right than them. I spoke with Kate earlier this week, and she characterized you as being our far right candidate. So amidst all this, what's your read on Chris and Kate's campaign?

Yeah, no, look, I've gotten to meet Chris Doughty once and I know Kate from the legislature. Great people, but at the same time, I think- I've had a chance to run statewide when I ran in 2018 for US Senate, a really, a wonderful chance to meet a lot of people around the entire state, build up a network of support. And I feel that, you know, again, it's everybody's right to run and obviously put out policy they think is, or their position of where they are maybe on that political spectrum. But in my opinion, my whole goal is to connect with all voters. It's not about right or left. In fact, I think we're living at a time right now where it's not so much Democrat or Republican as it is sort of big government taking a very intrusive roll over we the people. And, you know, the pandemic really brought that out in a big way. We saw government shut down businesses, education sort of shut down overnight in 2020 and then ‘21 was a tough year with a hybrid model. So I think we need to make sure that our government is prepared to deliver those services like education correctly. I don't see it as a left or right thing. I just see it as making sure government's delivering what it's supposed to deliver.

With that said, you've been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, certainly a polarizing figure in American politics, and to hear the only declared [Republican] lieutenant governor candidate in Kate Campanale describe you as a far right candidate- any thoughts on that?

No, I mean, look, I, I supported the president and his administration and the work they did over the last four years because he was talking about things that really resonated with me when I was serving in office, and that was making sure that American manufacturing was put foremost. As a small business owner – but I also worked for manufacturing companies – I saw that, you know, the trade deals that we had with other countries wasn't necessarily working for us. Energy costs in our state, in our country, were out of line. So he was talking about making sure we were energy independent, I thought that was fantastic. He was talking about bringing soldiers back from endless wars overseas that they didn't need to be in, and, you know, not serving the American, you know, political or national interest, really. So I just felt like he was speaking about things that were beyond party as well. So that's why I thought those four years we had with President Trump and the lowest unemployment in 50 years were successful. Right now, you know, we're seeing, obviously, runaway inflation. We're seeing fuel costs spiking. And this is before the Ukraine situation. We're seeing, you know, again, a country kind of trying to come out of a pandemic, and we've got state employees that were forced to get a vaccine or else they'd lose their job. I don't think that's right. So my goal is to kind of have a reset here in Massachusetts to focusing on what's good for the individual, what's good for the family, letting parents make the decisions over their kids’ masks, or over their kids’ inoculation or vaccines. You know, I think that's where we need to get back to, is giving those individuals power back and not centralizing it, you know, at the state level or even at the federal level.

What was it like to get the endorsement from Mr. Trump, and have you seen a bump on the campaign trail as you go around the state with that in your back pocket?

Yeah, no, I mean, having the endorsement of the former president is something that obviously helps with the Republican base. He's very popular here in Massachusetts. Back in 2016, when he won his primary in Massachusetts, it was the largest margin of victory until he hit his home state of New York. 44,000 people in ‘16 unenrolled, as Democrats to be able to vote in that primary. So he had certain effect on the Republican field or Republican voters in Massachusetts, and I think that's continuing to build. We're starting to see more people moving to the independent realm. I mean, 57% of Massachusetts voters are independent. So I think, at this point, it feels like we're in a post-party situation where I think people are looking to elect candidates who are focused on core issues for the state or core issues for the country. And right now, my work in the legislature, trying to make sure that we protect law enforcement in the work that they're doing out there so that our communities are kept safe. I don't want to defund police, I want to make sure that they've got the tools they need to do their job. I think those are things that people actually connect with. Letting parents actually have a say with their school boards. I think that's important. So I want to empower those parents to have more of a voice at that level as well. Those are the things I'm more focused on than, I think, national politics or anything else.

Well, just to pull to national politics for a moment, there's been a lot of speculation about Mr. Trump running again in 2024. If he chose to do that, would he have have your support?

Yeah, I mean, look, he's got to make the case, obviously, to the entire Republican world out there that if he's going to run or not. You know, again, if we have the same policies that we had during his time in office and the same success that he had, I would be very hard pressed to see why I wouldn't support him. But at the same time, if there's other candidates that emerge that potentially want to challenge him, I'm open to hearing their message as well.

