As voters go to the polls tomorrow, those who are casting their ballots in Amherst will find two new names in the First Congressional District race, as Republican candidate Bill Gunn and Independent Michael Engel campaign to unseat well-established Democratic incumbent John Olver.
Gunn, a small business owner from Ware, has been a local organizer of the Western Massachusetts 912 Project in past years. His campaign has benefited from the rampant anti-incumbent sentiments clear across the country this year, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to overcome the strong local support for the well-known Olver. Gunn’s campaign has been endorsed by Sen. Scott Brown and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and supported by the Tea Party Express.
Independent candidate Engel, a former professor emeritus of political science at Westfield State College and owner of Cherry Picked Books in Easthampton, has been positioning himself as an independent progressive alternative to Olver while harnessing some of the same anti-incumbent feelings amongst the electorate as Gunn.
Victory for Olver this election cycle would mark two decades representing the First District in Congress. Olver, who once taught chemistry at the University of Massachusetts and has lived in Amherst since 1963, has faced stiffer resistance this year on each side of the political spectrum than in recent times he has sought reelection.
“I’d like to create more jobs with investment in green energy and energy conservation-focused engineering and technology,” said Olver when asked about his goals if reelected in an interview with the Daily Collegian. “I would also like to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan and pass economically advantageous, border-securing, comprehensive reform of our immigration policies.
“I think the citizens of the First District trust me to stand up to large corporate interests when that is necessary to protect families, seniors, and consumers in general,” said Olver. “When Wall Street, health insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and oil companies go too far or are willing to put their short-term financial gain ahead of the good of the country, I will hold them accountable and re-assert the interests of the public.
“[Constituents] can also trust me to protect the shared natural assets that are critical to our survival: The air we breathe, our fresh water, our climate, our wild and public lands, and the earth’s other vital resources.”
Olver’s competition has their work cut out for them if they intend to unseat the nine-term incumbent. Despite the Republican gains made in Massachusetts since the last election, including the special election of Scott Brown to the Senate and the rise of the Tea Party to public prominence, an upset victory by Gunn in the First District race would be a major surprise.
The first District spans parts of Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester and Middlesex Counties, which account for a major portion of Western Massachusetts. It includes almost all of rural Massachusetts – which historically has voted Democrat, except for the rural eastern areas of the district north of Worcester that consistently vote Republican. This is noteworthy because most Democratic-leaning districts are typically found in more urban areas, making the First District time and again one of the bluest rural districts in the country, along with those from Vermont and California. The First District currently has a Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of +14, which shows it leans heavily blue; it is listed as the fourth-most Democratic district in the Commonwealth, and the 79-most Democratic of the more than 400 in the nation.
Republican challenger Gunn is hoping to do better than Olver’s last Congressional GOP opponent, Republican Nate Bech, who drew only 27 percent of the vote in the 2008 election to Olver’s 73 percent.
“My primary goals if elected would be to reduce our debt, repeal the health care bill and shatter voter apathy by presenting a government responsive to the people,” said Gunn in an interview with the Collegian last Friday afternoon. “The main issue in this campaign is our economy, and reducing government spending – accompanied with a reduction in taxation. One without the other would be pointless.”
Gunn urged voters to “stay engaged,” noting that “apathy is leading to our demise, to polarization and to life-long incumbents …Governments that become tyrannical always start with an apathetic public.”
Independent candidate Engel has been endorsed by the Green-Rainbow Party, whose gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein is supported by Engel.
“I’m concerned that our democracy is evolving into a corporate state, and I want to fight that,” said Engel in an interview with the Collegian. “The incumbent, John Olver, has lost touch with his constituency, supports failed Democratic Party policies and has failed to deliver for his district. I have the qualifications and experience to be an effective independent member of Congress.”
When asked what distinguishes his vision from that of the other two candidates, Engel was quick to reinforce his political independence.
“My views can’t be reduced to a one-word ideological label, although I have a clear and consistent set of political values,” he said. “What distinguishes me from them is independence from a party line, which gives me the freedom and flexibility needed to respond to my constituency, rather than to party leadership.”
“My campaign message is ‘The old system is broken – let’s start building a new one,’” said Engel. “This resonates with voters I have spoken with. Our primary goals once elected would be listening to, working with, advocating for individuals and groups in the constituency who have creative, innovative, and ecologically responsible ideas about reviving our economy and putting people back to work … [I would be] the kind of representative who is not afraid of honest and direct communication with constituents.”
One of the defining aspects of this election cycle, both nationally and locally, has been the mixed reaction to last year’s health care bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama.
“One thing I’ve noticed is the lack of responsiveness of the incumbent to the constituents of the First District,” said Gunn. “Quite a few people were appealing to [Olver] during the health care debate, and he did not respond.”
When asked whether he thought the health care reform was a success, considering his past support for a single-payer health care system, Congressman Olver said he thought the bill has been “a large success.”
“The legislative process to create this reform law took up much of the 111th Congress’ two-year term and was a very hard-fought battle, but the initiative to reform health care, cut insurance costs, and provide for both the uninsured and those living one paycheck away from having no health insurance has been going on for decades,” said Olver.
“The most critical thing at stake in this election is the fate of the new health care reform law. Republican candidates are campaigning on a promise to repeal the law, and that’s not just an empty campaign promise. They actually mean it. If they can’t outright repeal it, they would do their best to stymie the law’s full implementation, even to the point of defunding it or the federal agencies responsible for administering the law.
“The second most important issue is the federal budget deficit. Republicans would love to make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, even for the very highest income-earners. The Republicans did not make them permanent when they enacted them in 2001 and 2003 because the cost of doing so was correctly judged to be way too high. That analysis has not changed, and the cuts should be allowed to expire for the wealthiest Americans,” Olver explained.
“My campaign is resonating with voters because I am talking about community involvement,” said Gunn. “When one looks at the progressive ideals, ultimately they are decreasing our sense of community, and people are figuring that out.”
Gunn noted that he strongly supports Federalism and maintaining state autonomy in the face of federal law.
“The closer the control of government is to the individual, the more empowering it is for the individual,” said Gunn. “I feel that empowerment is common to progressives and libertarians alike. That is resonating with voters – everybody values freedom and liberty. I don’t consider myself a liberal, but a lot of the liberal people that I’ve spoken to value local control and local values, and a sense of community.”
Gunn did have some praise for his opponents, noting that “one thing that I appreciate is that all three campaigns have been quite respectful – and that’s been a great service to the First District. I’d like to commend both of my opponents for that.
Nick Bush can be reached at [email protected]