Local candidates discuss benefits of having roots in their hometowns
GREAT BARRINGTON -- On a casual stroll through the streets of Housatonic, Dan Bailly shakes the hand of a familiar local walking his dog and warmly engages him about his campaign for selectman.
They exchange small talk about untapped potential in the neighborhood, which Bailly believes could be righted under his leadership on the board.
Standing near the Ramsdell Library, which he fondly recalls visiting as a child, he waves as cars drive by.
Cousins. Multiple friends. His wife. They all wave back.
"When you've been here 125 years, you tend to relate to people one way or another," the 38-year-old construction worker said, referring to his family's long-standing ties to the area.
Bailly is one of three candidates running for two open seats on the five-person Board of Selectmen. He's a hometown candidate, and he's competing in Monday's election against incumbent Selectman Stephen Bannon, as well as candidate Michael Wise.
Across Berkshire County, candidates are vying for office, from boards of selectmen and finance committees to moderators and tree wardens. And as is often the case, many of the candidates are natives of those communities -- they are known quantities.
Such notoriety can cut both ways. While name recognition and familiarity can be an asset for those who have built solid foundations in their home towns, it also can take the form of additional baggage -- conjuring up youthful indiscretions or associations with less-reputable family members.
Bailly was born in Housatonic, a small village in the town of Great Barrington. He attended local schools and graduated from Monument Mountain High School in 1993. He left for college, and briefly lived in New Hampshire and New York, but he moved back to Great Barrington to provide his 7-year-old son with the same upbringing he received.
In his inaugural campaign, Bailly's résumé includes service on town committees and task forces, but just important as any information in his inaugural run for elected office are his Great Barrington roots.
"It's one of my biggest campaign platforms, if you will," Bailly said.
Similarly, Bannon said his eagerness to serve the town is strengthened by his local ties.
"I have a passion for Great Barrington as much as anyone else," said Bannon, a 1958 graduate of Monument Mountain High School. He works as a pharmacist at Fairview Hospital and his parents once owned a local drug store. "I love Great Barrington. I want to help the school district. There's ... a passion of being born here, raised here, working at the hospital here."
Wise hails from different necks of the woods, and now makes Great Barrington his home. A retired lawyer, Wise said he lived in five states and on both coasts before he turned 14. Since then, he's lived in five additional states, and has served time as a dignitary in France.
He moved to Great Barrington in 2010, and is active on multiple boards.
"I don't think I am at a disadvantage," said Wise.
Hometown affiliation doesn't tell you anything specific about a candidate's stance, Wise said. He cites an advantage in having lived throughout the country. For instance, he said he's able to better put problems into context.
"When people talk, I am used to carefully listening," he said.
Unquestionably, there are advantages to being a hometown candidate, said professor Matthew Jarvis, an expert on elections at California State University, Fullerton.
While political partisanship often is the leading indicator for how someone votes, Jarvis said, party affiliation tends to be less of a factor in local races. A dearth of information and interest in local campaigns can magnify the importance of familiarity.
"They'll try to find some way to make a decision," he said. "They will be going off name or ethnicity or gender. They will project on that [to make a decision.]"
A blessing or a curse
Sometimes, having deep roots in a community can cast a pall over a candidate's chances.
Billy Kie, a West Stockbridge resident and longtime Finance Committee member, was reminded of regrettable decisions he made in a motorcycle gang in his younger days. The details of his youth were political fodder for his opponents and upended what he thought would be a successful bid for selectman about five years ago. He declined to talk about the specific allegations.
"For two or three years, I was front-page news," said Kie.
Nonetheless, Kie, now 60, said he benefited from hometown roots in his original bid for the Finance Committee in his late 30s. Low competition helped, but he said residents were familiar with his family, which included outspoken community advocates and a father who served as constable.
Kie said he has served on the Finance Committee for more than 20 years.
"People have long memories in a small town," Kie said.
Former elected town officials with long-standing ties to a community agree their backgrounds provide priceless knowledge. Name recognition is important -- but it can work both ways, said Great Barrington resident Walter "Bud" Atwood III, who has a family résumé filled with elected seats and lineage that stretches back 11 generations to a Minuteman who fought in the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution.
Atwood said if a resident approaches him with complaints about road conditions, he's able to identify the area and any areas in town that might be worse off to put their complaint in context. He said he's neighborly with most people in town.
"I have never spent a dime to get elected," Atwood said proudly.
He said a well-developed reputation for being frugal with a dollar has helped him. "I have never bought an ad or put a sign in someone's yard."
Atwood's résumé includes a seat on virtually every significant town board including the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee, among others. His first elected position came in his early 30s as constable, a post previously held by his father and grandfather.
Former Great Barrington Selectman Richard Louison served from 1981 through 1998, according to his wife, Barbara, who spoke on her husband's behalf because of his hearing difficulties.
Richard Louison said after his first campaign, he never spent any money on a campaign and successfully beat back challengers. He always felt that local politics is about interaction with the community and not campaign signs and fliers.
"It's more about the communication between the people and that's what he always went on," Barbara Louison said.
A backlash to incumbency?
Former Stockbridge Selectmen Cris Irsfeld moved to Stockbridge from California in the mid-1980s. He knew he was the underdog going into an election bid against longtime incumbent Selectman John Beacco Jr. in 1998. The town residents continue to refer to his home by the owners who previously lived there.
When he ran for selectman, Irsfeld's local political résumé was thin, with his only committee appointment to the Parks and Recreation Committee. In comparison, his competitor had been on the Board of Selectmen for decades and had local family ties.
"I will never be an insider," Irsfeld said. "I will always be an outsider that came from somewhere else."
But a series of disputes between Irsfeld and Beacco concerning development, specifically surrounding a playground, encouraged Irsfeld to file paperwork to run for selectman.
Odds and history were against him. But a final tally showed otherwise.
"The whole room was dead silent," Irsfeld said, recounting the night when election results were announced. "No one knew whether to clap or not. John, to his credit, walked the length of the hall and shook my hand."
He attributed his upset win to what he called Beacco's entrenched views of Stockbridge that didn't reflect a changing community.
"I didn't think I would win," he said. "Everyone in the room was shocked. It was absolutely incredible."
Campaigning down the stretch
When Bailly decided he'd run for election after following several years of contemplation, his mother, Barbara, immediately signed up as a volunteer.
"Anybody I see or talk to or know" hears about her son, she said. "Whether they are here or at the grocery store."
Barbara knows both of the other candidates firsthand. She knows Bannon through the board of a philanthropy group and Wise through the Master Plan Committee.
Barbara said relatives that don't live in the area are rallying to their side to persuade friends to vote for him.
"I am very proud of him running and I know he can do a wonderful job doing it," Barbara said.
But for all the legwork, voters will make the final decision.
Great Barrington resident Ron Moriarty, 74, a conscientious voter who can't remember the last time he missed an election, will be one of the more than 4,000 registered voters who will have a say in Monday's election.
As for the hometown advantage?
"That's certainly not the deciding factor," Moriarty said. That said, he added, "If I know the local person and I don't know someone else, I lean toward the local person if I know they are a decent person."
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