Monday, March 10, 2008

Candidate Knuuttila grilled in Sterling

knuuttila clinton 3Saturday, former State Rep. Brian Knuuttila spoke to the Sterling Democratic Town Committee's organizational meeting, introducing himself to the members of the committee and making the case for his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for state senate.

He has some work to do before September, if the response from committee members is any indication.

Knuuttila describes himself as a conservative Democrat, holding conservative views on a number if social issues. He is in favor of the death penalty, describes himself as pro-life, and voted against gay marriage when he had the opportunity. He voted for charter schools, would not promise to vote against expanding them in the future, supports the Republican plan to make a one-time payment to cities and towns from the rainy day fund, and is in favor of casinos.

One member asked him why he wasn't running as a Republican.

At his kickoff announcement two weeks ago in Clinton, Knuuttila noted that he thought it would take a conservative to win the rural towns in the district like Sterling, Lancaster, Westminster, etc. In a general election he might be right, but the Democrats who come out to vote in the primaries are generally more liberal than the population as a whole, and the members of the town committees are definitely more liberal. I wonder if his message can resonate with primary voters; members of our town committee were skeptical.

Of his stances on specific issues, his take on the gay marriage issue did not resonate with me at all. The former rep explained that he had voted against gay marriage when it first came up on constitutional grounds. He used the example of a gay couple that might marry in Massachusetts and then move to, say, Tennessee. His position was that the full faith and credit provision of the constitution would force Tennessee to recognize the marriage and that he didn't think other states should have to follow Massachusetts lead. For that reason, he believed that gay marriage should be a federal issue, not a state issue. In my opinion, that is Tennessee's problem, not ours. His job as representative should be to represent the interests of the people of Massachusetts. At some point, the Supreme court will have to decide if the full faith and credit clause applies in this case. Besides, congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act a number of years ago in an effort to protect states from just this situation.

Another member wanted to know Knuuttila's position on charter schools. The member noted that the town was paying over $8,500 per student for children to leave our school district to go to charter schools and he thought it was hurting our school system. Knuuttila said that he did vote for charter schools and suggested that he was pressured to vote for an expanded charter school bill because of heavy pressure from Tom Finneran and house leadership. When he was pressed on whether or not he would vote to expand charter schools, he said that he saw a senate seat as a terminal position (he could only see himself serving three or four terms--is he going to term limit himself?) and that would allow him to vote free of pressure.

The admission that he cast some of his votes under pressure was an extraordinarily candid moment for a candidate or former representative. I'm not sure I've ever heard a politician directly discuss the kind of pressure and vote trading that goes on in the state house; certainly not in the context of a campaign. I found that level of honesty refreshing. On the other hand, he did not directly answer the question of whether or not he would vote to expand charter schools should the issue come up, and the member who asked the question thought he was dodging the issue.

I found my self agreeing with Knuuttila on a range of financial issues. I asked him what he thought of the Governor's proposal to allow cities and towns to levy local option taxes such as a meal tax and he said he would be a strong supporter of the proposal. He said that the legislature had already allowed Boston to raise revenues in a similar manner, and he thought every city and town should have the same option if they choose.

Also in an effort to help cities and towns, he stated his support for a Republican proposal to provide financial relief with a one-time draw down of the "rainy day fund." The original proposal would have meant over $400,000 in aid to Sterling. I'm not sure that raiding the rainy day fund is a good idea, but if the legislature continues to block the governor's plans to raise revenues, a plan like this one might be the only way to get help to local governments.

Knuuttila stated that he was strongly in favor of Governor Patrick's casino proposal, although he assured me that he was not in favor of Patrick's onerous proposal to criminalize internet poker and other online gaming. While I agree with some of the governor's proposal, I don't think he should have counted on those revenues in his 2009 budget. And the internet gaming provision is a complete non-starter.

Having met Knuuttila twice, I have been impressed with him on a personal level. While was muffed the charter school question, he was generally candid with us and I think it takes a little bit of courage to stand in front of a skeptical group for nearly and hour and explain unpopular positions. He clearly has a lot of energy and enjoys the campaign; he was on the way to Gardner for an event following he meeting with us and mentioned that he would be attending the town committee meeting in Westminster. While I would expect Leominster Representative Jen Flanagan and any other candidates to campaign hard as well, Knuuttila is making a concerted effort to get out of the gate early and court voters now. That can only help.

Ultimately, I will have to decide whether or not my positions on social issues preclude me from voting for a social conservative like Knuuttila, or if financial issues will win the day and my vote. If Knuuttila is to be the nominee, he'll need to win that battle among many Democrats.

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