LENOX >> There's a job open in the state Senate as top lawmaker representing 51 cities and towns in Western Massachusetts, filling Ben Downing's very big shoes.
But the dean of the Berkshire delegation, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, won't be trying them on for size.
Observers and many of his supporters were quite surprised this past week when the Lenox Democrat announced that he would not be a candidate. He was widely considered the most qualified successor to Downing, whose achievements on behalf of his constituents over the last decade cannot be overstated.
With another potentially strong candidate, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, also deciding to pass up the Senate contest in order to seek re-election to her current seat in the House, political prognosticators are left scratching their heads.
During a conversation in his district office here on Thursday, Pignatelli emphasized that his decision to run for an eighth two-year term as state rep instead of pursuing Downing's seat was entirely personal, not political.
"I saw no political impediments," he said, noting his three decades of service in local and state government. At the interviewer's suggestion that his election to the state Senate might well have been a slam-dunk, Pignatelli acknowledged that possibility but cautioned, "that's why we have elections, there's a reason they count the votes because nothing's a sure thing."
But he did not quarrel with the notion that he would have been a formidable candidate, given his strong base of supporters and a campaign war chest of nearly $90,000.
He characterized discussions with family and friends as "are you ready to do this, do you want to do this, do you need to do this? And that's what it came down to." Pignatelli had declined to run for state Senate 10 years ago, clearing the way for Downing, then 24, to win the seat.
Lets window shut
At 56, Pignatelli acknowledged, he won't have another shot at a Senate race: "Whoever the next state senator is, unless they're a complete knucklehead, will probably be there for the next 10 years, maybe longer. This was my window of time if I was going to do it."
Instead, he hopes to continue in his current position for the next decade, or even longer, subject to approval of the voters, of course.
Pignatelli evinced no desire for greater power on Beacon Hill, listing his membership on three major committees — Ways and Means, Higher Education, Cultural Development.
Becoming a committee chairman is "totally irrelevant to me," he stressed, because the route to a chairmanship is currying favor and "going lockstep" with the House leadership. "I haven't been able to do that, I vote my conscience, I vote my district and I don't always endear myself to the leadership because of that. So I like that independent streak."
Pignatelli also touted the leading role of the state House in crafting state budgets after the governor offers his template and in playing a key role on other major legislation.
"I like the House, my friends are there and the real work is done in the House, in my opinion, and I like what we're doing. It was very tempting, but I made the right decision I have no regrets and I'm at peace with it."
So, if not Pignatelli, who? As of this writing, only community advocate Adam Hinds has announced his candidacy.
But state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Dalton, is seriously considering a run, according to Pignatelli. Mark's zigzag district in northeastern Berkshire County extends into mostly rural Franklin County, 16 towns in all.
"He would be extremely formidable, one of the hardest-working state reps in the Legislature," Pignatelli said. "Paul was supporting me, but now that I'm out, he's interested."
Decision to come soon
In a brief phone interview on Friday afternoon, Mark confirmed that he's seriously discussing with family, friends and advisers a potential run for Downing's seat.
He said he expects to announce his decision within the next several days.
Other contenders are likely to emerge, and a competitive Democratic primary in September would be healthy, Pignatelli affirmed, as he prepares to run for re-election himself, whether or not he has a challenger this time.
"I always say, nobody should run unopposed but me," he joked. "Everybody else should have a race."
Turning serious, he explained that "whether I have opposition or not, I run hard, put up my lawn signs, I do my radio ads, I do what it takes to run for re-election and don't take anything for granted."
But Pignatelli does not anticipate a Republican candidate emerging for state Senate. "I think this is a Democratic seat, a Berkshire seat even though the district is very sprawling."
"I've always said that in a presidential election year, Democrats in Massachusetts are unbeatable. I don't see how we could get beaten if we have a legitimate candidate running a legitimate campaign."
He cited a surge of online voter registration, as reported by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, that could produce an unprecedented turnout of nearly 3 million statewide in November.
The Democrats' favored presidential candidate should become clear after the delegate-rich March 1 "Super Tuesday" Democratic primaries and caucuses in a dozen states, including Massachusetts, Pignatelli predicted. (Republicans choose delegates in 14 states).
If Hillary Clinton emerges as the likely nominee, he said, "I hope she keeps Bernie Sanders engaged in this whole campaign, it's too critically important not to lose this election. I personally think Hillary is the best-suited, she's not the perfect candidate by any stretch of the imagination, but Ted Cruz or Donald Trump? That's kind of frightening."
For Democrats, it comes down to "who's the best candidate to win a 50-state election," he added.
My crystal ball is totally cloudy on the national contest in both parties, but closer to home, there's good reason to feel confident that in the post-Downing era starting next January, the Berkshire delegation to Beacon Hill will remain in steady, capable hands. In this gloomy and stressful campaign year, that's something worth cheering about.