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Rep. Pignatelli discusses decision to step down after 22 years representing the Berkshires on Beacon Hill

Smitty Pignatelli.
Smitty Pignatelli.

Democratic Massachusetts State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, who has represented the Southern Berkshires on Beacon Hill for two decades, will not seek a 12th two-year term. Pignatelli was first elected in 2002, and has enjoyed little competition for his seat in the years since. Given his seniority, the Lenox native serves as the de facto dean of the region’s three-member legislative delegation to the State House in Boston. Often running unopposed in both the primary and general elections, Pignatelli won his most recent challenge against a Green-Rainbow candidate in the 2022 race with 90% of the vote. WAMC with Pignatelli about his decision to step down, what’s next for the long tenured legislator, and the exact moment he realized his time in office would end.

PIGNATELLI: Probably Sunday morning. [laughs] I had a lunch planned with my family and some great personal friends and supporters, and I was going back and forth for days, to be very honest with you. But then I ultimately said, it's the right time, it's the right thing to do, and I made the announcement with my family on Sunday morning. And then, so- We're moving on, we're moving on. But we have more work to do, and I'm going to be running through the tape at the end of my term. So, I’ve got 11 more months to go.

WAMC: Now, at this point, do you have a sense of what is next for Smitty Pignatelli?

No, I really don't. I'm just thinking what's next is our budget is coming up in the next couple of months, that'll be my priority. Trying to keep West-East rail on the front burner, and working with the EPA to try to force GE to use trains versus trucks on the cleanup of Housatonic River. So, we have a lot of priorities that are immediate, and then long term, trying to lay the groundwork for whoever my successor is going to be to keep a West-East rail on the front burner for the long haul. But we had a lot of work to do this, for the rest of this year, and that's what I'm focused on right now.

You've been so rarely primaried over the course of your career that it's a little hard right now to point to a very clear successor or somebody's built up the same sort of cachet that you have over your time in office. When you think about someone who might succeed you, Smitty, who comes to mind?

I've had to have two people reach out to me just yesterday, expressing an interest in wanting to sit down to understand what the job entails. So, I think it's going to be a wide-open seat, I think there'll be several people who are interested. Because, if you think about it, my predecessor served 20 years, I'm 22 years, so, whoever the next state rep will be, he or she could be there for 10 or 20 years. So, if anybody's even remotely thinking about it, this would now be the time to do it. But I'm not going to single any person out, I think that's going to be their individual decision, but if I can help in any way, I'm there to give them some understanding of what the job entails. But it's the largest district in the House of Representatives, two and a half hours from the statehouse, and making sure whoever he or she may be is primarily focused on the constituents of the district more so than the people on Beacon Hill.

Now, you've alluded to this, but what conversations do you think have to happen in whatever race there is to fill the seat in your absence?

I just think it's- I think housing insecurity is a very serious problem in the Southern Berkshires, maybe more so than Pittsfield or North Adams. I think working closely with the administration to make sure we get our fair share. I'm a big advocate of regional equity. We're a small delegation. Unfortunately, as you know, we lost a state rep in the last redistricting in the census. So, we're small, but we have to be vocal, we have to work as a team, to be trying to pull in the same direction- But at the same token, we need to be very parochial about our respective districts. And housing insecurity is a real serious problem, our lack of legitimate public transit is a problem here, and trying to fill the economic void of the unfilled jobs all throughout the Berkshires has to be a priority, making sure whoever it is stays focused on those issues.

As you look ahead, do you see more public service? Do you see moving to the private sector? There’s certainly any number of nonprofits in the Berkshires I'm sure would be interested to at least take your CV- What direction do you see yourself going in?

Well, you know, service to our communities is in my DNA. It was ingrained in me as a young boy, watching my father, working hard in his career, but also giving back nights and weekends in locally elected office. So actually, I saw the joy that my father received by being in a position to help other people. So service is in my DNA, and that will continue in some shape or form. But as far as running for another elected office at the state level, that's definitely not in the cards, and I have no interest in doing that. And I actually believe I could maybe be as helpful or more helpful in the private sector, helping to make our communities special.

You've talked about some of the unique challenges of your district- If you were to give someone the Smitty Pignatelli handbook on canvassing and running an election in such a large rural area without a major single population hub – I suppose you could argue it's split between Great Barrington and Lee in your case – but talk to us about that. When folks are on the ground trying to actually seek office in the Southern Berkshires, what's your guide to success?

