Sunday March 11, 2012

Since he left the state Senate in 2007, Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. has gone from quintessential Statehouse insider to the fringes of Berkshire County politics.

One of three Democratic contenders in the coming primary for U.S. representative in Massa chusetts' 1st District, Nuciforo began his campaign nearly three years ago touting a long list of high-profile supporters. But since then, those backers have quietly defected, and his campaign has struggled to energize supporters and raise cash.

"My opinion is that he's burned every bridge out there and he's lost credibility with the groups he should have credibility with," said John Barrett III, who served as mayor of North Adams for 26 years. "He wasn't a polarizing figure until he got blinded by his ambition, and I think that's what a lot of people are seeing."

Nuciforo, now the Middle Berkshire Register of Deeds, denies the characterization, which he brushed off as "low-brow innuendo." Still, he said, such criticism comes as no surprise: He acknowledges he's long been at odds with what he described as a "small collection of detractors."

As a state senator, Nuciforo was well liked, but the path he's taken since his departure from the Statehouse has raised eyebrows. Now he's far behind his incumbent opponent, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, in fundraising. Meanwhile, Bill Shein -- a far-left political newcomer affiliated with the Occupy Movement -- has complicated Nuciforo's attempts to capitalize on any anti-incumbent sentiments in the U.


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S. House race.

Nuciforo entered the state Senate in 1997. Late in his 10-year tenure he chaired the committee on financial services, when it was in the process of overhauling the state's heavily regulated insurance industry. At the same time, some of his biggest backers were insurance industry insiders.

His top donors in his last full year as a senator were executives from Webster-based Commerce Insurance Co. Nuciforo also raised significant funds that year from employees of Liberty Mutual, Nation One Mortgage and Arbella Insurance group.

But observers say he alienated his big-business backers -- including local bankers -- when he solicited donations from them just months before he announced he didn't actually plan to run for state Senate again.

Nuciforo said his allegiances have always been to voters -- not donors -- but the move has made it difficult for him to raise money this time around.

"The banking community felt used," Barrett said. "You contribute because you hope he'll protect your interest, and then, boom, he's not there to protect your interest."

Nuciforo further strained relations with his local base when he announced his plans to run for register of deeds in 2006, essentially strong-arming out of the race two well-liked candidates: then-First Assistant Register Mary O'Brien and former Pittsfield Mayor Sara Hathaway. The latter served as Nuciforo's chief of staff in the Senate.

Some were worried that Nuciforo just viewed the post as a stepping stone, and indeed, two weeks after he was sworn in, The Boston Globe reported that Nuciforo was seeking an appointment as Gov. Deval Patrick's commissioner of insurance.

The Globe reported that "Nuciforo's campaign to become insurance commissioner has confounded many of his former colleagues in the Statehouse and stirred the political world in Pittsfield."

Nuciforo said he wasn't "campaigning" for the job and instead was app roached by the Patrick administration.

"This has been characterized in a million different ways ... If the governor's office was going to express interest in me, I was willing to talk," he said.

The appointment never came, but the appearance that he pursued it left a bad taste.

"I think if he were leaving the Senate to run for Congress, he might have a better image than he does now leaving what was basically an interim post," said O'Brien, who preceded Nuciforo as the register of deeds and serves on the Democratic State Committee. "People talk. They thought he sort of pushed aside the two women contemplating a run. People form their opinions from experience."

O'Brien said she supported Nuciforo when he ran for the Senate. Although she described him as a responsive representative, she's supporting Neal this time around.

"I thought [Nuciforo] did a good job representing the district," she said. "He's a bright, personable guy but then he left to run for the register of deeds post."

Perhaps Nuciforo's biggest political faux pas, however, came when he first announced plans to run for Congress in July of 2009. As he made the announcement, he implied that current 1st District Rep. John Olver intended to retire.

Olver had no such plans at the time. Moreover, according to a source close to Olver, when it came to private conversations with potential donors, Nuciforo did more than just imply that Olver wouldn't run.

"He was telling everybody that Olver's out," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Then those same people got calls from [Olver's camp] asking, ‘What are you doing helping Andy out?' They were caught completely off guard."

Asked about the incident by The Eagle, Olver called it "unfortunate" but declined to elaborate.

When it became clear that Olver had no plans to immediately step down, prominent local Democrats urged Nuciforo not to run, including in a 2010 letter to Nuciforo signed by Berkshire County Democratic leaders Sherwood Guernsey and Lee Harrison.

Nuciforo still didn't back down.

"I could not understand why Andy chose to run against John," O'Brien said. "I think he jumped the gun, and I see no reason to support him over an experienced incumbent [Neal]."

