In 6th Hampden, Thrust and Parry, Bech and Finn…
UPDATED 10/10/14 4:30PM: For a correction. A prior version of this post stated Rep. Mike Finn was in support of more charter schools immediately after a sentence in which he said he was wary. In fact, his opponent Nathan Bech is the one in favor of more charters now.
WEST SPRINGFIELD—Facing off in a spirited and fast-paced debate, candidates for the 6th Hampden House district traded barbs and debated the legislature’s work over the last couple of years. Robert McDonald moderated the West of the River Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate last Thursday between Democratic Representative Michael Finn and Republican Nathan Bech.
Held in the auditorium of Town Hall here, it featured questions from McDonald and WWLP reporter Laura Hutchison, who, together asked substantive, if sometimes repetitive questions. Bech and Finn’s Lincoln-Douglas style questions to each other, though loaded, also made for solid discussion. Bech seemed most comfortable sticking to talking points, whereas Finn seemed more agile, returning to safe topics like education only sporadically.
The debate was heated at times with Finn leveling accusations of “callous indifference” against Bech, who in turn charged his opponent with “a failure of leadership.” Seated far apart in the hearing room/auditorium in Town Hall with McDonald in the middle, the setup presaged the distance between the candidates on substance.
The 6th Hampden House district includes all of West Springfield, precincts in southwestern Chicopee and a single Springfield precinct in the vicinity of Hungry Hill. Bech, who led the anti-Hard Rock campaign in 2013 and ran for Congress against John Olver in 2008, is challenging Finn, a two term rep and former town councilor.
The debate itself almost did not happen, after objections were raised with the moderator chosen. Supporters of Finn had claimed McDonald appeared biased against Ed Sullivan in last year’s mayor debate. This ultimate did not derail the debate Thursday and McDonald appear entirely impartial.
The debate drew a decent audience and was broadcast on West Springfield Public Access. Among the notables there were Mayor Sullivan, Finn’s colleagues Westfield Rep John Velis and Peru Rep Paul Mark, one of Finn’s closest friends in the House as well Finn’s predecessor Senator Jim Welch.
The debate opened with questions on a hot a button topic: the gas tax and infrastructure.
Finn defended the measures the legislature had taken to fund projects from I-91 to a new underpass for Union Street in West Springfield. He also noted the exhaustion of funds for Gov. Deval Patrick’s program to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in the commonwealth. Finn added that indexing the gas tax assured a steadier stream as the costs of projects go up with inflation.
Bech fired back saying the problem was the efficiency with which the state executed transportation projects. The gas tax, raised in last year’s infrastructure bill, had not been raised in about twenty years. Bech went as far to call it a “misappropriation of those funds” allotted for transportation.
Adding onto that subject, Bech repeatedly complained about the toll plazas along the Turnpike as well. Bech’s reference to severance pay may have been recognition that the plazas, are in fact, going the way of the dodo, but he repeatedly returned to their continued existence beyond the original payment of the Pike’s bonds. Tolls from the New York state border to Exit 6 were recently reinstated as well.
Later in the debate, during the Lincoln-Douglas portion, Bech asked Finn if the revival of tolls from Exits 1 to 6 was “a failure of leadership.” Finn paused before answering, “No” and referenced the infrastructure deficit. Earlier this year, the commonwealth also announced plans to eventually abolish tolls between Exits 4 and 6.
Both candidates tried to smack the other throughout the debate, but Bech came out most aggressively, in his somewhat mild-mannered way, as Hutchinson and McDonald asked questions. In addition to the toll plazas, Bech tried West Springfield’s conservative nerve by focusing on the toll plazas, local aide (which actually has bipartisan appeal), immigration and welfare.
The town itself is not particularly conservative and Democrats have held sway here since Stephen Buoniconti won the rep seat in 2000 and usually hold an edge in non-partisan municipal offices, too. However, with lower voter participation in the poorer, urban parts of town relative to the wealthier suburban quarters, the town’s electorate, particularly in non-presidential elections, has grown more conservative. Still, that electorate as a whole remains more moderate than ideological.
