Politicians gather for annual clambake
By G. Michael Dobbs and Katelyn Gendron
AGAWAM -- If it's mid-August and the elected officials, candidates and political junkies are gathering at Six Flags it can mean only one thing: it's time once again for Sheriff Michael Ashe's annual clambake.
The premier political event in Western Massachusetts to see and be seen at didn't have quite the star power as it had in previous years. Gov. Deval Patrick didn't show up. Neither did Lt. Gov. Tim Murray. There was no hint of Senators Edward Kennedy or John Kerry, although Congressman John Olver was present.
Their absences, though, put greater attention on what is the hallmark of the clambake; hardcore old school pressing of the flesh by newcomers seeking to build support and wily vets determined to keep their seats.
With hotly contested mayoral and City Council races in the Valley, there were plenty of candidates looking to make an impression as well as three people seeking state-wide positions.
State Treasurer Timothy Cahill answered the question of when he was going to announce his bid for the governorship even before this reporter had the chance to ask the question: not yet.
Cahill said he intends to make his decision "after Labor Day." He said the decision to leave the Democratic Party was more "momentous" than the one of deciding to run for governor or not.
Right now, Cahill said he is "working on logistics,"
"I'm trying to put all of the pieces together," he added.
He is speaking with long-time supporters to see if they would back him and he said, "I haven't lost anyone."
Cahill was motivated to leave a position he could undoubtedly win again in part by the economic management of the state. He asserted the leaders of both parties don't have the solutions to help the state. He said 16 years of having a Republican governor "didn't work well" and that "three years of having a Democratic governor and legislature don't work either."
He said the recent increase of $2 billion in taxes is not the solution for economic recovery in the state.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charles Baker was also at the picnic and he believes the state has not tightened its belt as much as cities and towns have been forced to tighten theirs.
Baker is the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Heath Care and worked eight years in the gubernatorial administrations of William Weld and Paul Celluci. He was the secretary of Health and Human Services under Weld and later served as Weld's Secretary of Administration and Finance, a position he continued under Celluci.
Baker noted the state hasn't made any ground in net job creation.
Although Weld and Celluci had their battles with a Democratic-controlled Legislature, Baker doesn't anticipate any problems as he worked with legislators during his time on Beacon Hill,
"I don't accept that notion," he said.
Businessman Steven Grossman hopes to be able to replace Cahill in the treasurer's seat. A Democrat who has been involved with running his 100 year-old family business, Grossman said he is running for three reasons.
The first is he would like to offer strong money management to reduce the fears of residents. The second is that he wants to ensure the best investment management for the state pension system, and the third is he wants to institute "universal financial literacy" for residents of the state.
Grossman said he has spent a lot of time in Western Massachusetts because his family business has regularly used Old Colony Envelope in Westfield.
Grossman has served as the chair of the state's Democratic party.
He would work for job creation and is in favor of the development of resort casinos. Initially he did not support them but believes they could supply needed jobs.
For some attending the clambake, the politicking goes on in the walkway between the buildings of the park's picnic grove, while for others the work goes on in the beer pavilion or where the bingo games are called.
Chicopee City Councilors Chuck Swider and Bob Zygarowski were chatting with Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette. Bissonnette is facing a challenge from City Council Vice President Shane Brooks, but is remaining his upbeat self.
He described the picnic with a smile as "a wonderful non-partisan gathering of the clans over the clams."
To report on this event, one has to troll all the areas and, like fishing, move around to find the best spot. An unsuspecting freshman state representative walked right into our net.
State Rep. Brian Ashe said his first year in the Legislature "has been quite a learning experience."
The challenges posed by the economy have also been coupled with the change in leadership in the House, Ashe said.
Even though Ashe supported another candidate for the speaker job, Speaker Robert DeLeo didn't punish him. His office has a window, a door and "walls that go to the ceiling." Some state reps don't get offices, but do their district's business out of a cubicle.
Ashe said, "This is the worst time to be a legislator, but it's the work I love."
Politics can make for some forgiving bed partners. Several election cycles ago Springfield City Councilor Bud Williams challenged State Rep. Benjamin Swan. Swan handily defeated Williams.
At the clambake, Swan was stumping for Williams, who is running against Mayor Domenic Sarno.
"There are no hard feelings," Swan said.
"[Williams] is the best candidate at this time in terms of experience, qualifications and trustworthiness," Swan said.
Swan criticized Sarno for having the worst relationship with the city's legislative delegation in the past 15 years.
Across the way, Sarno was working the crowd. He said while he is used to working 16-hour days as mayor and as a candidate for re-election he said the only negative has been the toll on his family life.
When asked if he would accept Williams' call for debates, Sarno said his campaign would address the request in writing.
Several of the seven candidates vying for the mayor's office in Agawam gripped and grinned their way through the Sheriff's Clambake including incumbent Mayor Susan Dawson, former Mayor Richard Cohen and City Council Vice President Cecilia Calabrese.
Other candidates attempting to blow past the herd in the primary election on Oct. 6 include City Councilor Paul Cavallo and residents Alan Griffin, Derek Benton and Peter Boadry.
"It's the largest primary [election] we've ever had for mayor," Agawam City Clerk Richard Theroux said at the clambake. "Hopefully we'll get the best two candidates out of the primary."
Dawson said she's looking forward to the re-election process. She added that she's completed six of the seven priorities she outlined in her campaign two years ago, and will be setting more goals including economic development and infrastructure upgrades.
Cohen explained that he is focusing solely on his campaign goals to separate himself from the pack. "I have to concentrate on my goals and my message, [which is] just to bring good government back [to Town Hall]," he said.
Calabrese explained that she's taking "the old fashion" route going door-to-door talking to voters. "You look people in the eye and show them what you're made of [campaigning door-to-door]. I'll be wearing out a lot of shoe leather."
Westfield Mayor Michael Boulanger casually worked the tables at the clambake, telling Reminder Publications that in order to win re-election -- and defeat City Councilor Daniel Knapik and Westfield resident Gaetana Aliotta -- he's got to better educate the voters on his progress.
"I'm right in the middle of everything I want to do [for the city]," he said.
He added that he and city officials have been collaborating on a number of tasks, including the $15 million Main Street-Broad Street Project, the Downtown Redevelopment Project, controlled spending at City Hall and accountability.
Boulanger said that in order to maintain progress, he'll have to establish a rapport with a new City Council, which will feature several new members come January, as some veteran councilors such as John Liptak and Charles Medeiros have chosen not to seek re-election.