Two of the three candidates in the Democratic primary for Berkshire District Attorney met in Great Barrington, Massachusetts Thursday night, where they discussed a progressive transformation of the office.
In the main hall of Hevreh — a Southern Berkshire Reform Jewish congregation — attorneys Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight answered questions and occasionally sparred at a forum sponsored by the synagogue, Multicultural BRIDGE — a Lee nonprofit that encourages “mutual understanding and acceptance among diverse groups” — and Berkshire Interfaith Organizing. The third candidate, incumbent DA Paul Caccaviello, was unable to attend after the date for the conversation was moved from August 6th; he had a conflicting campaign event in Adams.
Both Harrington and Knight promoted a vision of the District Attorney’s office in which it would be more transparent and accountable, less aggressive on some issues, and fairer to people of color.
“So what we see happening in the District Attorney’s office right now is we see basically a continuation of the 1980s war on drugs. That’s still occurring here in Berkshire County," said Harrington. “We need a change in approach. We need to be very aggressive with people that are dangerous, and as part of that, I have made a pledge to reopen every unindicted sexual assault case from the past 15 years and to review those cases and to bring charges wherever there is probable cause and a survivor who wishes to seek justice in the courts.”
“I think we’ve got to do much more than what the District Attorney’s office is doing now. They go in for a day, they do a lecture, they teach these life skills — which is a great idea. But I think we need more than that," said Knight, speaking on how the office can better teach young people about addiction and domestic violence. “And what I would like to do is put together an academic, if you will, platform where professionals in the community — mental health professionals, addiction specialists, social workers, lawyers, police officers — together we go into different schools and we put on a whole — a semester-long class.”
Criticism of the absent Caccaviello was at times direct.
“I cannot believe he’s not here tonight," said Knight. “I can’t imagine what he could be possibly thinking, I mean…”
At other times, it was thinly veiled. Harrington referenced campaign donations Caccaviello has received from within the DA’s office.
“On day one I will have a policy that I will not accept campaign donations from my staff working in the office,” she said.
Knight drew on her own experience to agree.
“When I was a prosecutor in Middlesex County, both DAs that I served under said don’t even consider giving a donation, I will not take it from staff. It was never done. It’s bizarre that it happens here, and I want to make a point of that,” said Kight.
On many issues, the candidates agreed. Both want to do away with cash bail for low level nonviolent crime and work to ensure that jury selection doesn’t unfairly bar people of color from participating in the court system — though Harrington differentiated herself from Knight on that issue.
“I have to disagree with attorney Knight on the fact that there’s not a problem with how preemptory challenges are used in Berkshire County, I have seen that there is a problem with that,” said Harrington.
Rabbi Neil Hirsch, the moderator, offered a unique prompt to the pair towards the end of the conversation: “Reflect on the best qualities of your other opponents.”
Harrington credited Knight as an early political inspiration.
“When I came back in 2006, was when I came home to raise my family, and Judy was running for District Attorney then," said Harrington. "And I did not know Judy, but I thought, she’s got a lot of guts.”
Knight, after some cursory praise, took the opportunity to double down on her role as an inspiration in Harrington’s life.
“When you and I talked before you ran for the state Senate, and I encouraged you to run, you called me, and I said go for it, and you did," said Knight to Harrington. "And I think that changed your life, actually, that experience.”
She followed that up with a less conciliatory compliment.
“You’re articulate, you really speak the talking points very well,” said Knight.
“I have been not just great at my talking points- I’m able to communicate a vision for the district attorney’s office because it’s what I believe," she said. "It comes from my life experience, it comes from my work experience.”
Knight ended her remarks with a story about her own experiences with racism. Knight’s mother is Lebanese, and she says that while she passes as white, when she confronted co-workers about racist remarks made in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing — when it was mistakenly thought to be the act of Islamic terrorists — she, for a moment, felt what people of color experience on a daily basis in America.
“Instead of them going, oh my god, I’m so sorry, like, please forgive us — it was more like, they were seeing me in a different way,” said Knight.
She said it happened again after 9/11.
“Having those glimpses of someone else’s experience when we get them is a gift. It’s a gift because that’s how oneness starts," Knight said. "For that moment, I understood — for a second — what it might be like to be a black person or a full Lebenese person walking around.”
Harrington said the election was a moment of unity for the disenfranchised.
“People of color and women and marginalized people and working people — we’re in this fight together against these old school patriarchal ideas,” she told the crowd.
The last debate of the race is live on WAMC at 1 p.m. August 28th in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For more information, click here.
Primary day is September 4th.