Alan Chartock | I Publius: New Pittsfield leadership may seek wider influence

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> Let's get back to the retirement of state Sen. Benjamin Downing.

One of the killer elements of democracy is the lack of participation of the citizen class. To put it succinctly, too few people vote so those that do vote have inordinate power.

The more money you have, the more likely you are to vote and thus, to call the shots. People would rather vote to protect what they have than vote to change things.

If everyone at the lower end of the social strata were to vote, there would be no Republican victories. Democracy needs people to have meaningful choices and all too often we don't get choices. No matter how good a candidate looks on paper, it is important to have choices.

In the case of Downing's retirement, at least one seemingly well-qualified, homegrown candidate has put himself forward. My bet is that if Adam Hinds wins he'll be in office for quite a long time. There's no question that Hinds has an excellent resume but I would argue that we still need choices.

But we know that it costs a small fortune to even run for these offices. One has to find enough money for so-called mailers that reach every voter. Then there is radio and television exposure. Sure, public radio will do our part but we don't take political advertisements and we are talking about thousands of dollars to for TV and radio ads.

Candidates need social media expertise and it can cost a lot of money to pay someone who knows how to manage a website and handle everything from Twitter to Facebook and any other new app that comes on the scene.

Contributions key

So people who run for these offices have to either have deep pockets themselves or they have to know others in a position to help. In the case of the latter, those who give most often want something back for their campaign contributions.

That is exactly what Bernie Sanders is talking about in his populist campaign that is really catching fire. If that something back is explicit, then you have bribery. But if it is open ended, there is honor among politicians (and thieves) and the people they take the money from. Once elected, politicians who take the money know what is expected of them.

Far more serious is the sometimes hidden hand of political organizations that represent certain geographical constituencies. I suspect that the newly elected "reform" group in Pittsfield, which I certainly thought worthy of support, is now trying to strengthen its countywide control of our politics.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli was the logical choice for that senatorial seat but my political instincts tell me that some of those at the top of the food chain in the new Pittsfield group were snotty to Smitty. To put it mildly, Pittsfield needs all the help it can get. That beautiful little city needs serious crime prevention programs, economic development and a stabilization of its crazy politics.

My point is that as Tip O'Neill warned us, all politics is local. Pittsfield needs all the concentrated effort it can muster to make it right.

Culture a strength

There is one thing about Pittsfield voters; they have a frequent habit of throwing out their mayors. I suspect the reason for that is that things are not improving. We have gangs and opiates and incredible addiction rates.

We have buildings that are seriously in need of rehabbing. The city obviously needs a concentrated and focused effort to fix what ails it.

But there is some good news. The arts scene in the city is excellent. Barrington Stage and the Berkshire Theatre Group and the Berkshire Museum and the Athenaeum and the excellent health care provided by BHS are all great building blocks.

What we don't need in Berkshire County is a bunch of political newbies who start to act like Boss Tweed. Just sayin'.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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