Make it personal, meet people where they are, treat people in Mount Washington with 150 people as equally as you choose somebody in Lenox with 5,000 people. So, the issues never really change, only the faces, and to make that personal connection, I think, goes far, and that's what I've really taken great pride in that regard. So, just don't focus on the populated areas when you're running for office, treat everybody the same, and every vote makes a difference. And my dad always taught me, he said, talk to as many people as possible, someone may have an idea that you've never thought of. And that's what I've been able to do, is just talk to people, understand where they're at, and meet them where they are, and we can make intelligent informed decisions as elected officials if we do that.

When you look back over the decades on Beacon Hill, are there any moments or votes that stand out to you as being particularly momentous in the Smitty Pignatelli legislative experience?

Well, when I first got elected back- I took new took office New Year's Day 2003. The biggest topic was, we had a budget deficit at that time, and same sex marriage was the issue of the day. The eyes of the world were on Massachusetts when we were debating that. I was very concerned. It was a very split issue in the district 20 years ago. And I thought I'd be there for more than one term, but this issue is going to make a difference. And I talked to some friends and they said, are you going to be on the right side of history? This is your civil rights issue of your generation. What are you going to do? And 45 minutes later, I gave my maiden speech in support of same sex marriage. I laugh a little bit about it no, because it's kind of become more of a norm, but at that time, it was very controversial and was very contentious. But we did the right thing. So, that was a historic moment, and that opened the door for America to embrace same sex marriage. But Massachusetts was a leader. The other thing a few years later was our struggling healthcare system. And once again, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to have healthcare for every citizen, which led to Obamacare, which we talk a lot about now, still, but Massachusetts was once again a leader on that. And I was there advocating for our rural hospitals, in particular Fairview Hospital, to make sure that they weren't ignore, and we did some good things for them. The other thing on a much larger scale than – I have some personal reflections as well, but – the larger scale issue was it was the Berkshire delegation at that time that had the idea of the Cultural Facilities Fund. Still, the only state in the nation to have a fun like that to help our creative economy, the economic engine of so many areas, specifically the Berkshires, to develop a partnership. That was an idea from the Berkshire delegation, and 20 years later, I'm the only one from that original team that established that. So, I think we've paved the way for some great things leading into the next generation, and I've always been a great believer of doing things for the next generation and not worrying about the next election. That's what leaders should do, and that's what more politicians should be leading on instead of making votes based on how many votes are going to get or lose. Just do the right thing. The election will take care of itself next time.

Do you have any regrets, looking back over your 20 years in office?

Oh, there's always regrets. I mean, there's always things that- The work never gets done. There's always more work to do. You turn one page, and there's ten more to go. And then, so, there's always regrets. There's nothing that stands out glaring to me. Probably more frustration that the legislation takes years, which I learned. It’s a marathon, not a sprint- You've heard me say that before. Sometimes you have an idea you think should happen right away. It takes time, you have to cultivate, you have to build friendships and relationships, where the average piece of legislation today takes six or seven years to pass. So, I think that's the frustration part, that is not immediate. But that's just how government works. It’s very slow, very deliberate. But that's what democracy is, and you have to have patience to deal with this job.

As you prepare to hand over the keys to the Southern Berkshires, what are your thoughts on the current state of the community? Are you unsure about it, are you confident about it? What does the near future hold for this region that you’ve represented on Beacon Hill for so long?

No, I feel my district, I think, is in very good shape. There's going to be some challenges, like the housing affordability, which every community from Lenox to Egremont and everywhere in between, they're talking about it, they’re trying to develop plans. I've been advocating for them for years to- The state government is not going to fund ideas or concepts, we're going to fund products, we're going to fund shovel ready programs. So, position yourself to get a program ready to go, and then come to me, ask for some money. Every town is doing that from a housing affordability standpoint, and so I think it is well positioned to do that. The other glaring thing that I'm going to be focused on the rest of this term is our EMS, our ambulance services. That's becoming a very serious problem in our rural towns, and I think we need the state help, we need the towns to be getting together and start thinking about sharing services instead of trying to do things on their own, and it's about survivability, it's about public safety, and people coming to the Berkshires, especially South Berkshire, give them the services that they need or have come to expect to have a quality of life. And that's why Fairview Hospital has been so important and education is important- But having first responders services is paramount. So, there's a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do, and it's never going to end. But I hope I leave here with whomever my successor is going to be in a good position to pick up the baton and keep running forward.

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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