I understand when it comes to President Trump, focusing on his economic policy and his approach to business is a key part of what you're highlighting here. Just to point out an obvious fact of the last few years, he's also been such a divisive figure when it comes to a lot of social issues, when it comes to policies around LGBTQ+ communities, around immigrant communities. Any comment to folks listening to this who might want to hear your thoughts on other stances the president has taken outside of the economic realm?

I mean, I'm not exactly sure what what's been divisive as far as LGBTQ communities. I thought he's been very inclusive and opened the Republican Party more to that. We've got a Log Cabin Republican group in Massachusetts led by a gentleman named Alex Hagerty who is very supportive of President Trump, and I think, you know, would have certainly called out any concerns he would have had with the former president. But at the same time, Hispanic communities, I think we're seeing a shift of movement from them from the Democratic Party more to the either independent or conservative, Republican side. So if you're seeing those trends elsewhere, I'm not sure I'm seeing it here in Massachusetts, because I'm feeling very much that our state is moving in a direction that is looking at sort of the progressive left agenda and ideology and saying, you know, I'd really like to be getting back to the original intent of Massachusetts and this country, which is individual freedom and opportunities. And, you know, when government has more and more control over our lives, I mean, the old saying is the government that can give you everything can also take it all away. And I think people are a little bit nervous after having two years of that intense control over their lives that maybe it's time to step back and get more individual freedoms.

I guess one thing I would put out there is, for example, Mr. Trump's policies around trans people in the military. That was a divisive issue, and some would say, discriminatory against that community. So that's one example of that social realm I would draw.

Yeah, look, I mean, I support- Anybody who's willing to serve in the military, bleed for our country, I think should have the opportunity no matter what their orientation. So look, that's something maybe, right, we differ on and that's fine. I think it's okay to not always be in total lockstep with everybody at all levels of government. I think it's important within each party to have that big tent. So, yeah, I think having different opinions is totally fine.

So another common topic in Massachusetts is that of abortion rights and abortion access. With the Supreme Court likely overturning part of or more of Roe v. Wade in the coming term, what are your thoughts on reproductive rights in Massachusetts?

Yeah, well, I mean, obviously, the Roe Act in Massachusetts codified Roe v. Wade so that it wouldn't be overturned- If it was overturned nationally, it wouldn't affect Massachusetts. I think that discussion at this point is over,

Looking at the other side of the aisle in this election, the front runner in the Democratic primary is Maura Healey. She's got a large war chest, name recognition. At this point, with the presumptive head to head of you against Healey, what are your thoughts on her? What do you make of her as a rival?

Yeah, well, I mean, as an attorney general, she's had a lot of time to obviously raise money. So people think that the war chest is a big number, but I can tell you in 2018, when I ran in a three-way primary, one of my opponents spent close to $6 million in that primary. So you can spend a lot of money pretty quickly. So we'll see what happens with her own primary with Sonia Chang-Díaz. You know, I think that Maura Healey has to reconcile with the language she used in 2020 during the riots around the country, [she] famously said that, yes, America is burning, but that's how forests grow. She was, in a way, sort of condoning the murders, the fires, the looting that was happening around the country. You just can't broad brush say well, that's okay. In my opinion, as top law enforcement officer for Massachusetts, she really should have thought maybe twice about making a statement like that. But she'll obviously have a chance to make an explanation about that, and I'll certainly bring it up during the debates if that comes up. Overall, she spent quite a bit of time in office, I think, suing the federal government during the Trump administration. I'm not necessarily sure where that's gotten us as a state. I mean, she's, I would say, a fairly activist attorney general, but again, she'll make her case. And I know she announced a few weeks ago, her campaign. I really haven't seen her on the campaign trail since so I guess we have to wait and hear more about what she's got to say before I know where she's going with this campaign. But again, I look forward to it. I ran against Elizabeth Warren in 2018, had three debates with her. I look forward to having those debates with whoever comes out of that Democratic primary.

Another time between you and the Trump World is Mr. Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump advisor who's advising your campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Mr. Lewandowski and what he's contributing to the Geoff Diehl bandwagon?

