Senate race slow to grab small town's attention

Shutesbury, known for political activism, is just beginning to tune in to Senate contest

Shutesbury, a rural town located in Western Massachusetts, had the state’s highest voter turnout for the last presidential primary election. Shutesbury, a rural town located in Western Massachusetts, had the state’s highest voter turnout for the last presidential primary election. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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SHUTESBURY - This rural town 88 miles west of Boston has no traffic lights and no businesses, but it does have this - voters who turn out for elections at a higher rate than anywhere else in the state. And they have a message for the candidates in the upcoming race to fill Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s seat: So far, they are underwhelmed.

With some three weeks until the Dec. 8 primary, even residents here - where political participation is a matter of pride - said they’re just tuning in to a field of candidates that had not yet succeeded in impressing them. But they also said they were starting to make decisions.

Pagliuca calls on Capuano and Coakley to support health bill. B6

“We had our first family conversation about it yesterday, even though we work on political issues for a living,’’ Sean Meyer, 47, a staffer for a nonprofit environmental group, said Thursday. “In the last four days it’s become an issue, and in the last two days we’ve really focused.’’

In interviews last week in the basement of Town Hall, during pickup at the elementary school, and at the co- op in neighboring Leverett, a dozen Shutesbury residents said they definitely plan to vote in the primary. All said they had just begun to focus on the race, and many had not settled on a candidate. Few had discussed the election with friends or neighbors. A few conceded that they could not name all four Democrats, and at least one was unsure how many were running.

Still, opinions were emerging.

Meyer and his wife, Kate Cell, 44, a nonprofit consultant, said they were turned off by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s statement that she would not support a health care bill that restricted coverage for abortions. By Thursday, they were in agreement: They would vote for US Representative Michael Capuano.

“Sean said it would be ironic if Coakley got elected to Kennedy’s seat and voted against health care reform,’’ said Cell. “There is a part of us that feels it is Kennedy’s seat.’’

At the tiny Spear Memorial Library, a one-room, Tudor-style building that stays open late two nights a week, volunteer Susan Millinger said Coakley has her support.

“I’d like to see a woman, and she’s got good experience,’’ said Millinger, a retired teacher and first-time Shutesbury voter who moved there from Virginia last November.

Lisa Saunders, a University of Massachusetts economist checking out a copy of “101 Dalmations’’ for her son, Malcolm, said she was undecided, though she had heard Capuano on the radio and liked his interest in health care and education.

Tucked into the hills just east of Amherst, with rambling brooks and root beer-colored barns, Shutesbury is not a typical Massachusetts town. Thirty-eight percent of adult residents have advanced degrees, according to the Census Bureau.

Residents tend to describe themselves as progressive, but take pride in being practical and independent.

Town Clerk Leslie Bracebridge said most of the 1,423 voters are unenrolled in any party; about 500 are registered Democrats, 100 are Republicans. In the 2008 presidential primary, when 61 percent of registered voters participated, the town bucked the statewide trend by favoring Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton, 473 votes to 251. (Dennis Kucinich received 13 votes and John Edwards, 7.)

Voters were in high spirits on Election Day as Obama prevailed (84 percent turned out at the polls in November). A bake sale held at Town Hall while the polls were open raked in $1,800 for the artists-in-residence program at Shutesbury Elementary School.

The election energized the town, but political and economic struggles since have taken a toll. George Babineau, a military retiree, said he is undecided but leaning toward businessman Stephen Pagliuca, because of his pledge not to accept money from special interests.

But Babineau has little hope that the candidate can make a difference. “Even if he’s elected, he’s the new guy, and the old-time politicians who have been there forever are going to stick him at the bottom of the barrel,’’ said the retiree, 56, who was using his laptop at the Leverett Village Co-op.

Tom Boynton, a 55-year-old builder sitting nearby, said he feels disenfranchised and sees no candidate who stands out as different.

“The federal government is pumping money into bailouts while people can’t afford to rent a movie,’’ he said. “How is another wealthy, politically connected senator going to represent me or my people?’’

Liberal as they are, residents defend their rural identity fiercely. Bulletin board postings outside the co-op offer meditation societies, Zen mini-retreats, and seasoned cordwood. The former lumbering town offers “fragrance free’’ meetings to protect those with allergies, but some of the hottest controversies in recent years have erupted over proposals to pave dirt roads, upgrades opposed by transplanted PhDs as well as Shutesbury natives.

A stone in the town graveyard honors Ephriam Pratt, who “swung a scythe for 101 consecutive years and mounted a horse without assistance at the age of 110.’’

Many residents volunteered for Obama’s campaign, and some said the recentness of that race, and its intensity, may have muted interest in the lower-profile Senate contest. Others pointed to the candidates’ failure to spend time in Western Massachusetts as a cause of low energy levels.

“The fact that Coakley didn’t come out to Amherst for the forum there speaks volumes,’’ said Michael DeChiara, the School Committee chairman, who is supporting Capuano. “Even though we don’t have the numbers, we make up for it in passion - don’t ignore us.’’

Meyer and Cell, the couple who decided last week to back Capuano, said they will move quickly to action, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and giving a little money.

“I think it will start bubbling up pretty soon,’’ said Cell, as her 22-month-old son, Luka, watched a spider crawl across the floor.

Mary Anne Antonellis, town librarian, wonders if part of the quiet around the election is the sheer unfamiliarity of the situation, after 47 years with Kennedy in office.

“It’s kind of strange that he’s gone,’’ she said. “I think people are still finding it hard to believe that we have to replace him.’’