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Hampshire Gazette

O'Brien fuels local political scene
By Mary Carey
November 2, 2002

Activists across the political spectrum say it has been an intense campaign season in the Valley for a range of reasons, not the least of which is a gubernatorial race too close to call that involves Shannon O'Brien, who hails from Easthampton.

If O'Brien wins on Tuesday, she would be the first female elected governor of Massachusetts, and the governor with the strongest connection to the Valley since Calvin Coolidge of Northampton was elected in 1918.

And if that weren't enough to stir interest in the area, there was drama in both party primaries, perhaps particularly so on the Democratic side where former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich developed a passionate following locally.

Third-party candidates, meanwhile, worked steadily to build their own political bases and could pick up votes from unenrolled voters and others who are turned off by the major party candidates' negative campaigns.

Area Green Party members have rallied around their candidate, Jill Stein, despite the insistence of Democrats that a vote for anyone other than O'Brien in such a close election equals a vote for Republican Mitt Romney.

And three hotly contested ballot questions on the income tax, bilingual education and the Clean Elections law also have contributed to the activity, as have two non-binding local questions about House Speaker Thomas Finneran and instant runoff voting.

"There is just a lot of different issues for people to be involved with," said Democratic activist Alice Swift of Amherst, a supporter of the Clean Elections law. "I think we'll all be glad when the election is over and we can all get back to our lives - hopefully with joy and not too much discouragement. And overlaying everything is the war in Iraq."

Democrats united

Swift was a passionate supporter of Warren Tolman, the only Clean Elections gubernatorial candidate, in the Democratic primary and she is representative of area Democrats who have shifted their support to O'Brien.

When Reich supporters flooded area caucuses in February, accounting for 70 percent of elected delegates to go to the party's nominating convention, some Democrats questioned whether they would stay involved if Reich lost.

Not only have they remained active, but Reich himself has been to back to the Valley to encourage Democratic and unenrolled voters, as well as those with third-party leanings, to vote for O'Brien.

"A vote for the Green Party is in effect a vote for the Republican Party," Reich told Democratic activists in Amherst last weekend.

The Democrats have not always been as united. Lackluster support from some elected Democratic officials, including Finneran, hurt 1998 gubernatorial candidate Scott Harshbarger.

"There are no defections like there have been in the last three governor's elections," said Edward O'Brien of Easthampton, the gubernatorial candidate's father. "In our party, if we're going to win this thing, we've got to win it on the streets. We have to make up in troops what they can buy and pay for. But they can't buy and pay for the army of people that are working for Shannon."

Republicans upbeat

Although Hampshire and lower Franklin counties are largely Democratic territories, Republicans expect their candidate will also do well locally. Romney's late entry into the race energized the flagging GOP statewide, much as it did when he ran against Edward Kennedy for U.S. senator in 1994, said John Andrulis, chairman of the Northampton Republican City Committee,

Area Republicans quickly jumped on Romney's bandwagon when he announced just days before their party's convention in April that he would run, nudging acting Gov. Jane Swift aside. But they were divided on who to support for lieutenant governor - Jim Rappaport, who had been actively campaigning for a year, or Kerry Healey, Romney's chosen running mate.

Andrulis, who had been a Rappaport supporter, said he found himself and the Northampton Republican City Committee were left more or less "out of the loop" following the primary.

"I do think the lieutenant governor's race was a bit divisive," Andrulis said. "There's no great animosity of any sort, but a lot of people including myself were working for Rappaport weren't absorbed back into the campaign very easily."

Andrulis counts himself among voters who are somewhat dispirited by the negative tenor the gubernatorial campaigns have taken.

"The negative campaigning in the past couple of weeks has been the most negative I think I've seen going back to Barry Goldwater and the commercials of the little girl picking daisies with the countdown to the nuclear blast in the background," Andrulis said. "I think it really tends to turn off a lot of undecided voters. I know some who say, 'This is terrible and I'd rather not vote for either of them'."

Still, although voters say they don't like negative advertising, it seems to influence them in the voting booths, Andrulis said, which is why candidates are probably loathe to abandon the tactic.

And Andrulis does feel very good about Romney. "He's dynamic; he's fresh; he's capable, and I think he'd make a very good administrator of whatever he did."

Third parties on rise

Third-party candidates could be the beneficiaries, if people vote for someone who has very little chance of winning just to send a message to the major parties.

The Green Party, bolstered by state representative candidates Michael Aleo in the 1st Hampshire District and Sue Bartone in the 2nd Hampshire District, has built support for chipping away at the balance of power on Beacon Hill.

The Democratic and Republican party candidates are virtually indistinguishable from each other, some of the Green Party members maintain.

Frank Gatti, the newly elected chairman of the Amherst Green Town Committee, doesn't buy the argument that a vote for Stein is a vote for Romney. "I would ask O'Brien people, why don't you really look at what the candidates are saying in the debates and realize your interests lie with Jill?"

Amherst lawyer Peter Vickery, one of the leading area proponents on the regional ballot questions on instant runoff voting, says if that system were in place, voters could choose a third-party candidate without the worry some Greens are feeling now.

Under the system, voters rank candidates in a multi-candidate race in order of their preference. If no one receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes redistributed according to that candidate's supporters' second choice.

In Vickery's view, even independent Barbara Johnson, who has had the least exposure of the five gubernatorial candidates, could draw a percentage point or two of the final vote - enough to make a difference. People may vote for Johnson, even if they don't know her, as a kind of "none of the above," Vickery suggested.

Libertarian Carla Howell, by contrast, has a small but committed band of supporters in the Valley, and they are just as likely to stay with their candidate as Stein's supporters are. "In my opinion this isn't a year for the-lesser-of- two-evils-voting, because the two evils are almost identical," said Libertarian Terry Franklin of Amherst.

Franklin, who has long organized the annual Extravaganga, a rally in favor of legalizing marijuana in Amherst at which Howell has often spoken, said Libertarians are an optimistic bunch and don't tend to get dispirited.

Michael Cloud, the Libertarian running for U.S. Senate against John Kerry, has gotten so little press that he is staging a hunger strike in protest, which Franklin said has caught the attention of some television reporters at least.

"It does make (Cloud) look a little like a fringe candidate," Franklin allowed. "But it seems to be working. I got an e-mail from a friend in New York who said he heard about him on the Fox news."

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