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Bill Everhart: All 4 Berkshire legislative seats see contests, and regional democracy sees some welcome energy

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Voters in Lenox cast their ballots at Town Hall in May 2021. For columnist Bill Everhart, it is encouraging to have four races for Berkshire legislative seats this fall for the first time in recent memory.

A strong democracy is built upon its elections, in terms of both integrity and competitiveness. That integrity is under assault nationally by Trump cultists, and while the Berkshires have remained free of this poison, the lack of competitive races for state offices in the past has stifled the debate that fuels democracy.

That is why it is encouraging to have four races for Berkshire legislative seats this fall for the first time in recent memory. Election campaigns offer the only real opportunity to debate issues, and from health care to education funding to immigration to east-west rail, to name a few, there are plenty of important issues to debate.

Here is an assessment of those races as they currently stand. Because of redistricting, Berkshire County lost one state representative district and is reduced to three.

1st Berkshire

Paula Kingsbury-Evans, an MCLA senior, is running for the seat held by state Rep. John Barrett III

John Barrett III, once the state’s longest serving mayor in North Adams, was out of office for eight years when he decided to run for state representative of the largely Northern Berkshire district in 2017 following the untimely death of Gailanne Cariddi. Three younger, progressive candidates essentially split the anti-Barrett vote and the former mayor won easily.

The 74-year-old Democrat now faces a challenger 52 years his junior in Paula Kingsbury-Evans, a senior at MCLA, in the party primary. Kingsbury-Evans cites her youth, energy and advocacy of progressive causes in making her case. The tempestuous Barrett might not be popular with liberals, but his record as state representative may be difficult for them to find fault with. It will be interesting to see if Barrett’s feud with Tom Bernard, North Adams’ recently departed progressive mayor, will resonate in the campaign.

If Kingsbury-Evans can’t dislodge Barrett — no Republican challenger has emerged — she may nonetheless have a political future in the Berkshires if she decides to remain here.

2nd Berkshire

'America first' Republican will take on state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier for Statehouse seat

Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a liberal Democrat who has served her Pittsfield-centric district (previously the 3d Berkshire) since 2011, has a Republican challenger in Gina Divola, who described herself to The Eagle as a “constitutional conservative.” As Farley-Bouvier is co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, this sets up an intriguing race.

The county’s moribund Republican Party needs candidates to give it a jolt and provide some semblance of a two-party system here. The last Berkshire Republican to serve in the state Legislature was Rep. Shaun Kelly, who represented the rural then 2nd Berkshire District from 1991 to 2005. The late state Sen. Jack Fitzpatrick, of Stockbridge, and former state Sen. Jane Swift, of North Adams, who went on to serve as acting governor, are reminders of a time when Republicans were key players in Berkshire and Massachusetts politics.

However, those three were old-school, socially liberal, financially conservative Republicans, the kind of Republicans the party is purging in favor of radicals and conspiracy theorists. If Divola is to have any chance of winning independent voters, she will have to campaign as a moderate Republican in the style of that trio and Gov. Charlie Baker.

Instead, Divola is showing signs of following the current Republican playbook. In an interview with The Eagle’s Danny Jin, she decried “woke-ism,” a buzzword Republicans have become overly reliant upon. She is on shaky ground in blaming liberals for cancel culture when conservatives are just as guilty. Florida Republicans’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill provides an egregious recent example of cancel culture from the right.

Divola would be wise to keep her distance from former President Donald Trump, who proved to be demonstrably unpopular in the district in two elections. As a self-proclaimed constitutional conservative, that should be easy enough given the evidence uncovered by journalists and the Jan. 6 Committee that Trump violated the Constitution in his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. She also can’t allow herself to be bullied into extremist positions that won’t fly with voters by the Trump loyalists who dominate the Massachusetts Republican Committee.

3rd Berkshire

Michael Lavery, a Becket Select Board member, will run as a Green-Rainbow candidate against state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat who has represented his district (formerly the 4th, now the 3rd) for two decades, has a challenger in Green-Rainbow Party candidate Michael Lavery, a member of the Becket Select Board.

Lavery abandoned the Democratic Party because of his dissatisfaction with the party establishment nationally and statewide. That, and his advocacy of overdue transparency reforms on Beacon Hill, could earn him support.

Pignatelli has run against capable Green-Rainbow Party candidates before. A Green-Rainbow candidate in the Berkshires, however, really needs a Republican to run against. Pignatelli has a solid progressive record and two decades of experience to run on. As a Green-Rainbow Party member, Lavery, if elected, would essentially be an adjunct Democrat on Beacon Hill with no seniority or committee chairmanships.

Lavery told The Eagle’s Jin that he ran in part because “it is healthy for democracy to have choices,” and for that reason alone his candidacy is welcome.

State senator

Redistricting essentially eliminated what was the 2nd Berkshire District, represented since the 2010 election by Democratic Rep. Paul Mark. With Democratic state Sen. Adam Hinds, whose sprawling district encompasses almost all of Western Massachusetts, running for lieutenant governor, Mark is seeking to fill that vacancy.

Mark has a liberal track record and has most recently been in the news for advocating employee-owned businesses. The small towns the Peru resident has represented for more than a decade are included in the state Senate district, giving him a name recognition advantage over his opponent, Brendan Phair, in those rural communities.

Phair, a Pittsfield conservative who emphasizes fiscal restraint and is an outspoken opponent of abortion, is running as an independent. Phair will have no party financing or organizational support behind him, but many of the small towns in the district are conservative, based on voter support for Republicans in recent years. Even though he is not a Republican, Phair may find favor with those voters.

Phair, like all of the challengers in the legislative races, will provide a welcome dialogue that is too rare in state races in the Berkshires. Ideally, this will be the rule, not the exception, in the years ahead.

Bill Everhart is an occasional Eagle contributor.

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