Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Guest Blog: Knuuttila-Flanagan debate takes back seat to fruity Starburst

Since I was helping to organize the state senate debate in Sterling Monday night, I didn't really get to pay as close attention to the candidates and their answers as I would have liked. I didn't think I could blog the event with anything resembling a complete eye. So I did the next best thing...I asked my brother Scott to file a blog post in my place. All of the words that follow are his and his alone. If you have any doubt about that, when you read that he wants to build a casino on the Sterling-West Boylston town line you'll be convinced that what follows...while not from me.

On Monday I had the opportunity (?) to attend a debate at the First Church of Mary's Lamb in Sterling between the two candidates for State Senator for my district. Those eminent politicos are former state representative Brian Knuuttila and current state representative Jennifer Flanagan. Both are Democrats, which is good because otherwise they could have held the debate while bull fighting and I wouldn't have attended. As it is, I mainly went because my brother was one of the organizers and since Sterling hasn't yet painted their seats like Philips Arena in Atlanta, I thought I'd fill one. By the next debate I hope to have hired some seat fillers like they do at the Oscars so I can watch Baseball Tonight instead.

Actually, the debate turned out to be pretty interesting, so I'm glad I attended. Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to live blog it, as Union Pacific still hasn't finished laying Internet cable all the way out to Sterling, and I didn't want to file dispatches using couriers on cowback. But for those of you interested in local politics -- and I know you're out there by the millions -- I thought I'd try to sum up a few of my impressions.

Before I do, here are a few disclaimers. I myself am a registered Democrat. During most years I pay absolutely no attention to local politics, though some to national, which logically makes no sense whatsoever: sue me. Because of this, I went into the debate undecided and, like you, only aware of the candidates based on what I read on I've never seen either of them before, so all impressions are first impressions.

The show started off with a flourish of horns and the releasing of a dozen ceremonial doves. Well, no. Instead, they jumped right into the debate; no opening statements, just the basic question, "What are the important issues facing Sterling and Lancaster?" Lancaster, it should be noted, is a neighboring bedroom community filled with a college, a prison, a soccer field and thousands of people who wish they could buy liquor.

The first candidate to answer was Knuuttila, who seemed to have been caught off guard by this abstraction, like they asked him to explain the context of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". His answer, fittingly, was "Something about a peach?" Actually, he just rambled about the Wekepeke, which marks the one millionth reference to Wekepeke on this website. Email Lance for your commemorative balloon.

Flanagan did have the benefit of going second, so she was able to more closely follow her notes, which I believe read "don't sound like that guy". Besides the Wekepeke, though, she spoke for a bit about the importance of bringing public transportation to the area. This was also the subject of a follow up question later on; about the attempts to extend a rail line through Clinton and Lancaster that would connect the Worcester commuter lines to the Fitchburg line. During this segment, it was mentioned that a time frame of 15 years had been cited, which Flanagan said didn't seem that bad since they had been working for ten years in Fitchburg to get things straightened out.

Now that's a case of some seriously lowered expectations. It's like when you go on a blind date and discover she doesn’t drink. I think Flanagan has it backwards here; it's not that 15 years is reasonable, it's that ten years is equally ridiculous. Personally, I think that public transportation, and specifically rail transportation, is an extremely important issue right now; and given the current rising gas prices, there may never be a better time to address it, because it's at the forefront of everyone's mind. When gas is cheap, pushing through legislation for railways isn't going to be a priority, but right now there's a mandate to do something. This is an issue I wish they would have discussed a little more.

It was again brought up later by Knuuttila, in reference to how the T used to extend out to Gardner and now doesn't, which I think is silly. Apparently they said there aren't enough riders to justify it, but that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If timely, reliable and affordable service isn't available, people are going to find alternatives.

