Economic development emerged as the primary topic at last night’s state senate debate, as the three candidates discussed job growth, the role of higher education and arts and tourism, as well as keeping down costs and improving infrastructure.
About 45 people attended last night’s hour long debate at the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center, which was sponsored by the Berkshire Commission on the Status of Women. It was the first of four planned debates since the Democratic primary in the race to succeed state Sen. Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. in the Nov. 7 election.
Among the issues the candidates disagreed on was the future of wind power in the Berkshires. Republican Matt Kinnaman noted that wind turbines have been “decried and resisted” across the state for good reason. He said the “monstrous contraptions” divide communities, and cost more to build than they recoup in power generation. The better solution would be to keep all energy costs low, he said, and that to that end, he would oppose any effort to raise the gasoline tax.
Independent Dion Robbins-Zust said unequivocally that he supports wind power, and challenged Democrat Benjamin B. Downing to make a definitive statement.
Downing chose to quote H.L. Mencken, that there is always a simple answer and that it is usually wrong. While saying he supports the controversial Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, he believes the proposals for the Berkshires “haven’t lived up to the promise,” which underscores the need for dialogue and community input in planning such development.
Throughout the forum, each candidate seemed to stick closely to his familiar campaign themes. Downing promised to take a bipartisan approach to the job, and encourage a positive approach and community spirit to build on the region’s current momentum.
Kinnaman talked about the importance of keeping down the cost of living and the cost of doing business to slow the state’s declines in population and growth, warning that “we need to do something different or nothing is going to change.”
Robbins-Zust billed himself as the serious progressive candidate, an antidote to the “hollow rhetoric” of the two mainstream parties, and frequently mentioned his support for legislation to ensure fathers’ rights in custody disputes.
Each of the candidates noted that this year’s health care reform legislation is a step in the right direction but incomplete, and noted the importance of higher education and lifelong learning as articulated by the Berkshire Compact as a means of economic development.
The nuances between the positions began to emerge in the details, especially on creating a successful business climate. Downing said a key component would improving the area’s telecommunications infrastructure, as well as its traditional infrastructure of roads and bridges.
Kinnaman noted the importance of lowering the costs of business. In particular, he said that the costs of car insurance rates are far too high due to the highly-regulated system. He warned that a state senator needs to ask, “is it good for the status quo, or is it good for the people?”
Downing added the importance of keeping property taxes low and of getting more state money back in state aid. “We need to make sure we get that money back to our cities and towns,” he said.
Similar issues were raised when the candidates were asked if they would support legislation to encourage wider Internet access in the region. Downing said he would support such legislation, and he would make sure to work with the region’s legislators in Washington to support it at that level as well, as well as support efforts that include the private sector like Berkshire Connect.
Kinnaman emphasized providing incentives to the private sector to expand their offerings. “This will become a place the rest of the county will look to as a model,” he said.
Among the few broader social questions asked was what could be done about teen pregnancy rates in the county, which are among the highest in the state.
Kinnaman said it was about inspiring teenagers, “to give them the tools and the hopes and the dreams to see beyond this moment,” he said. That includes setting high standards in schools, and making sure kids have what they need to meet those expectations.
Downing quoted his former boss, U.S. Rep. John Olver, that “all good solutions start with a conversation.” That must include talking with teenagers to understand their hopes and fears, he said, and is a process that must include the entire community.
In his response, Robbins-Zust noted that “fatherlessness” is a leading cause of this and other social pathologies, and he noted recent support from voters for shared parenting legislation.
Such legislation would help set an example for young people and restore “balance and equality” in society. Throughout the debate, Robbins-Zust turned the discussion back to shared parenting. He offered it as a solution in response to the question about job vacancies, as well as ones about the community preservation act in Pittsfield and encouraging greater high-speed Internet access.
Commissioner Susan Brown moderated, asking questions prepared by the commission, and a few from audience. Each candidate had a chance to respond, and a brief opportunity to respond to each other afterward if they chose.
Last night’s was the first of four debates planned in the coming weeks. The next will be Monday at the Ashfield Town Hall, followed by an Oct. 23 debate at Berkshire Community College, and another on Oct. 26 at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
By Christopher Marcisz, Berkshire Eagle Staff
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