Chan Lowe: Justice served - with a side of politics

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PITTSFIELD — As a member of The Eagle's editorial board, I enjoy a perk not shared by average members of the public: I get to spend up-close-and-personal time with candidates who come through seeking our editorial endorsement, and who are willing to submit themselves to uncomfortable questions in its pursuit. Some of these figures are relatively big names, like Gov. Baker and Congressman Richard Neal. (Contrary to what some may believe, Mr. Neal did not need a map to find his way to Pittsfield. A member of his entourage drove him.)

Attorney General Maura Healey spent an hour with us, and displayed an impressive campaign technique she'd picked up somewhere: She remembers everyone's name upon meeting them and prefaces her answers to their subsequent questions using that name, as if she's known them for years.

We also spent time with the two candidates for Berkshire district attorney, Paul Caccaviello and Andrea Harrington. Those two interviews, along with some perspective gleaned from the scores of letters to the editor supporting one aspirant or the other impelled me to ponder some questions of larger scope about the DA race.

A CONTINUUM

This is a generalization, but I would suggest that those who have what they need to survive — or more than they need — view law enforcement as their protector and friend. Just application of the law is one of the cornerstones of a stable society. A reasonable certainty that crimes, once committed, will be vigorously prosecuted constitutes the deterrent that enables people to go about their lives rather than having to stand guard over their families and property.

At the opposite end of what I view as a continuum are those who, due to circumstances, look askance at the law enforcement establishment because in their minds, the long arm of the law exists to maintain the status quo at their expense. For people who are struggling, the inscription on the frieze of the Supreme Court building, "Equal justice under law," does not apply. They have little faith in the law, because in their minds, it and its enforcers mainly exist to keep them in their place.

Some people — certainly not all — turn to crime out of desperation. If an individual gets involved in selling drugs, it may not necessarily be because they have a criminal heart, but because the system only offers them a backbreaking job at a pay scale insufficient to feed, house and clothe their kids. Selling drugs is a cash business and the pay is good. The ticket out of their predicament lies not with the DA's office, but with civic leaders, organizations and concern on the part of the general public that would provide them with better opportunities. The DA's job is to prosecute crimes and determine how justice is best dispensed. Correcting the underlying circumstances that lead to crime are not within that office's purview. Whether it should take on the role of a social services agency is a matter for voters to decide.

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Moving on, of the two candidates running for DA, one is an excellent campaigner, and the other is not. This begs the question of why a specialized job like DA needs campaigning at all. It shouldn't be a popularity contest, nor should it be partisan.

EXPERIENCE

As for experience — an issue brought up by candidates, supporters and letter-writers alike — how important is it, really? Does a DA actually prosecute cases him- or herself, or are their management skills in running a large government bureaucracy more important than their legal expertise? Ultimately, doesn't the first assistant do most of the legal work, anyway? If that's so, why don't we know — or seem to care — whom each would choose to fill that role?

I spoke to a woman in her 50s who runs the front end of a small Pittsfield business. She grew up here, and never left. She worries about what's happened to her town — the crime, the murders, the drugs. I asked her whom she was voting for, and she said, simply, "Paul." She has known him for years, and puts a lot of stock in that. She dismissed the "old boy's network" accusation that's been bandied about. "There's no question (former DA David) Capeless hurt him with that resignation thing," she said ruefully, "but (Harrington) has an old girl's network, too. She got all the big names to endorse her." This woman appeared unimpressed by the challenger's roster of luminaries.

In the electorate's mind, an assumption has developed that one candidate stands for keeping things the way they are and holding the line, while the other represents change and a more enlightened, egalitarian application of the law. Since I've had the benefit of encountering both in intimate situations where the campaign shtick only goes so far, I will say that such conclusions are overly simplistic. My advice in these final days is not to assume anything about anybody, but rather to become as informed as possible.

What is most impressive is the engagement and interest that Berkshire County voters have shown in this race. It may become clear in a year or two whether or not we made the right choice, but at least we'll know that the current officeholder at that time — for better or worse — represents the will of the majority.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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