Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Electoral candidates square off at League of Women Voters debate

By Matthew M. Robare

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Hannah Cohen/Collegian

Incumbent State Representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst) debated both her challengers, Republican Dan Sandell and Independent Dan Melick last Wednesday night at a candidates’ night hosted by the League of Women Voters of Amherst at the Amherst Regional Middle School.

Incumbent Congressman John Olver (D) and his challengers, Tea Party-supported Republican William L. Gunn and Green-Rainbow Party-endorsed Independent Michael Engle also debated, as did the Tea Party-supported candidate for Governor’s Council, Republican Michael Franco and Democratic incumbent Thomas T. Merrigan, and the two candidates for Hampshire County Sherriff, Democratic incumbent Robert J. Garvey and Republican challenger Stephen Chojnacki.

The race to represent the Third Hampshire District, which includes Amherst and Granby, had an element of bitterness to it. In his opening remarks, Sandell criticized Story for accepting $7,000 “to drive to work.” She retorted by telling him that “in order to get good people to run for office, you have to pay them well. I feel quite comfortable taking that money.”

Story promoted the work she did with the legislature in this past session, saying they had cut $4.3 billion from the state’s budget, did not raise taxes and saved $1 billion by reorganizing the transportation administration. However, this information could not be corroborated.

Melick touted his experience working with the Amherst Planning Board and at Town Meetings. He also criticized the nation’s prevailing two-party system, blaming it for many of the state’s problems.

Their first question posed to the candidates was on ballot Question 2, which would repeal a law “that allows a qualified organization wishing to build government-subsidized housing that includes low- or moderate-income units to apply for a single comprehensive permit from a city or town’s zoning board of appeals,” according to the Elections Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. “I’m strongly against Question 2,” Story said. “I think it’s important to make it easy to have affordable housing.” She also noted that the Massachusetts Association of Realtors opposed the question.

Sandell said he also opposes Question 2 and praised the law it seeks to repeal. “It has enabled low-income people to obtain affordable housing,” he said. However, he did say that if he were elected and the question passed, he would support the repeal because it was the will of the voters.

Like the others, Melick said he opposes the question, but would work on alternative affordable housing strategies if it passed.

All three candidates have previously said they also oppose Question 3, which would lower the sales tax back to three percent. Story and Melick oppose Question 1, which would repeal the sales tax on alcohol, while Sandell endorses it.

There was more division over municipal health insurance relief, where cities and towns are allowed to place their employees in the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) for health care. Sandell said that towns where unions voted to join the GIC have saved millions of dollars and that municipalities should be able to place employees in the GIC without union approval. Currently, the approval of 70 percent of unionized municipal employees is needed to join. According to The Melrose Free Press, the city did save money, but the GIC raised its premiums in February. “Why isn’t Massachusetts signing compacts with other states to allow them to sell health care packages here?” Sandell said.

Melick disagreed. “We shouldn’t compromise our ethics because of financial straits,” he said. Melick also expressed support for a public option or single-payer system. Story said that she was a strong advocate of single-payer health care, but that she doubted she would see it in her lifetime and that she was in between Sandell and Melick. She said that she would like to see a reduction in the percentage of union workers needed to approve joining the GIC.

Melick said he opposes legalizing casinos in Massachusetts because he believes they would not create jobs, he feels they would amount to three regional monopolies and smaller businesses would suffer. Story said that while she initially opposed them, the more she “studied the issue, the more it seemed inevitable” that Massachusetts would have casinos. She added that every time the legislature debated the issue, Beacon Hill was filled with unemployed construction workers begging legislator to vote for casinos so they could have jobs.

Sandell criticized Story for changing her position, noting that the Boston Herald reported she had done so at the request of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and quoting The Herald as reporting that Story “jumped when her party told her to jump.” He added that he supports casinos because he believes in what he called individual freedom, and concomitantly believes people should be allowed to spend their money however they see fit, as long as they do not harm anyone else. He also noted that Massachusetts loses millions of dollars each year to Connecticut’s casinos.

All three candidates expressed support for alternative energy. Story and Melick agreed that small-scale, local projects were best, while Sandell said he supports a market-based approach.

“We should be striving to search for ways to lower the energy costs for everyone in Massachusetts,” he said.

In her closing remarks, Story said she was proud to be the incumbent and that “Beacon Hill doesn’t hear from people like us often enough.” Sandell stressed his commitment to fiscal restraint, saying, “When the money runs out, everyone loses and we will have nobody to blame but ourselves.” Melick reiterated his opposition to the two party system and promised that “if elected, I’ll work to make a more open government for everyone.”

All three candidates for state representative will participate in a debate at the University of Massachusetts next Tuesday. The general election is Tuesday, November 2.

Matthew M. Robare can be reached at [email protected]

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