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The Vote: Politics in the Berkshires

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There are few sure things in politics. But in recent years, you can bet on Democrats representing the westernmost part of Massachusetts.

Scanning over party designations of office holders in the Berkshires, you find a consistent theme — Democrats. All four of the area’s current state Representatives and its state Senator are members of the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t always this way. From 1970 to 1976, Republicans controlled the then-6th Berkshire District with state representative Sidney Curtiss, running unopposed in three of four general elections. Likewise, in the 2nd Berkshire District seat, now held by Democrat Paul Mark, the GOP held control for nearly a decade.

Republican Representative Shaun Kelly won consecutive elections from 1990 to 2002. Area Republicans and Democrats agree the recent trend can be traced back to the loss of white-collar, typically GOP-leaning jobs, and an influx of Democratic retirees from New York. Sheila Murray heads the Berkshire Brigades, representing the county’s Democrats.

“We’ve lost a lot of people that perhaps voted Republican before because they lost jobs here so they needed to move away,” Murray said. “So you’ve got that loss but then you’ve got these new people coming in, retiring here, second home owners that decide to spend more time here, register to vote here. So it’s increased the number of progressives voting in the Berkshires.”

Jim Bronson is the chair of the Berkshire County Republican Association.

“You always had a strong union component here so there was always plenty of blue-collar union votes that would typically go to a Democrat,” Bronson said. “But you also had a lot of white-collar jobs here and those aren’t here as much anymore either.”

Also, from 1970 to 1990, state Senate representation in the then-Berkshire District flip-flopped between the two major parties. For a period, the Republicans held the region’s state Senate seat with Jane Swift from 1990 to 1996. Swift would go on to serve as lieutenant governor and eventually as acting governor. However, since Swift’s 1996 departure, the Democrats have had a stranglehold on the state Senate seat, now representing the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District.

Ben Taylor, assistant professor of political science at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says overall, the commonwealth is more politically aware and active than other states, and Berkshire County follows that trend. In 2012, a presidential election year, 65 percent of the state’s voter age population went to the polls, while the national average was only 55 percent.

“One of the reasons people don’t sign up to vote is because they don’t want to put forth the effort,” Taylor said. “They are making a house payment, taking their kids to school, they’ve got lives. Also, we have election fatigue in America. There are lots of elections. North Adams this year is having a mayoral race. Next year will be a midterm election then you’ll have the Presidential election. You just have election, after election, after election. The lower down the food chain you go from the President on down then the lower the level of attention.”

Taylor also says some people are discouraged from registering to vote because it is tied to jury duty selection. He says expected voter turnout levels for a midterm election are 35 percent while special elections usually see 20 percent because they aren’t held in November.

The commonwealth has had a string of recent special elections due to appointments to higher positions or death while in office. In 2010, the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Ted Kennedy, drew 2.25 million voters or 52 percent of the state’s registered voters. That’s 43 percent of the eligible voting population. This year’s special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat saw about 1.2 million or 27 percent of registered voters. That’s roughly 22 percent of the eligible population.

More striking are the relatively steady voter enrollment and turnout levels in the county despite more than 15 years of Democratic control. Since 2004, the county’s enrollment numbers have hovered around 90,000, about 90 percent of its eligible population. In 2012, nearly 80,000 votes were cast in the county and in 2010, a midterm year, more than 51,500 voters turned out. But, Taylor says those numbers can be deceiving and potentially lead to continued, yet uninterested Democratic support.

“Do your representatives do what you want as a citizen?” questioned Taylor. “As long as they do then there won’t be any opening for a Republican to be competitive in this area. There won’t be any way for people to begin to reevaluate maybe their party allegiance. Maybe they were born and raised a Democrat so why should they change? If there’s no competitive Republican to demonstrate to them reasons why they should change, then they might not even reconsider it.”

Democrat Smitty Pignatelli has been representing the Fourth Berkshire District in the Massachusetts House since 2003. He finds it concerning that fellow Democrat Benjamin Downing has run unopposed in every state Senate race since being elected in 2006.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find quality people to even run for office even at the local level for Selectman or city council,” Pignatelli said. “Mayor Bianchi in Pittsfield is doing a fantastic job, but I still find it hard to believe that the capitol city of Pittsfield, with 42,000 people, there’s no opposition there. The city council races are for the most part running unopposed, Selectmen run unopposed. I don’t know if its people don’t want those jobs or they’re happy with the people that are in those jobs.”