Personally I think the solution isn't to cut back service, but to vastly expand it. Here's a proposal: the commonwealth should use the right of eminent domain to purchase all the rail in the state. Efforts to increase commuter service have been hampered because the state has liability issues with renting usage rights from the company that owns the track. Well, let's reverse the equation. The state should own the tracks and rent the service to the rail company. This would alleviate the liability issues, and would ensure that the tracks would be available to satisfy the commuter needs first and foremost, with any freight rental being allocated from surplus time. Once the state owns the track, they should then greatly expand rail service throughout the state, adding trains that run frequently and on time. Further, prices should be lowered. The cost to operate a train remains the same regardless of whether there are ten passengers or 400; dropping the price should entice more people to ride, boosting overall revenue.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Japan, which has a large, efficient and impressive rail system that extends throughout the nation. The commuters there use rail travel not just within a city, but for the bulk of their travel throughout the province and nation. This is possible because the trains a) are available at frequent intervals, b) are available at convenient times and c) are both fast and on time. If fast, convenient, affordable and reliable rail service were available to citizens of the state, I believe they would use it, especially in light of current transportation costs.

Anyway. Communism aside, the debate continued for a couple hours. To be honest, there wasn't a huge difference in the substance of the candidates' answers. There was some difference in the style of delivery. In general, Knuuttila seemed very comfortable, engaged and energetic when he received a question that he was prepared for. On those occasions, he seemed to speak directly to the crowd, which responded. However, when he received questions that he was unprepared for, he often rambled, hemmed and hawed, and on at least a couple of occasions completely made up his answer on the spot. It was clear that he had not considered some of these questions at all beforehand, and it was a little weird listening to him think it through out loud.

Flanagan, on the other hand, seemed to address her answers to the moderators as often as to the crowd, which I'm not sure benefited her. In contrast to some of Knuuttila's animated answers, Flanagan's responses were more measured. She also did not seem to be caught off guard by many of the questions. I'm not sure if this was because she actually had considered all the issues or if she was just a lot better at covering herself. My feeling was that it was due to the former, which is probably because she is currently serving as a representative and therefore has to deal with this crap all the time anyway.

Throughout most of the debate things remained civil. There was one point, however, where there was some testiness. I'm not 100% sure which part of the debate it was during -- I was distracted by the fruity sensations of a pack of Starburst I was plowing through. But if memory serves, it occurred during a question about Gay Marriage, strangely fitting given my snack of choice. It wasn't a big blowup, and to be honest, it kind of seemed from where I was sitting as if Knuuttila was trying to get something started; but it just fizzled out, so whatever.

The Gay Marriage question was, however, interesting, even if there wasn't any jujitsu. Basically, Flanagan said she supported it. Knuuttila took a bit of a different tack. As a self-described "conservative Democrat", Knuuttila said that he voted… let's see, how the hell did this work… okay, I guess he voted for the amendment to ban gay marriage because he wanted to issue to come up for a general vote so that all the people in the state could vote on it. Or something like that?

Now, this was presented as a matter of principle; he stated multiple times that some issues are so important that everyone should have the right to vote on them. This may very well be his feelings on the issue. It also seemed like a good way to try to make political hay while sidestepping the question. See, chances are that most voters are going to hear this and say, "yeah, that's right, this is a democracy, we should all have the right to vote on it" and therefore agree with Knuuttila without actually finding out what his position is. Meaning he can avoid the bitterness and stuff that often comes along with this question.

It's a pretty smooth politician move. However, as it happens, I don't agree with him anyway. He's right, there are issues so important that everyone should be able to vote on it. Beyond that, though, there are issues so important that people shouldn't be allowed to vote on them. There are fundamental rights built into our constitution and they are fundamental specifically because they are too important to be voted on; I believe the word "inalienable" has been used for these sorts of things. I believe that marriage is one of these inalienable rights; and therefore should not be subject to a popular vote. So, regardless of what Knuuttila's position actually is on this issue, I disagree with him. Nyah.

