As candidates running for the 25 open legislative seats throughout the state spend the next two weeks competing to get their message to the voters, the contenders for one western Massachusetts Senate seat are dealing with the added hurdle of a race that takes place almost entirely off the ballot.
Three of the four Democrats vying to succeed former Sen. Stan Rosenberg in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate district are running as write-in candidates who jumped into the fray after Rosenberg resigned in May.
All four candidates — Chelsea Kline, who had originally planned to challenge Rosenberg and is on the ballot, and write-ins Jo Comerford, Ryan O’Donnell and Steve Connor — are first-time legislative candidates from Northampton, where voters will also elect a new state representative.
Endorsements may play a role as the Senate hopefuls seek to distinguish themselves from each other and resonate with voters across the 24 communities that make up a district that hasn’t chosen a senator not named Rosenberg since 1990.
Kline has recently announced the backing of Sens. Jamie Eldridge of Acton and Barbara L’Italien of Andover. She has also touted the support of Greenfield Town Councilors Otis Wheeler and Tim Dolan, Orange School Committee member Alexandre Schwanz, Northampton City Councilor Marianne LaBarge, and former Rep. Denise Andrews of Orange.
Comerford’s list of endorsers includes former Congressman John Olver, who held the Senate seat before Rosenberg; Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan; former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich; Franklin County officials Sheriff Christopher Donelan (a former rep), register of probate John Merrigan and register of deeds Scott Cote; former Amherst Rep. Ellen Story, Greenfield City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud; Hampshire register of deeds Mary Oldberding; Northampton City Councilor Dennis Bidwell; and David Murphy, who dropped his own write-in bid for the seat. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and MassEquality are also backing Comerford.
In an interview, Comerford said her backers include “people who could have stayed out of the race but chose to get in,” such as Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who counts all four candidates as constituents.
“We’re fortunate to get a bunch of endorsements, so that helps sell who I am and who’s standing with the campaign,” she said.
O’Donnell, the Northampton city council president, has been endorsed by retiring Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley, while Connor, who serves as director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, has taken a different approach to endorsements.
Connor has been posting semi-regular “Endorsements of the Day” on his campaign Facebook page, featuring testimonials from veterans and other area residents he’s worked with in human service roles.
Connor said he’s never run for office before and found the concept of endorsements strange, given that all the candidates come from the same party.
“I was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of asking other political leaders and things like that to endorse me, so I don’t do any of that,” Connor said. “But then I notice the only way you get in the paper is by getting endorsements, so I started talking to people I worked with…they’re not political people, but they’re people in the community and maybe someone will know them.”
Connor said the main difference between the four candidates is their different backgrounds.
“People come into my office, they need things. I am good at getting the things they need,” he said. “I know how to work through state government. State government is really for the people who are in need of services. I think some of the services are way too bureaucratic, and I’d love to simplify it.”
O’Donnell, meanwhile, said he’s the only candidate in the race with legislative experience, thanks to his city council service. He said he decided to run because there were issues he was “frustrated the Legislature hasn’t acted on,” including health care, energy and public education funding, which he said “outweigh the risks” of running a write-in campaign.
“I understood it was going to add expense and complexity,” he said. “I did it because I think this is an extremely important election. The state Senate for this part of the state has a huge effect on the cities and towns of western Massachusetts. A lot of these towns are small, rural towns, and we don’t really have county government anymore. The state Senate is sort of the de facto resource.”
Along with Rosenberg’s resignation and Scibak’s retirement, the region has three more House seats that will turn over this election cycle. One is vacant after the February death of Northampton Rep. Peter Kocot, and Reps. Stephen Kulik of Worthington and Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst are not seeking reelection.
O’Donnell said the situation is “like a glacier suddenly broke in half.”
“Really it was status quo for a very long time and suddenly it’s enormous change all at once,” he said. “Turning the page could be good. There’s an opportunity to send a new generation to Beacon Hill.”
Comerford said the turnover means the district will need a senator who is “ready on day one.” Citing her roles at the National Priorities Project, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and MoveOn.Org, Comerford said she brings budget, issue and leadership experience.
“I think about the kind of expertise that we’re losing in the Legislature — it’s about 100 years, with the four rep races and the Senate race, so whoever picks up really has to be ready to do this job immediately,” she said.
As the Sept. 4 primary inches closer, Comerford said voters are “far more tuned in now” than at the beginning of the summer.
“I think that’s part and parcel because folks are campaigning hard and part and parcel because the media is doing a good job of telling the story that there’s three write-in candidates and one on the ballot, and part because I think voters are tuned in because of the kind of high-stakes nature, five seats in one district turning over,” she said. “That’s quite extraordinary and I think people are beginning to get the stakes involved in choosing a whole delegation.”