To Be (1st) Franklin: From Feeling the Bern to Pease in Our Time?…
To Be (1st) Franklin is a series on the open race for the 1st Franklin House District.
WILLIAMSBURG—The departure of Stephen Kulik from the 1st Franklin District has prompted a mad dash of contenders. Given the subtle differences and stark similarities among the 19 towns that constitute the district, the field of candidates reflects a broad range of experiences and backgrounds.
One such dimension of diversity is age. Keeping and attracting young people is a major challenge for the district. Casey Pease, a college student and former Bernie Sanders organizer, has argued few can address that issue and others in the region better than somebody his age.
“They want to move here,” Pease, 21, said of his peers. Yet, things like transportation and broadband are barriers. “When you don’t have this connectivity that you need, that becomes a huge economic barrier.”
The 1st Franklin House district’s cast of characters includes towns of Ashfield, Buckland, Conway, Chester, Chesterfield, Cummington, Deerfield, Goshen, Huntington, Leverett, Middlefield, Montague, Plainville, Shelburne, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Whatley, Williamsburg, and Worthington.
Pease is one of seven candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Many, if not all are top-tier due to volunteer armies, fundraising abilities, or granular familiar with the district.
Arguably Pease has at least the last of these. His campaign highlights he attended the 1st Frankin’s schools and lived its residents’ struggles. Pease has been active in local politics, too. That ultimately led to a whirlwind tour of New England and the Midwest for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid.
“He has a natural ability to unite and understand the nuances and unique needs in each of the four counties in Western Mass,” said Karen Lee, a Sanders Western Mass Field Organizer.
Over a beer at a Route 9 restaurant here, Pease, sporting fresh navy-blue campaign swag, discussed his bid and background. He recalled the exhilaration of Sanders’s campaign and reminisced about his earlier life. A command of policy—and a few wisps of stubble—convincingly concealed that only recently did Pease become able to (legally) enjoy the drink he was nursing.
Unlike Williamsburg, a mostly affluent suburb of Northampton, Pease’s hometown Worthington sits somewhat suspended between the Pioneer Valley and Pittsfield.
Pease credits the town’s elementary school—nearly closed in recent years—and its library with providing a foundation upon which to grow and learn. Other experiences like managing Liston’s Bar & Grill in Worthington exposed him to people with varied perspectives.
Politics was in the family. His grandmother was Worthington’s first Selectwoman. At age 9, Pease got a taste of politics during his aunt’s unsuccessful state senate bid.
Pease’s parents—a logger and a nurse—exemplify the struggles. His mother works in for Berkshire Health system, which just reached a deal with its union staff. Meanwhile his father has had to grapple with the implosion of his trade as the price of timber collapse.
“It’s a lot different than living in a big city,” Pease said. “One of the reasons I decided to run is it is incredibly important that the next representative is somebody who knows what it’s like to live here,” he said.
One issue on Pease’s radar school transportation. Though the state has routinely underfunded regional transportation for year, regional school district routes span several communities while collecting relatively few kids.
Though a 1949 law supposedly promises reimbursement to regional school districts, appropriations consistently come up short. Regional districts end up raiding funds for programs or operation just to get students to class.
But Pease dug deeper, discussing Chapter 70 education funding and the stress school funding puts on the limited tax bases of the district’s small towns. To counter this, the legislature must approve more “sparsity aid” to rural school districts like those in the 1st Franklin.
Hardly shocking for a Sanders alum, Pease supports single payer healthcare.
“Not all my opponents support single payer healthcare,” Pease noted. “Whether it’s healthcare costs for school, healthcare costs for towns, it’s an ever-increasing cost. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be moving toward a universal healthcare system.”
Pease acknowledges there are transition issues, like what to do about health insurance employees. At a minimum, he argues, legislative committees should begin holding hearings to determine how to ease the pain and/or consider how to work with neighboring state to achieve a single-payer system.
Then there is agriculture, a central industry and, historically, an attraction for newcomers.
“I moved to Western Mass. in the 1980’s because of the lure of that agricultural resource,” Evan Johnson, a Worthington Select Board member said. “Preserving that land for future generations and having a local agricultural economy is key in my thinking and key to [Pease’s] campaign.”
While discussing education, Pease also noted the limited opportunities to promote agriculture on the high school level. He blamed state testing requirements crowding out other programs. However, he did acknowledge Greenfield Community College had such programs.
Pease said farming in the 413 needs more state support whether that is connecting food stamp beneficiaries with farm fresh food or farmland preservation. He noted that Worthington was down to one dairy farm. Given plummeting milk prices, Pease said farmers could try to turn their product into organic yogurt or ice cream. To do that, the state or federal assistance will be crucial, Pease said.
“I think he knows the people, he has a feel for the area,” Lee, the Sanders organizer, said. “And I believe he would represent the people and their interests.”
Pease had been talking policy since appearing before Worthington’s Town Meeting at age 16.
“What I heard was an informed, well-reasoned position that changed the minds of many voters that morning,” Johnson, the select board member, emailed. “I turned to a fellow Select Board member and said, ‘That kid is going to be President someday.’”
That day being many years off per the Constitution, Pease turned to organizing for Sanders as a UMass freshman. Sanders’s campaign noticed and hired him as a traveling organizer the following spring.
“Casey stood out prior to joining the campaign for organizing his fellow students at UMass for various rallies for Bernie Sanders and bringing many of them up to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Bernie,” Erika Uyterhoeven, the Sanders campaign’s National Director for out-of-state organizing, emailed.
Because he was “driven, hard-working, and persevering,” Pease stayed on. “Given his passion and love for the community where he’s from, his work ethic and determination, I can’t think of someone better to represent his district,” Uyterhoeven added.
According to Lee, when the campaign came to Massachusetts, Pease took a lead organizing areas that include the 1st Franklin district.
By early spring, however, Sanders’s campaign began downshifting. Pease was laid off. He led Andrea Harrington’s state senate campaign, though she did not advance past the primary.
Pease returned to college, but it was jarring returning to his old life. Yet unlike some, 2016 had not disenchanted him.
“The activism continued. The organizing never stopped,” he said. “You have to be able to work inside and outside the system. If we want reforms in the party, then you have to be willing to get involved and make those changes happen.”
That, in many ways, loops back to his campaign for state rep.
Reversing the decline in the 1st Franklin require better education funding, jobs, and infrastructure and “a vision for the future,” Pease said.
At least part the solution is giving the future, i.e. the next generation, a chance to have an impact.
“We should have been listening to young people years ago because fresh voices untainted by living long lives in this world bring us new and important views,” Johnson said. “These are the people that are inheriting what we have left them, much of it a mess.”
Pease noted many more young people are getting involved and running for office than ever. He pointed to the students from Parkland, Florida. They have set off a wave of youth participation after a gunman murdered 17 in their school.
“Quite frankly, now is our time,” Pease said, perhaps echoing Deval Patrick argument a dozen years ago. Pease said he has assembled a diverse, young campaign. He hopes, win or lose, his staff will be ready to take on future races, too.
Still, he has a unique position in this race. Pease called it “humbling” that because of his years of activism and relationship-building, his candidacy is not a longshot.
“Me running isn’t about Casey Pease,” he said, noting he would be the youngest-serving rep in the legislature. “It’s very much about having somebody who knowns this district and know how to represent such a unique place, such a unique part of Western Massachusetts and is also willing not to settle with the status quo.”