Sure. Yeah, he's a campaign consultant who lives in New Hampshire. He's very close to Massachusetts. In fact, he's a native son. He lived in, he grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. And so he's been involved in a lot of campaigns, actually, here in Massachusetts. I think Peter Torkildsen was a congressional campaign he worked on at one point. And so, he and I have known each other for several years. And he was, looked at this race as a chance to- I think he believes this is a winnable race, he's looking forward to helping deliver that win. So, for me having him be able to bring a lot of those national sort of ties of, you know, the Republican Governors Association nationally, it's important to have them keep an eye on this race. So I think he's able to help relay the status of this race on a regular basis to folks that want to, you know, look at this race from the outside and say, this seems like it may be a winnable race.

Are you going to seek Mr. Baker's endorsement as the campaign continues?

Yeah, I think Charlie and I will have a talk at some point. I mean, I know that right now, he decided only a couple months ago he's not rerunning. He's got, his focus, I think, is getting us out of the pandemic right now. He's got some legislation he's trying to get done. I will have a discussion at some point as to where he feels he wants to be on support for all the campaigns. But I think it's a little early for that discussion, especially since I still have a primary.

Where do you see, at this point, this race winning and dying? Where are the points in the state that you think are the most important to hit as you as you make your rounds around the commonwealth?

Well, yeah, I can tell you, coming from the South Shore, I am close to a lot of the fishing industry. So you talk to people in fishing, they feel that no other regulations, federal regulations kind of infringe on their ability to get things done as far as what their fishing grounds are. The monitors that are, have to be on those boats with them sort of interfere with their ability to do their job, and then also sort of kind of miscalculate some of the catch that's coming in. So I'd like to try to give the fishermen a better shot of doing their job and being able to- I mean, we've got the most valuable fishing port in the United States out of New Bedford. And I think that the fishing industry is vital to our state. We're siting wind turbines in some of the areas where they have their shellfish industry. So I want to make sure that they're not just overlooked when it comes to our energy policy or over overall regulations coming federally. That's just coastline type of things. Energy as a whole, though, in Massachusetts is going to be a big issue, because we have renewable commitments, wind and solar commitments that are pretty high, and we're, you know, we’ve got an effort to try to use less fossil fuel. The problem there is that we're going to have a big gap and when the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, which was 19% of our state's energy, was shut down two years ago, we're trying to figure out how to fill that gap. So now we're seeing high energy costs, obviously. And, you know, that's home heating oil, that's also fuel for trucks and cars. We’ve got to figure out a way to, you know, I know people want to go to electric cars, but it can't happen overnight. So you've got to find a way to do this transition in a way that doesn't just bankrupt everybody overnight. And I think that's sort of where I think the next biggest crisis is going to be, because it could push a lot of manufacturing out of our state. You know, we see Smith and Wesson moving out of Springfield recently. Part of it, I think, is overall economics. But some of it, I think, is politics. I mean more, Healey basically says that she wants to make illegal 60% of what they manufacture. And so they said, well, we can't continue to manufacture in Massachusetts, and so 750 jobs and their headquarters are moving to Nashville, Tennessee. So I want us to make sure that we don't lose some of these traditional industries in our state as well.

Something I often hear from leaders in rural communities in Berkshire County is the desire for more support from the state. It's safe to describe you as a fiscal conservative. How do you sort of reconcile a lot of conversation in Western Massachusetts about the need for increased state spending with a larger policy that's opposed to more state spending?

It's not opposed to state spending. It's opposed to wasteful state spending. You know, one of the big problems, I think, when the gas tax, for example, in Western Massachusetts was, they're asked to burden more of the funding that goes into being dumped into the MBTA, for example. The T has been a major money loser for a long time, and the mismanagement there is pretty infamous at this point. So you know, what does a person in Western Massachusetts do about, you know, having to pay more at the pump with a gas tax increase, the state gas tax increase, when the money that's going to Boston then is being wasted? I want to make sure that the money that we're collecting is going to the place that is supposed to go. So it's not about cutting spending. It's about making sure that that funding is being spent correctly. That's where I reconcile it.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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