Bech began on this by claiming that Finn’s tenure coincided with a failure to increase local aide. Finn replied, it has gone up every year he has been in office—if incrementally. Bech never said so explicitly, but it would appear he was criticizing local aide never returned to pre-recession levels adjusted for inflation.
Bech also charged that more local aide was funded despite surpluses in recent budget years. Finn, ready for that, retorted that such monies went into reserves. Massachusetts, Finn said, being one of only three states with such a fund, has been rewarded with low bond prices as a result.
“It is what we use to weather the storm,” Finn said of bolstering the rainy day fund.
Bech also accused Finn of voting to allow undocumented immigrants college tuition at the expense of veterans. Finn largely brushed off the claim about undocumented immigrants and replied that Massachusetts leads the nation in programs for veterans.
Matthew McKenna, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services confirmed to WMassP&I that Massachusetts offers full tuition waivers for Massachusetts veterans at community colleges, state universities and the UMASS system. The programs is secondary to the post-9/11 GI bill, meaning the state program does not factor in unless the veteran otherwise does not qualify under the federal bill.
Similarly, Bech hit Finn on housing Central American migrant children at Westover and on welfare reform. Finn said he opposed housing the children at Westover and backed efforts to crack down on welfare abuse. Finn and the House of Representatives backed reforms that many liberals denounced as onerous for the poor. On the migrant children, Finn, noting he was adopted, said his opposition was not based in xenophobia and had compassion for these kids. Yet, he did not trust the federal government’s insistence the arrangement would be temporary.
With Finn unflinching, Bech often returned to stats about Finn’s voting record matching Speaker Robert DeLeo’s to the tune of 99% of the time. In his closing he called Finn, “a second vote from Winthrop,” a reference to DeLeo’s hometown.
“When you criticize some of those votes,” Finn said, citing among others, boosted funding for education, “they had a positive impact.”
During the bulk of the Lincoln-Douglas portion, Finn seemingly had Bech on his heels. Out of the gate, Finn criticized Bech for accepting a contribution from Robert Evans, the proprietor of the Westside IHOP, who was hit with a six figure fine for wage and hour violations.
Bech defended Evans’s support saying the franchisee was accommodating during the fight against Hard Rock. “I’m happy to stand up for small business…you’re not!” Bech responded.
Finn, unmoved, accused Bech of “callous disregard” for the employees affected by Evans’s behavior. Later on, Finn twisted the knife by inquiring of Bech’s position on Question 4, which would institute paid sick leave in Massachusetts. Bech said was not opposed to employees having sick leave, just against employers being required to provide it. Finn cited this as a pattern of Bech not standing with workers.
Finn stayed on offense throughout that portion of the debate, hitting Bech on marriage equality (Bech holds onto the increasingly moot belief the people should vote on it), his policy and financial ties to the area tea party, such as it is (Bech disclaimed membership), and on funding the Massachusetts School Building Authority. On the last one, Bech did not oppose the agency or its funding, but tried to shift the issue toward support for charters schools.
(During a forum in Springfield the following Monday, that issue developed more clarity, as Finn said after supporting charter schools, he had become wary of taking funding from other public schools. Bech remains in support of more charters.)
However, Bech was not entirely on the defensive. He charged that Finn was MIA during West Springfield’s casino battle. Finn said he felt the process was fair and he stayed neutral in the referendum itself, but personally voted against Hard Rock, which would have put a facility on the Big E fairgrounds. Finn said were the casino law repealed in November, he would not support proposals to allow MGM to build in Springfield anyway. Bech claimed Finn would do nothing.
The debate closed with a summation of the candidates themes. For Bech that was a claim Finn lacked independence. Finn, by contrast, argued his record and experience merited a return to Beacon Hill. Overall, the debate was quite substantive and presented a clear realization that Finn is taking seriously this challenge. Bech for this part, later acknowledged it was not his best performance, but with time ticking down there is little room for error for either.