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Senate Consistence or Resistance? Debate Displays a District’s Options…

Not quite a love fest. (Still via Focus Springfield/LWV)

SPRINGFIELD—It was not their first confrontation, but the first where they could really mix it up—and they did. In a debate Wednesday night, James Welch, the incumbent senator for the Hampden Senate District, and his opponent, former Springfield City Councilor Amaad Rivera jousted on healthcare, campaign finance, and environmental justice.

Rivera and Welch have appeared side-by-side before. Yet, the event held at Focus Springfield, the public access television provider here, was the first formally billed as a debate. The candidates are to meet Thursday night for another faceoff, their final before the September 4 Democratic primary.

With a primary the day after Labor Day and no sizzling statewide races topping the ticket, many down ballot races—the Secretary of State being an exception—have received little attention. To the extent that legislative races have captured attention it has been upriver amid the turnover in the delegation in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

The Hampden Senate race has flown under the radar. With no public polling and no eyebrow-raisers in campaign finance reports, the race has become difficult to gauge.

The Hampden Senate District includes West Springfield, Wards 2, 3 and 4 in Chicopee and 2/3 of Springfield. This includes Chicopee Center and parts of Chicopee Falls and Springfield’s most urban and diverse neighborhoods.

The Hampden Senate District (

Wednesday’s debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Focus Springfield and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Questions came from the audience, social media, the sponsors, and a media panel from print and public radio. The Springfield convener of the league, Linda Matys O’Connell kicked things off before turning it over to moderator Lee Bona.

The candidates’ openings set the tone of the debate.

“Don’t let the facts ruin a good story, which is fine around the dinner table or around the campaign,” said Welsh, a senator since 2011. Indeed, facts should ruin a good story, which Welch would accuse Rivera of doing throughout.

For his part, Rivera, mostly an aide to US Senator Ed Markey, claimed Welch was using “smoke and mirrors” to defend his record. “What I know and what lots of people understand is the status quo isn’t working,” the former councilor said.

The candidates would crosstalk and snipe, sometimes forcing the moderator to grant the other extra time to respond, and perhaps not enough at times.

No surprise, Springfield, which is 2/3 of the district, featured prominently. (WMassP&I)

Despite the tension, the debate was surprisingly meaty in the policy department. On some particularly technical issues, like on air quality in Springfield, Rivera had the advantage. Elsewhere, particularly regarding issues before a committee Welch serves on or about which he felt particularly strongly, they were more evenly matched.

On single-payer, for example, Rivera accused Welch of burying a study on the cost. Welch disputed that, saying a study had passed. It appears the Senate did attach a study to a healthcare bill it passed, but that did not become law. However, other bills studying “Medicare-for-all” died various deaths throughout the legislative labyrinth.

They were both supportive of programs to broaden food access and encouraged legislation to combat the prevalence of food deserts.

Both were strongly supportive of LGBTQ issues.

Rivera, who is gay, said he had been an advocate for the community’s issues his whole life. He had been the city’s first openly gay councilor and helped found Springfield Pride.  Rivera also noted that he has worked to hold Scott Lively, a Springfield-based pastor renowned for his homophobic views, accountable for actions that have terrorized LGBTQ people in Africa.

“I’ve spent my career making sure vulnerable populations are represented and protected,” Rivera said.

The State Senate chamber is current closed, but will reopen with the legislature in January. (WMassP&I)

Welch called his vote—then as a State Rep—to defeat same-sex marriage constitutional amendment one of his proudest. He also observed Health Care Financing, a committee he co-chairs, had greenlit a ban on conversion therapy for LGBT individuals.

After the House passed that bill with an amendment, the Senate did not act on the amended version before the session ended July 31.

Both agreed that more needed work remains on criminal justice reform.

However, that issue became a little heated as Rivera accused Welch of voting to maintain mandatory minimums in some cases, including those involving drugs. Welch countered that they were for specific crimes like drug distribution, DUIs, and assaulting a police officer.

“The mandatory minimums that my opponent is referring to tonight has to do with the distribution of heroin and fentanyl,” Welch said. “It’s much different that the actual use and those people who are in the throes of addiction.”

Paul Tuthill of WAMC asked both candidates about sexual harassment issues, given how they roiled the Senate and ended the career of former Senate President Stan Rosenberg.  Specifically, Tuthill asked if the candidates supported a ban on nondisclosure clauses in settlements, an end to public money paying settlements, and outside investigations of all claims.

Neither candidates answered initially. Welch discussed his support for the victims during the investigation of Rosenberg’s husband. Rivera criticized the Senate of not reforming its own sexual harassment rules at the conclusion of the Rosenberg-Hefner investigation.

Almost there…

They both indicated support for the three proposals after Tuthill insisted on a yes or no answer.

During the part when the candidates asked each other questions, Welch queried Rivera about his past support for charter schools. The implication of Welch’s question was that Rivera had not stated a firm position. Rivera countered that he will follow the courts, voters, and legislature which have opted not to expand charters schools.

Welch continued, probing Rivera’s support for Question 2 in 2016, which would have raised the charter school cap.

Rivera was unrepentant. He said he stood with Sabis, a charter school, as much as Sci-Tech, a traditional public school. “We don’t have a charter school problem, we have a charter school funding problem,” he said before accusing Welch of not leading on this either.

One nearly absent issue was gun control, which Rivera has emphasized since announcing in March. It appeared briefly when Rivera, responding to a request to say something nice about his opponent. He praised Welch for having his lowest National Rifle Association rating this year. Welch countered by congratulating Rivera on his wedding next month.

Throughout this campaign, Welch has defended his record against what may be best described as Rivera’s charge of more inactiveness, if not ineffectiveness.

Never far away… (created via wikipedia images and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoon).

That complaint has become more common in the era of Donald Trump. Across the country, but especially in blue states and districts—like the Hampden Senate seat or Rosenberg’s former seat—Democrats are demanding their leaders push back on Trump. Sometimes that critique of Democratic incumbents is fair or at least arguable. Other times it may not be.

Indeed, the former real estate tycoon and still provocateur haunted both Rivera and Welch’s remarks.

“Now more than ever, as we look on the federal and is starting to creep onto the state level and the local level, facts just aren’t as important anymore,” Welch said. It was an obvious reference to the persistent lying or “alternative facts” as White House advisor Kellyanne Conway has called it.

Rivera, for his part, said the legislature—and Welch—had failed, as a blue state, to lead the resistance against Trump’s policies.

Cliched as it is, voters in this arch-Democratic district will decide which is more persusive in this moment.

Rivera and Welch’s final confrontation will be at 6pm Thursday at the Mason Square library in Springfield.

Watch the full debate below and check out WMassP&I’s political guide.

MA Senate Debate – Hampden District

Watch here as incumbent Senator Jim Welch debates challenger Amaad Rivera For State Senate at Focus Springfield Community TV. Special thanks to League of Women Voters/Springfield volunteers Zaida Govan and Gillian S. S. Hinkson who hosted the watch party on Facebook Live and to members Ellen Wendy Kaplan and Nancy Urbschat, and Laura Sylvester of the The Food Bank of Western MA who selected audience questions.

Posted by League of Women Voters/Springfield on Wednesday, August 29, 2018