Museum controversy didn't sap AG Healey's support in Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — If Attorney General Maura Healey feared that her support for Berkshire Museum art sales might alienate area voters, such worries were unfounded.

Election results certified this week by the state show that Healey increased her historic vote totals in Berkshire County in the Nov. 6 general election, compared with the 2014 race that put her in office.

But critics of the museum's art sales say they found ways to register protests against Healey — some by writing in the name of artist Norman Rockwell.

When Healey won office in 2014, beating Republican John B. Miller, she earned 28,300 votes in the county. Four years later, in an election that brought about 15,000 more Berkshires voters to the polls, Healey garnered 39,572 votes, a nearly 40 percent increase.

Her Republican opponents finished well behind in both contests in this blue state — with Miller getting 10,108 votes in 2014 and Jay McMahon kicking that up to 13,146 this time around.

The 2018 totals were made official this week by the Governor's Council, according to Debra O'Malley of the Secretary of State's Office.

David Guarino, a Healey campaign adviser, said the attorney general views the county's backing in 2018 as a signal that she is tackling the right issues.

"She believes it showcases support for the wide range of work her office does on behalf of the people every day — from combating the opioid epidemic and reducing health care and energy costs to standing up for consumers, for civil rights and protecting the environment," Guarino said in an email, in response to a request for comment.

Built on her base

Healey built on her base even though she came in for sharp criticism after her office consented in February to the sale of works from the museum's collection. In the months before, lawyers in Healey's public charities and nonprofits division jousted in court with the museum's attorneys, probing the legality of the planned sales.

That investigation ended with Healey and the museum going hand in hand to the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, where a justice in April accepted the argument that the museum needed to cash out key works to avert a financial crisis. This week, the museum announced that it has raised $53.25 million in net proceeds from art sales and will not list any of 18 other works named in the SJC order for auction.

Blank ballots

While the number of blank votes in the attorney general's race increased in 2018 in Berkshire County (2,102, compared with 1,796 in 2014), that tally fell nearly 1 point as a percentage of all votes cast.

Still, a slight rise in blanks for Healey's race showed up in Pittsfield, according to a final count provided by City Clerk Michele Benjamin.

The number of blank ballots logged in Pittsfield for attorney general increased from 515 in 2014 to 803 this year, kicking the percentage that those ballots represent of the total up an insignificant fraction, from 6.2 percent to 6.6 percent.

Healey's team had reason to rejoice that across the city that houses the Berkshire Museum, she increased her vote total by a whopping 46 percent. To get there, Healey secured 12,132 votes in Pittsfield this year, compared with 8,287 four years back.

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To be sure, the 2018 turnout was enhanced by interest in the race for Berkshire district attorney.

Across the county, there is no evidence that unhappy voters skipped the attorney general's contest as they marked ballots this year. The number of blank votes in the attorney general's race countywide fell as a percentage of all votes cast by 1 point, to 5.3 percent.

Protests noted

And yet some still smarting from Healey's turnabout on the museum wanted to record a protest.

A.G. Putnam left the AG's race blank this year. "As I looked at the ballot and realized I would not be giving anything away to Republicans, I expressed my rage and sorrow," Putnam said, responding to a question posted by the newspaper to the Save the Art-Save the Museum page on Facebook.

Voters who left the line blank included Fred Wessel and Roberta Russell.

Still others said they wrote in Rockwell's name, with their results showing up among the 133 ballots categorized as "all others" for the county.

Margaret Heilbrun said she wrote in Rockwell as attorney general, choosing to honor the artist whose two major gifts to the museum — the paintings "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" — brought in tens of millions of dollars to the institution through private sales this year.

Rich Herchenreder said he also used that line on his ballot to salute Rockwell, saying: "He did more for Berkshire County than Maura Healey ever will."

Joining the Rockwell bandwagon were Kathy Johnson, Diana French, Lucy Sacco and Flavia Mastellone.

Thomas Attila Lewis said he wrote in Rockwell not just for attorney general, but for state senator and state representative, an option that several others, including Carol Diehl, also embraced, saying they felt that other politicians could have done more to keep the embattled artworks in Berkshire County.

A few, including former museum aquarium manager Scott Jervas, posted that they voted for McMahon, Healey's GOP challenger.

"I felt strongly that she had a conflict and should have recused herself," Jervas said of Healey, referring to her past ties to the law firm that represented the museum.

Others said they voted "reluctantly" for Healey, with one commenting that the sitting attorney general was "the only option for Democrats [who] had to struggle to do that because of her actions regarding the Berkshire Museum."

Three members of the Save the Art citizens group — Linda Cleary, Leslie Ferrin and Mike Morin — also penciled in Rockwell's name, but at the polling places outside Berkshire County.

Martha Lenz opted to honor the late artist as well, saying the removal of the two paintings that Rockwell gave to the museum, a step taken with the eventual blessing of Healey's office, "was the reason I couldn't vote for her."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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