The only other issue of substance that they seemed to disagree on was abortion. The candidates were asked whether they would support a ban on abortion is Roe v. Wade was overturned. Flanagan answered that she supported the right of women to choose for themselves. Knuuttila again sidestepped the issue; he said that he was a Pro Life candidate, but that he would uphold Roe v. Wade since it was the "law of the land". As the question asked what they would do in the hypothetical case that it were revoked, this wasn't really an answer, but I suppose it was in a way.

Besides these few questions, the candidates were pretty much in agreement on everything. There was one other interesting section of the debate, even though the candidates agreed. Two questions were asked, one about whether they would support a casino in our district and one about the effectiveness of the state health care plan. Both said that they support casinos, though neither specifically said anything about our district, unless Palmer is in our district, in which case...WTF is Palmer? "Palmer? I just met her!" They both also indicated that they supported the health care plan, but that it needed to be adjusted because it was costing both the state and individuals too much money.

Okay, so… am I the only one thinking that these issues go together? I mean, I'm not named Reeses, but I know you should put chocolate in peanut butter. One the one hand we have a project people don't support that would provide a large revenues stream. On the other hand we have a project everyone supports that needs a revenue stream. It seems like an obvious solution to marry these issues: make the casino legislation contingent upon the revenues being used to fund the healthcare plan.

Now, for all I know, they already are trying this. I wouldn't know; I don't pay attention to these things. But it seems like a no-brainer. While I'm at it, I'll even answer the actual question asked and say that, yes, not only would I support a casino in my district, I think our district is the ideal location for it. Further, I'll tell you right where to put it: at exit 5 on Interstate 190, near the border of Sterling and West Boylston.

This is the optimal location for a casino for several reasons. Firstly, it's proximity to Worcester means that it is nearly equidistant from the major population centers of New England; Boston, Providence, Hartford, Springfield and Nashua are all roughly an hour away. It's location at 190 gives it easy access on an underutilized, federally funded highway, and also greatly reduces impact on the local community, as there's essentially nothing in that part of town except the highway anyhow. Further, being located midway between Leominster and Worcester means that it would be an economic boon to both of those cities; each is within a ten minute drive from Exit 5, and thus easily accessible to all casino guests. This location is also fairly close to Mount Wachusett by means of route 140, creating an opportunity for some synergy between these sites as vacation destinations.

To sum up, the site would provide an economic impact directly to the neighboring communities without significant negative impact on the host town; it would provide a stream of revenue that could fund the health care plan; and it would create a regional tourist destination easily accessible to most residents of New England. Incidentally, it might also give an actual reason for people to fly to the Worcester Airport, which has been trying and failing to come up with a raison d'tere for decades.

Yes, I have extensive experience with Sim City 3000; how could you tell?

Anyway, here are some overall impressions of the evening. Knuuttila impressed some (i.e. my Dad) with his experience and record as a veteran and a police officer as well as a lawyer and state representative. He was quite animated throughout, and came across as an energetic and authentic guy. When asked why he was running he said it was because he loved the job, and he did seem to enjoy the process and the prospect of it. I'm not sure if that's really a qualification, though; I mean, I enjoy driving but that doesn't mean I'm qualified for NASCAR. Other than my mullet.

Flanagan, on the other hand, was more measured in her responses, more businesslike and seemingly more prepared. In other words, she seemed more like a professional politician, for good or bad. Indeed, the only time during the evening when I felt she tripped up was during her closing statements, which followed Knuuttila's laundry list of resume accomplishments. Basically, she told us that she had been working her way up through the political ranks since she was knee high to a sunflower and that this job would be the next step in her political advancement. Er… hooray I guess? Other than that somewhat offputting part of her speech, though, she seemed like she knew what she was doing.

So, there you have it: two hours of people talking in a barn, boiled down to eight minutes of reading or, more likely, forty seconds of skimming the first paragraph and then going to I must add a disclaimer that I took a couple breaks during the meeting to walk around the town square, so I probably missed the questions about Area 51 and Osama Bin Laden or whatever. But everything else is totally in this recap, so when you go to the voting booth, tell them nodrumlins sent you.

And pick up your balloon.

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