Taylor offers a partial answer.

“Personality is such a big deal and parties are not what they once were,” Taylor said. “If you have a candidate, like Ben Downing or another politician in this area, who is elected once or twice especially if they’re Democrat it’s going to be very difficult to unseat them because they’re already there, they have a base of support, they know how to win elections now so they already know where to go for votes and how to get those people out to vote. So it really discourages participation the whole way down.”

Taylor says it’s the competitive elections that drive voters to the polls because people want to be asked to vote, creating a sense that they actually do matter to the politicians and the decisions they make. Bronson says the increasing costs of running for office and the obvious uphill battle Republicans face in the Berkshires are creating runaway races.

“A Republican in this area, this whole state really, has to be five times as good on all fronts; message, delivery of message, fundraising, ideas,” Bronson said. “Five times as good as the Democrat. We are the triple A team playing the major leaguers.”

Even with the overwhelming popularity and success of Democrats in the Berkshires, about 52 percent of the county’s registered voters are unenrolled. Jennifer Nassour served as state GOP Chair from 2009 to 2011.

“Those people are not necessarily so enthused with the Democratic Party because if they were it’s cool to be a Democrat in Massachusetts,” Nassour said. “Why not? Why be unenrolled? Why be anything else? You could be a Democrat. Go into cocktail parties and you’re not shunned like I am. They choose not to be. They choose to be unenrolled because there’s something that keeps them there. There’s something that keeps them away from registering as a Democrat. They like the fact that they can vote for a Republican when there is a good Republican.”

Both Murray of the Berkshire Brigades and Bronson, the county’s GOP chair, say they support the open enrollment system, as it gives people the freedom to vote in all the primaries, even allowing people to change their political designation at the polling station. Bronson says people in the Berkshires don’t enroll as Republicans because they don’t want to be chastised, especially businesspeople who believe it will cost them money if they do. Taylor offers another reason. 

“When you write on a piece of paper ‘I am a Democrat’ or ‘I am a Republican’ especially if you hand it off to the state for goodness sake, that is a huge psychological barrier to get over,” Taylor said. “To sort of attach yourself in that way, so visibly and so clearly with a political party.”

Nassour admits politicians in the state aren’t engaging voters enough, especially the unenrolled.

“In partisan politics Republicans are talking to the way right, Democrats are talking to the way left, everyone in between gets left out,” Nassour said. “They get frustrated.”

Mike Case is the GOP state committeeman for the Berkshire, Hampden and Franklin District. He says the lack of Massachusetts political coverage on television in the Berkshires leaves many people uninformed.

“The vast majority of the county is fed by the Albany market," Case said. "I can tell you all about Governor Cuomo, but the only thing I can tell you about Deval Patrick is that he comes out here once in a while and visits his house in Richmond. We get no news out of Boston. None at all. So people, when it comes to a state election they go in blind as a bat. They just have no idea.”

Pignatelli says if localized television coverage were to come to the area, campaign costs would increase due to advertising competition.  

“I say somewhat tongue-in-cheek thank goodness television hasn’t really hit the Berkshires yet,” Pignatelli said. “Then you would see campaigns starting to cost a lot more money than my measly $35,000 in hindsight.”

Still, area Democrats insist that if a worthy Republican candidate were to run for office in the Berkshires, he or she would have a valid shot at winning. Here’s Pignatelli.

“People in the Berkshires will tend to vote for the best candidate and the party is second,” said the Democrat. “I still believe that. Anybody who would argue with me I would say well how did we have Silvio Conte as our congressman for 32 years as a Republican? How did we have 20 years of Republican state senators?”

Kirsten Hughes is the state GOP Chair.

“We do need to challenge in places where maybe we haven’t before, in particular out here in the Berkshires,” said Hughes.

Taylor says it’s hard to convince politicians to run nowadays if they aren’t guaranteed victory.

“As long as no politician or possible candidate thinks that it’s worth their time then I suppose you’ll continue to see uncontested elections,” Taylor explained. “It’s very difficult to make the case to an aspiring politician ‘Hey, go get your brains bit in three times in the next six years so you can maybe win an election down the way!” It’s not something people like to do…lose.”