State Senate candidates Jo Comerford, Steve Connor, Chelsea Kline, and Ryan O’Donnell vow to fight poverty and hunger

MassLive, August 15, 2018, by Mary Serreze

For the second night in a row, four Democratic contenders in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate District fielded questions before prospective voters in Franklin County.

And once again, the candidates agreed on nearly every issue, but revealed differences in style and substance.

Tuesday’s forum at the Shea Theater was sponsored by a coalition of non-profit organizations, and questions focused on poverty and hunger. The candidates said progressive taxation and new sources of revenue are needed to strengthen the social safety net and pay for other programs.

“Massachusetts does not have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem,” said Jo Comerford, former director of the National Priorities Project.

Running are Comerford, Central Hamsphire Veterans Agent Steven Connor, Northampton City Council president Ryan O’Donnell, and Chelsea Kline, a women’s rights activist and administrator at Bay Path University. Kline’s is the only name that will appear on the ballot, and the rest are waging write-in campaigns. Whoever wins the Sept. 4 primary will likely head to Beacon Hill, because there is no Republican in the race.

Each said they would push for stronger programs, food security, living wage legislation, affordable housing, public transportation, sustainable agriculture, tax reform, and racial justice.

“I am optimistic and determined,” said Kline. “We must keep people from falling through the cracks.”

Each agreed they would “keep children out of the school lunch debt issue,” and said that students should be fed in school with no “shaming,” even if their parents fall behind in lunch payments. Stories were told of poor children being given “cheese sandwiches” while their peers enjoyed a hot lunch.

“That’s the kind of stigma that sticks with children,” said O’Donnell. “Massachusetts is not a poor state, but we’ve made poor choices. We’re happy to give corporations tax breaks, but we find it difficult to feed our children.”

The candidates were asked what should be done to fight homelessness.

Connor said when he was hired in 2004 as veterans’ agent for 11 Hampshire County communities, former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins asked him to address the issue of homeless veterans.

“I have been in housing court every week, helping veterans and their family members who are facing eviction,” said Connor. “I believe in a ‘housing first’ model. First, you have to get people safe and secure. You can’t expect people to function well if they are living outside.”

Support was expressed for the Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP, that lets food stamp recipients buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

“With HIP, everyone wins, and every boat is lifted,” said Comerford. She said the program benefits low-income families, sends kids to school with full bellies, and helps farmers earn extra money.

Kline said issues of poverty, hunger, and homelessness involve intersecting issues, including transportation, good jobs, and educational access. She said new sources of revenue are needed, and suggested looking at a tax on sugary drinks.

O’Donnell spoke up for better transparency on Beacon Hill, and said there is too much money in politics. He chastised the state Legislature for failing to act on a number of issues before the two-year legislative session ended. “It’s toward the end of the session when special interests and lobbyists can go in and sabotage the process,” he said.

Comerford said that economic development involves “two sides of a coin.” On one side are workers, who benefit from training, housing, food, and health care. On the other are employees, who need a trained workforce, physical infrastructure, and other incentives to locate in Western Massachusetts.

A question on racial justice drew impassioned responses. Kline, who has championed the topic, said she is “horrified that people are locked up simply for being black or brown.” She spoke for “actively unmasking the toxic thread of racism that flow through everything we do.”

Connor said he knows a black man who spent the night in jail after being pulled over for an expired registration sticker, whereas when he was pulled over for the same problem, he was simply allowed to fix the problem. He later said that when shopping at local food co-ops, he’s been dismayed at “how white” everyone is.

The event was enlivened by three rounds of a “game show” where candidates spun a wheel to select a topic on which they could speak extemporaneously.

O’Donnell won the topic of “Charlie Baker.” He quipped that even though the popular Republican governor is tall, that that he would not vote for him. “It took a lawsuit to force Charlie Baker to enforce the Global Warming Solutions Act,” said O’Donnell.

Connor’s spin landed on “Theme Song.” He said when he returned from military service as a young man, that he was angry, and identified with “Working for the Clampdown” by The Clash. “I don’t want to work for the clampdown. I want to work for you,” said Connor.

Comerford drew the topic “favorite summer meal.” She spoke of a basil and mozzarella pasta dish prepared by her wife Anne, a public school teacher, and said their two children love the dish as well. “I was reminded of the privilege I have, with a loving spouse who helps care for our family,” she said.

Kline’s spin yielded “First Choice Committee Assignment.” She said that she would like to serve on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, “because budgets are moral documents.” She said she would also choose the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.

The event was sponsored by The Food Bank of Western Mass, Franklin County Resource Network Public Policy Task Force, and League of Women Voters of Franklin County.