Last October, Olver ultimately did announce his retirement, after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He publicly endorsed Neal last month at an event in Pittsfield.

(Neal represents Massachusetts' 2nd Congressional District. Because of redistricting, his area will merge with Olver's.)

The gathering, organized by Neal's office, drew a cadre of high-profile Berkshire County politicians, including state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, Sher iff Thomas Bowler, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi, and several current members of the Pittsfield City Council.

The guest list was reminiscent of Nuciforo's first big con gressional fundraiser in 2009, which included Downing, District Attorney David Capeless, then-Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen Massimiano, and then-Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto.

It is unclear, however, if any of those named at the time by Nuciforo as guests were actually supporters. Some -- who declined to be named publicly -- have since said they weren't informed in advance that it was a fundraiser to launch Nuciforo's bid against Olver.

Those same people said that, had they known, they wouldn't have attended. Nuciforo declined to comment about the suggestion that he tricked people into attending his fundraiser.

In either case, those marquee names have been conspicuously absent from recent events staged by Nuciforo, and his campaign kick-off party in Pittsfield a month ago drew about 50 people, a shockingly low number, according to some observers.

Nuciforo said he's no longer focused on winning the support of the county's prominent Democrats for the September primary, although he plans to announce several important endorsements in the near future.

"We're running a campaign geared directly to voters," he said. "All candidates will have endorsements by the end of this election cycle, but the endorsement that's most important is the one from voters on Election Day."

Still, longtime local Democrats such as Ruberto say Nuciforo will have a difficult time proving to voters that he's a better candidate than Neal.

"Gee whiz, it is tough to do what he is trying to do," Ruberto said. "In the short term, Neal has all the horsepower to do what Berkshire County needs to get done -- that is to have a congressman who has the position and ranking to try to funnel as much money as can be funneled into the area to help spur our local economy."

By most accounts, Nuciforo is having a tough time.

Neal has almost 18 times more cash on hand than Nuciforo. That's $2.4 million, compared with Nuciforo's $136,000. And between last fall -- when congressional districts were redrawn nationwide to account for population shifts -- and Dec. 31, the end of the latest finance reporting period, Nuciforo had raised less than $27,000.

Nuciforo since has adopted a populist tone in his campaigning, repeatedly criticizing Neal for relying on donations from big businesses.

Neal, meanwhile, has rejected Nuciforo's efforts to frame him as an insider weighed down by corporate interests. He says he welcomes support from all comers but always votes in the best interest of those he represents.

Shein, who decided to enter the race late last year, has espoused rhetoric similar to Nuciforo's -- but to a greater extreme. If Nuciforo is anti-big money, Shein is super anti-big money. Capitalizing on the Occupy Movement, the political newcomer is only accepting donations of $99 or less and said he isn't taking any money from corporations.

With the baggage that comes from being a longtime politician, Nuciforo's anti-Washington, anti-corporate money rhetoric can come across as less than genuine with Shein in the race.

"If it were a two-person race -- Nuciforo and Neal -- Nuciforo's arguments about being an outsider would have more resonance," said Tim Vercellotti, an associate professor of political science at Western New England University and director of the Polling Institute there. "Shein pretty effectively says that both of these guys are part of the problem, both in terms of the money they accept for their campaign, and in terms being career politicians."

That's not to say Vercellotti doesn't see the logic behind Nuciforo's decision to enter the race. He says the retooled congressional district provides Nuciforo with the best opening he'll have for years.

"It's a new district, one in which Neal has to introduce himself to a lot of communities where Nuciforo is well known," Vercellotti said. "If you're going to take a shot, this is the time to do it."

To reach Ned Oliver:
noliver@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @BE_NedOliver


U.S. House race

What: Democratic Primary scheduled for Sept. 6 in the newly configured 1st Congressional District.

Who: Three have entered the race so far:

  • Andrea Nuciforo: A former state senator from Pittsfield. He stepped down in 2007 to run for Middle Berkshire Regis ter of Deeds, a position he has held since. Nuciforo first announced plans to run for Congress in July 2009 and officially started his campaign last month.
  • Richard Neal: A Springfield Democrat, he has represented the 2nd Congressional District since 1989. Under a redistricting plan passed by the state Legislature, his district will merge with the Berkshires after the November election. The former mayor of Springfield, Neal is a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures.
  • Bill Shein: An Alford-based writer and freelance IT consultant, Shein is a political newcomer affiliated with the local Occupy Movement. In the early ‘90s he worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and later left to write for Comedy Central's ‘InDecision ‘92' coverage of the presidential campaign. Since moving to the Berkshires, he's written columns for various media outlets, including The Eagle.