BECKET -- In their first joint appearance of the campaign season, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and challenger Scott Laugenour of the Green Rainbow Party fielded questions from local residents in genteel fashion, staking out some contrasting positions but avoiding a debate format as instructed by the Becket Democratic Committee.
The three-hour event on Tuesday night at Town Hall was attended by at least 40 people, mostly from Becket, which joins the 4th Berkshire District currently represented by Pignatelli on Jan. 2 as a result of redistricting. The town's current 2nd Berkshire District state representative, Paul Mark, D-Peru, joined the discussion after arriving from Boston.
At the outset, Pignatelli and Laugenour confirmed that they have agreed to attend a third debate hosted by the Lenox-based Berkshire Beacon weekly newspaper on Halloween night, Oct. 31, at the Lenox Library starting at 7:30 p.m. The other two debates are at Monument Mountain Regional High School on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. and on WSBS Radio at 9 a.m. on Nov. 1.
Pignatelli explained that the 4th Berkshire District, with 21 towns (including four adjoining Berkshire County) will be the largest in the Legislature, with about 40,000 residents. He singled out as key issues the loss of employment in South Berkshire, especially in Lee's paper mills, the aging of the population, and the difficulty of attracting or retaining young residents.
He also decried me media emphasis on the personal lives of politicians -- "good quality people aren't running for public office because of the scrutiny they have to go through today. They don't want to expose themselves nor their families to that scrutiny and public criticism. So I applaud Scott, though I wish he were running for another seat, for stepping out. This race is going to be about our vision for this district."
Laugenour, calling for respectful disagreement, emphasized his belief in "multi-partisan debate it's good to have multiple opinions." Outlining his background as a California native and graduate of the University of Hawaii, the Green Rainbow candidate outlined his early teaching experience and his career in tourism as a manager and regional vice president for Marriott Hotels.
Having settled permanently in Lenox in 2003, Laugenour, 55, served as the town's representative on the BRTA board and on the Lenox Environment Committee committees. He ran for Selectman three years ago and challenged Pignatelli in 2010, garnering 17 percent of the vote.
"I am passionate, I think more voices are better for our democracy," Laugenour declared, adding that he has advised Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents on how to run for office.
Event moderator Ann Davek, treasurer of the Becket Democratic Committee, posed several questions before soliciting queries from the audience.
Asked to prioritize the key issues facing the state and the county, Pignatelli, 53, emphasized "good-quality, paying jobs," noting that GE had about 12,000 employees in Pittsfield when he was growing up in Lenox. He cited the importance of travel and tourism, notably Tanglewood, as a driver of the Berkshire economy.
Pignatelli commended recent economic development in Pittsfield, crediting former Mayor James Ruberto for his leadership. He also praised downtown upgrades in Lee. But he blasted major utility companies for raising electric rates to the point where some local companies, especially paper mills in Lee, have found them unaffordable.
While Laugenour also prioritized jobs, he listed "the debt people are incurring to stay healthy and educated" among his prime concerns. He mentioned meeting "someone with almost $200,000 in debt" from student loans.
"The amount of debt that our health care and education systems put people in is shocking," he added. "Debt cripples local economic development and local people from being enterprising."
As potential solutions to economic challenges, Pignatelli emphasized the need to bring broadband technology to unserved communities so that new residents who have moved to the Berkshires from urban centers can operate businesses from their homes.
"A lot of second-home owners have come up here to set up their businesses, but they need to be able to connect to the outside world," he said. "Broadband is going to light up economic opportunities."
Pignatelli noted that the famed film special-effects creator Douglas Trumbull, who lives and works in the Southfield village of New Marlborough, "needs to be able to access the outside world. He left Hollywood to come to the Berkshires because of its natural beauty. We are drawing so many high-powered, talented people who need to have that access."
Laugenour stressed the need for "Medicare for all, provided by tax revenue instead of private premiums, deductibles and co-pays." As an example, he cited Israel, where he said 5 percent of gross income goes into a public insurance fund to cover all citizens' health care expenses.
"We can be enterprising ourselves if we deal with a public infrastructure that supports private enterprise far better than what we've done," he declared, citing examples he has witnessed in Iceland and other countries."It's simple, it's not rocket science, it's not thinking outside the box," Laugenour stated. "It's progressive, proven, popular solutions that work."
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