Grass-roots activists in Berkshires work late to sway Alabama voters for Jones

A grassroots effort by local community action groups included holding postcard parties to help mobilize Alabama voters to cast their ballots Tuesday for the special Senate election. These postcards were created during an Action Together Massachusetts postcard party and mailed to Alabama voters.

With a close race and high stakes, every vote mattered in Tuesday's special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was tapped last year by Donald Trump to become the current U.S. attorney general.

The primary race pitted Republican candidate Roy Moore against Democrat Doug Jones. The election became inflamed when multiple women emerged with decades-old accusations that Moore had sexually assaulted them or made unwanted sexual advances toward them as teenagers when Moore was in his 30s.

Ultimately, because of the allegations, Democrats and some Republicans questioned Moore's ethics, character and fitness to serve in the Senate.

So while about 1,300 miles away, progressive grass-roots activists in the Berkshires worked until the final hour Tuesday to encourage voters to hit the polls and support Jones.

Northern Berkshire-based grass-roots group Greylock Together issued a statement Tuesday that said: "We are working to forge connections that will have an impact that will go beyond today's special election results. Fellow Greylock Together members have donated to Doug Jones' campaign, written postcards, made phone calls, and joined in text-banking efforts. ... This election has national implications — a win for Doug Jones in Alabama would add both enthusiasm and proof that the national climate favors different leadership heading into this very important election year of 2018."

The group's spokeswoman, Jessica Dils, said that at least two dozen members collectively made hundreds of calls to Alabama voters, urging them to take action.

"I just finished making phone calls," Frank Farkas of Pittsfield told The Eagle on Tuesday afternoon. He serves as interim chair of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, and has been part of a virtual phone bank, making calls from his home (versus a calling station) to Alabama voters identified through poll data as being likely to vote blue.

Farkas said he reached about 60 homes in his Tuesday morning round of calls and said that he "got a good response," despite being an out-of-state advocate.

"You would think they would [question my proximity], but they don't ask. Obviously, I don't have a Southern accent; my Bronx accent kind of gives me away," Farkas said.

"Some people I got on the phone said they didn't appreciate my call. One woman who was clearly not voting for a Democrat said, 'I prefer not to talk to you,'" he said.

Farkas said he has spent most of his life being a grass-roots activist, and felt particularly motivated this year to engage with voters.

"I'm almost 70. I've seen the best and worst of American politics, and this by far is the worst," he said, referring to the decisions and reforms put forth by the Trump administration and the Republican majority.

"Whatever the outcome of this race, we need to make sure we get Democrats elected," he said.

Jones has done a lot to raise hope for the Democratic Party, being poised as the first Democrat in Alabama to be elected to a Senate seat in decades. His pro-civil rights platform contains a lot of kitchen table issues, like raising the minimum wage, ensuring an accessible and affordable health care system and prioritizing education as a means to reduce rates of imprisonment.

Moore has not been without supporters in the Berkshires. Michael Duclos of Pittsfield, in response to a Facebook post on the matter, wrote that while he wasn't entirely impressed with the candidate, he feels "Moore is more likely to support the values that I hold dear in politics and vote the right way on issues in the Senate. So I would encourage people to vote for him."

Increasing border and immigration control, repealing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling the U.S. tax code, and increasing military defense systems funding are among priorities of Moore, who also has an outspoken stance against abortions and same-sex relationships.

Beyond the Senate race, Joyce Hackett, the Democratic town chair of New Marlborough and founder of the anti-voter suppression Lift Every Vote initiative, said she has been keeping involved with national and local elections to ensure equitable access to voting stations and secure voting procedures. Even leading up to this race, watchdogs cited attempts of voter fraud and suppression.

Hackett took part in a text-banking campaign to reach voters through text messages, and offering to help them address issues such as identification, misinformation about polling places, and getting a ride to the polls, among other matters. She said this is not an Alabama-specific issue, but rather a national problem.

"Fair voting is the definitive determination of when we can call our country indivisible again," she said. "I've been thrilled to see the activism across Massachusetts, especially here in the Berkshires, on important interstate campaigns nationwide."

But at the heart of this special election is its impact on livelihoods of the residents of Alabama.

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson is a former Monterey resident who was born in Mobile, Alabama, and graduated from Birmingham-Southern College before heading to the Northeast. She now resides near Berkeley, California.

In a phone interview with The Eagle, she said that when she first heard of Jones running for office, she, like many of her other hometown friends, thought he wouldn't stand a chance. But as grass-roots efforts mounted and support grew, the self-proclaimed liberal southerner said she felt hopeful, and began paying closer attention to the race and the calls for change.

"This has been very exciting for me. I love my state," she said. "There are good, honest, down-to-earth people there with a real sense of community. It's an incredibly naturally beautiful state as well."

But, Wheeler-Nicholson said, its people suffer, with the quality of health, education and people's well-being often ranked in the lowest 10 percent.

"That's horrible," she said, and she thinks that's why younger people and older generations are rethinking who should be representing them in Congress. She thinks that's why Jones became a viable contender to the Republican majority.

"I'll feel better when I see more of a two-party system in my state," Wheeler-Nicholson said. "I respect my conservative friends there, because they have many good ideas on how we should operate. Most people want the same thing, and there are different ways of going about these things. That's what government is all about."

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.