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Great Barrington selectboard Vice Chair Davis focuses on regional equity, housing, farmland preservation in bid for Mass. state House

Leigh Davis.
Leigh Davis
Leigh Davis.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard Vice Chair Leigh Davis has entered the race for the 3rd Berkshire District seat in the state House. Rarely challenged incumbent Democrat Smitty Pignatelli is not seeking re-election for a 12th term. As the race to replace him continues to take shape, Davis and another Southern Berkshire County municipal leader – Patrick White of the Stockbridge selectboard – are running in the Democratic primary. Davis is in her second two-year term on the Great Barrington selectboard after a stint on the town’s finance committee. Known for her advocacy for regulations on short-term rentals and expanding housing, Davis tells WAMC that she’s ready to wade into state politics.

DAVIS: I'll start with the most important role I've had in my life, which is being a mom to my three children, who I single-handedly raised and supported on my own, who I love very much and who are now away at school- Two in college and one at the Air Force Academy studying to be a pilot. That's my youngest daughter who graduated from Monument Mountain Regional High School last year. For 23 years, I've worked very hard to be a role model to them, leading by example, teaching values of hard work, dedication, respect, honesty, accountability. And I taught them to seek a sense of meaning and purpose outside their selves, to work for something bigger than themselves, which I learned from my parents. My parents were public servants their entire lives. My father was instrumental in making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday, and he worked in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to broaden fair and equitable access to housing, and my mother was the assistant to Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps and husband of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy. What made my upbringing so interesting was that my mother was white and my father was Black, and as an interracial couple who married in the 60s, I know they struggled. For example, after they bought a house just outside DC and moved there, two families moved off our street, and never once in the 40 plus years that we lived in our house did the neighbor across the street ever say hello, all because of the color of my father's skin. And what was also interesting about my upbringing that relates to this office is that my father was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat. So needless to say, our conversations around the dinner table were very interesting, and these were formative years of my life and one of the reasons why I approach issues with balance and respect for other viewpoints.

WAMC: Coming from that background with different politics and different racial backgrounds, where are your politics at in 2024?

I really come from a moment of balance and common sense and investment and seeing through the lens of different populations and communities. So, I approach things, really, from almost like a puzzle. I understand the big picture and know what my goal is, and then I study each piece individually to see how they work and fit in together. Sometimes it may take a few different ways to get it right. It's really kind of seeing the big picture, knowing what the goal is, and making sure that all perspectives are honored, and that there is a sense of balance and forward thinking in everything I do.

Looking at the 3rd Berkshire district, what do you see as the major conversations in this election? What are things that you think constituents of the district are looking for in their next leader?

One of my platforms is really having a larger voice and a greater voice in the Berkshires as a region. I think that having more representation in our state house and making ourselves known that we want to fight for our fair share of state funds. This is incredibly important, because it all comes back to funding. And when I think about the role of Boston and how we're tied into state funding- So for example, with Chapter 90, which is vital funding for infrastructure and for local roads and bridges, the amount of Chapter 90 funding a municipality receives is based on local road mileage and population and employment. But the Berkshires is sparsely populated. We’re a rural area with thousands of miles of roads that need maintaining, but small towns such as New Marlborough and Becket, Sheffield and Otis, they don't have the funds to maintain them. So, the state needs to step up and provide our region with more state dollars. So, I'm very keen on that. I know that it comes down to a better representation, a stronger voice in the Berkshires, and then, moving on to that, another part of my platform- I know I’m known for housing advocacy, and but more so, I want to also increase mental health access and pay attention to the needs of our youth. My own kids went through quite a bit during the pandemic and they struggled, and I really think that we need to pay attention to our youth and to our families. I also would like to see increased access and protection for farmland, with an emphasis on community land trusts. And I strongly support our veterans and our seniors and want them to age with dignity and independence. So again, there's different touchstones in my platform, but it comes down to having a strong voice in Boston, and having testified there for three times as a selectboard member of Great Barrington, I feel that I have a sense of what's needed to make a make a case for the Berkshires.

When you look at your own record as an elected official what examples do you think stands out as Leigh Davis as a leader, and Leigh Davis as someone who is representing her community well?

