UMass students react to Senate debate at Bowker Auditorium

By Nick Bush

senate aWith a varied field of candidates currently hoping to fill the Commonwealth’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in the Dec. 8 primary, hundreds of students and locals turned out for Sunday night’s panel discussion at the University of Massachusetts Bowker Auditorium to get a better understanding of those in the race.

Five of the six candidates now campaigning for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate took part in the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, including Democrats U.S. representative Michael Capuano, Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca and City Year founder Alan Khazei, as well as Republicans Jack E. Robinson and State Senator Scott Brown.

The absence of the apparent front-runner of the race, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, seemed to upset many in the forum’s audience.

“I think the election is still up in the air, and [Coakley] should not feel so comfortable,” said Amanda Dickenson, a political science major and former Coakley supporter. “Not attending the forum out here seems really arrogant on her part, especially since she’s from North Adams. She shouldn’t just automatically assume that people in western Massachusetts will vote for her.”

“If Coakley thinks western Massachusetts is important, then why isn’t she here?” said Nick Barton, a political science major at UMass. “The same could be said about Capuano getting up and leaving halfway through.”

Capuano did in fact exit the panel early, departing after the third debate topic. His campaign cited fatigue after a busy weekend in Washington, where hours earlier he cast a vote in favor of the Affordable Health Care For America Act, which passed the House by a vote of 220-215 late Saturday night.

“I walked in supporting Brown,” said UMass freshman Garrett Gowen, “but until Capuano left, I was really starting to like him and what he was saying.”

“Ted Kennedy was my senator here in Massachusetts for all of my life thus far,” said Richard Purtle, a Capuano supporter and former UMass student who now lives in Buckland, Mass. “While it’s impossible to fill his shoes, [Capuano] comes the closest, and has the integrity and vision that we need right now …  He was one of only 15 U.S. Congressmen to oppose the PATRIOT Act back when it passed.”

“I’d describe myself as a [Blue Dog] Democrat,” said Tony Prentakis, an undecided Watertown, Mass. resident who drove out to Amherst to see the panel. “I have some dislike for Coakley, however, and am starting to feel inclined to vote for Capuano since I’ve started to hear his opinions on matters.”

The evening offered another opportunity for UMass to showcase its ability to draw sometimes Boston-centric politicians out to western Massachusetts to interact with the area population.

“It was wonderful that we almost filled [Bowker],” said UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski. “There was great turn out, and I hope students here continue to take an active interest in politics.”

“It was definitely thought provoking,” said Rob Carney, a history major at the university. “That was only when the candidates actually answered the questions asked of them, though. Most of the answers seemed to be trying to change the subject.”

“I came in here looking for a Republican to support,” said Brian Ruckie, a freshman economics major. “What I heard from Robinson tonight was far and away better than Scott Brown, especially his comments on foreign policy.”

“I would have liked to have seen Brown offer more of his own ideas when he was criticizing [the health care bill currently going through Congress],” said Nate Hoffman, a freshman at UMass. “It seemed like he was trying to intimidate people about health care, and what the bill will actually do.”

“It seemed like Scott Brown was running for governor, rather than senator,” said Nate Richardson, a UMass economics major. “Khazei seems like a great organizer, but he will probably be better out of office as an organizer, rather than in it as a senator.”

Nick Bush can be reached at [email protected]