House seat hopefuls spin ‘Wheel of Kulik,’ tackle issues at candidate forum


July 13, 2018

TURNERS FALLS — A candidates forum Thursday evening featuring hopefuls seeking the 1st Franklin House seat had fewer candidates than in earlier encounters, but there was more fun, with the seven Democrats spinning “The Wheel of Kulik” — with a photo of retiring state Rep. Stephen Kulik, whose shoes they hope to fill in Beacon Hill — to choose a topic for their 60-second talk.

The Shea Theater forum — sponsored by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Franklin County Resource Network Public Policy Task Force, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, and the League of Women Voters — also featured the same level of agreement among the candidates, who will compete in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary: Kate Albright-Hanna of Huntington, Natalie Blais of Sunderland, Christine Doktor of Cummington, Jonathan Edwards of Whately, Casey Pease of Worthington, Nathaniel Waring of Sunderland and Francia Wisnewski of Montague.

The seven — appearing together for the first time without Andrew Baker of Shelburne, who withdrew from the race last week — took turns answering questions from moderator Monte Belmonte, some which came from the roughly 75 audience members on “food security and its underlying causes.”

Doktor, who spun “The Wheel of Kulik” and landed on the topic of school nutrition, spoke in favor of “breakfast after the bell” legislation now before the Legislature that would allow eligible students to get a free breakfast even after the school day has begun.

“This is a really wonderful initiative, because it makes sure that all of the kids in the commonwealth that should be getting meals have a chance to eat it, because a lot of time the bus doesn’t get there on time, or they don’t get to school on time.”

Blais, who spun the wheel to “pay equity,” said, “There is absolutely no reason” women should paid less than men for doing the same work, but emphasized, “We have to take the lead as state legislators … on ensuring pay equity…. and making sure that all people, everyone, is paid the same for the same work.”

Other topics on the wheel included Gov. Charlie Baker, food deserts (urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or quality fresh food) and broadband access, although some candidates got to expound on the Green River Festival and “favorite thing to do in Franklin County.”

The hopefuls — still too many to allow for everyone to answer each question — called for a single-payer health care system, for more funding for regional transportation systems to allow for better service in more towns, and for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) so that it can provide more people with dollar-for-dollar incentives for buying fresh produce from local farmers. They also called for reviving the Fair Share amendment — which was disallowed by the Supreme Judicial Court from appearing on the November ballot — as a way of paying for the added benefits.

But the differences between the candidates was largely in emphasis and level of experience rather than ideology or policy position.

When Edwards said the Legislature should support “at least the $1.5 million budget request” before Beacon Hill to ensure that it lasts more than a few months, Blais followed by saying, “We need to be looking at over $6 million to make sure the HIP program is adequately funded, and that we’re not running into this issue time and time again … It is critical for the economic welfare of our small businesses, our small farms,” and pointed to a more immediate problem at the federal level — the contract for the data firm handling HIP accounts runs out at the end of July.

The candidates, asked about whether they supported a higher minimum wage, agreed that it was necessary, but Albright-Hanna added that there is no current provision in “the grand bargain” hammered out between advocates, the Legislature and the Baker administration for the minimum to rise with inflation, “so by the time we’re five years out, we’re going to be even father behind than we are now.”

“So I think we should keep pushing, and push harder and come back and push for $20 to $25 minimum wage,” said Albright-Hanna.

They also agreed on the need to push for a Medicare for All or single-payer health care policy.

“There’s no reason why, if we live in one of the most wealthy nations in the world, we do not provide health care to everybody,” said Pease, who called for assuring that when policies are developed, “the most vulnerable populations have a seat at the table.”

Asked about how they would translate their progressive ideas into action in a Legislature that is dominated by conservative voices, most of the candidates emphasized their ability to negotiate.

“We need to elect candidates that will listen and challenge the status quo,” said Wisnewski. “We need to elect compassionate leaders and the first Latina of Franklin 1st District.”

“The only way to find best practices, the only way to find common goals, is to have a conversation with somebody outside of where you sit on a policy basis, on a day in, day out basis,” said Edwards. “We don’t do it because it’s not comfortable … That’s not a sustainable way to run a democracy.”

But Albright-Hanna said, “Too often we compromise our values before we’ve gotten everything that we can actually get out of a situation. I’m a big believer in strategic alliances.”

Pease described how he grew up in a conservative family where his father supported Donald Trump for president, so that he was “forced to listen to all sides of the spectrum, and being able to find where we can find common ground.”

Waring, who described himself as “a slightly different type of candidate” who has wrestled with poverty, told the audience, “Equality is one the reasons I’m running … What we don’t have is poor people advocating for poor people. We have rich people pretending to advocate for poor people. It means bringing together all of the disenfranchised members of our society and helping them to have a voice in the Legislature.”

As part of the same series, the five candidates the state Senate seat left by the resignation of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, will take part in an Aug. 14 forum at the Shea Theater. That forum will be moderated by state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.