So, my first year on the Select Board in 2020 – I was elected in 2019 – and just after my first year in 2020, I was a leading voice on a home rule petition which gave Great Barrington more control over the fairgrounds property when the site was being considered for return to horse racing. And how that came about was, I do what I always do- I analyze details and I see how it impacts the greater community. So, in this instance, I discovered a loophole in a pending horse racing bill that would have resulted in the citizens of Great Barrington losing control, and I honed in on the legislation. Through pages and pages of legislation, I saw one line in the bill that would have taken our local control away. As residents, we would have not been able to vote on whether we wanted horse racing. So, I felt very strongly about that, so I led a home rule petition, which was overwhelmingly passed at a special town meeting. And this presented a change which allowed us to have our voice. I then took it to the state house, where I testified before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and urged [then] Senator [Adam] Hinds to withdraw his sponsorship support. And that was a real, wonderful example of pulling together as a community and taking lead on something that would have impacted our residents for years to come. I also successfully lobbied the State Department of Transportation to install a new safety system near the entrance to Monument Mountain Regional High School where there’s several accidents over six, over many, many years. I think there was six in 2014. And it was so bad that police were not even wanting to roll there because it was so dangerous. And I really authored, or actually, I lobbied to have some accountability from the state to better address this. So, we had a new safety system installed there. I also authored a bylaw regulating short-term rentals are Great Barrington, and this was to free up long-term housing and bring the cost down for full-time residents. So, this was overwhelmingly passed, and now I have other towns coming to me looking for advice on writing their own short-term rental bylaw. And finally, I am a member of the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force. And as a member of the task force, I took a leading role in advocating for a project that would improve the safety and protect the ecosystem of Lake Mansfield, which is one of South County's most popular beaches. So, that has been closed, one-way in 2018, and the summer, we will open it up and have a pedestrian safe and accessible path that protects the ecosystem and makes the recreation area more accessible and beautiful. So, I'm very, very proud of those issues.

Looking at the man whose job you're seeking to replace, what are your thoughts on the leadership of Smitty Pignatelli over the last 20 odd years in Berkshire County? Are there areas that you would have differed with him on stances that he took?

There was nothing I would differ at all. I'm incredibly grateful that he has stepped into the conversation around the Housatonic River remediation project. So, Smitty has been a role model to me, and I owe a debt of gratitude on how he's led this region. And he's one of these people that really takes a hands-on approach, and I've learned a great deal from him. But when I saw that he jumped in into this Housatonic River remediation project and wrote a letter with the other delegates really pushing for the EPA to take a look at GE’s transportation plan and really push for trucks, and- Trucks not to be the number one way to take toxic materials out of the Berkshires, but to push for train and push for pumping. So, when I saw Smitty’s letter, I was very – along with Senator [Paul] Mark and the rest of the delegates – I was very, very pleased. With GE, it's something that we're looking that- Southern Berkshire County stands to witness more than a decade of large vehicles hauling toxic toxins on our road, and this will have ripple effects throughout the communities for years and years to come. So, that's something that I was hoping to see his leadership, and he came through.

Turning to statewide politics, one issue that provoked a lot of debate and discussion in Massachusetts last year was the tax cut and tax relief plan from Governor Maura Healey. On one hand, you had progressive groups, organized labor, a lot of folks who helped to pass the Fair Share Amendment a few years back saying that the tax relief plan offered too much too generously to the wealthiest in Massachusetts- What were your thoughts on that piece of legislation?

I was actually really happy to see that. That was a transformative piece of legislation that- I think it took a good balanced approach. So, it was $1 billion tax relief bill, and that was signed back in October, I believe. And these were the first cut tax cuts more than 20 years. So, when people have that reaction, I would say that it includes the country's largest child and family tax credit, it doubles the senior circuit breaker tax credit, and it also balances things. So, it has a reduction in the tax rate for short term capital gains. So, for me, this is a win-win. It takes steps to return our competitiveness, but also brings real savings to those who need it most, which are our families, our seniors, our renters, so I was actually very, very pleased about 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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