News Briefs

Fisher Fights to Get on GOP Gubernatorial Ballot

While a field of five Democrats continues to battle to become their party’s gubernatorial nominee this fall, Charlie Baker has enjoyed the certainty of being the sole name on the Republican primary ballot since securing his party’s endorsement at its convention last month.

But now a rival Republican—Mark Fisher of Shrewsbury, owner of a metal manufacturing company and a member of the Tea Party—is legally challenging those convention results, in the hope of getting his name on the primary ballot as well. Last week, Fisher filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the Massachusetts Republican Party, challenging the delegate count at the convention. Under party rules, a candidate needed to win at least 15 percent of the convention vote to make it on to the ballot. Baker easily made it, with 82 percent of the vote, while Fisher just missed that threshold, according to the party.

Fisher, however, maintains that the party erred in counting blank ballots and that, if it hadn’t counted those ballots, he would have won 15.16 percent of the vote. He’s asking the court to force the Republican party to put his name on the primary ballot.

Kirsten Hughes, chair of the Mass. GOP, released a statement to the media defending the process used to tally the ballots. “[A]ll ballot challenges were thoroughly and properly adjudicated in an open manner during the convention with Mr. Fisher’s legal counsel present,” she said.

Baker also issued a statement saying, “I respect Mark’s decision to pursue this course of action, and am confident the party will work to ensure the process was fair and transparent.” He added, “Should a primary be determined to be the fair resolution, I will welcome it and work hard to win the nomination and then carry my message of making Massachusetts great into the general election.”

While the lawsuit creates something of a distraction from Baker’s full-steam-ahead progress to the November general election, it seems unlikely that he has all that much to worry about; while residents of the typically “blue” commonwealth have a history of electing Republicans to the governor’s office, conventional wisdom holds that a moderate candidate like Baker has a significantly better shot of wooing Massachusetts voters than one who’s affiliated with the Tea Party, as Fisher is. Still, the legal challenge will eat up some GOP time and resources, which has to be good news to the five Democrats (Joe Avellone, Don Berwick, Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman and Juliet Kayyem) still fighting for their party’s nomination, as well as the three Independents (Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively and Jeff McCormick) aiming to be on the ballot.•


Narcan to the Rescue

Interstate 91 between New York and Vermont has become the “Heroin Highway” as police intercept cars carrying hundreds of bags of heroin. Sixteen hundred bags were found in a car driven by a man from Hinsdale, N.H. last November and 1,250 in another car stopped in Hatfield in December, while smaller amounts are confiscated weekly, almost daily.

On March 3, 591 bags were found during a traffic stop in Deerfield. In Greenfield on March 21, a state police helicopter on another mission took time out to help local police apprehend a Connecticut couple who were transporting 200 bags.

The number of heroin overdoses in Massachusetts and Vermont has led the governors of both states to declare public health emergencies. In Massachusetts, where 140 people have died from known or suspected heroin overdoses since the beginning of winter, Gov. Deval Patrick two weeks ago ordered that Narcan, an antidote to heroin poisoning, be given to police, firefighters, all first responders, and friends and relatives of known heroin users.

(Meanwhile, the usually corporate-friendly Patrick has banned the sale in Massachusetts of Zohydro, a strong painkiller recently approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, on the grounds that painkillers are gateway drugs for heroin. Predictably, California-based Zogenix, which makes Zohydro, has angrily retorted that other painkillers more dangerous to the liver are sold in Massachusetts and the ban on its product is unfair.)

In the Valley, Narcan is also available through Tapestry Health Systems, which has just announced that its Greenfield facility as well as its locations in Northampton, Springfield and Holyoke will stock it.

A striking feature of the response at all levels to the current heroin crisis is that it seems to represent a 180-degree turn from the older law-enforcement-heavy approach to drug-related issues.

“I completely agree with that,” said Liz Whynott, supervisor of Tapestry’s needle exchange programs. “You could describe it as more of a public health approach, focusing on substance abuse treatment and, as [Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan] says, jail diversion [channeling users into treatment programs rather than jail].

“I’ve been with the needle exchange program for five years,” Whynott continued, “and I’ve seen such a difference between then and now. We’ve been getting calls almost weekly from police departments and substance abuse treatment providers, treatment centers, doctors’ offices, first responders, whereas when I first started, it was so difficult to get into any of those places.”

Not only government and law enforcement officials and health professionals, but friends and families of users, are more open to seeing heroin use as a health issue, Whynott said—a change that makes Tapestry’s job easier.

“It’s also been easier to access those who are most apt to witness an overdose, such as users in the treatment centers,” she said. “And within the past few months, we’ve seen quite a few people come to the needle exchange who are family members, parents, siblings, to learn to use Narcan. Family members who take part in the Learn to Cope parents’ support group at Providence Hospital can also get Narcan. We’re able to train bystanders. We’ve seen such a shift in perception even in the last few months.”•


Health Report Reveals Troubling Stats in Hampden County

Hampden County has the worst health conditions in the state, according to a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The county rankings are part of the RWJF’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project, which compiles data from a range of government sources to evaluate public health around the country. The goal, according to the foundation, is t use that data to build support for programs to improve health.

The report ranks counties in two areas: health outcomes (how healthy the area is, based on the length and quality of life of its residents) and health factors (the conditions that influence health, including public health behaviors, the physical environment, access to healthcare and social and economic factors). Hampden County finished in 14th place—dead last among all Massachusetts counties—in both categories.

Among Western Mass. counties, Hampshire did the best, ranking fifth in health outcomes and third in health factors. Franklin County was in the middle of the pack, ranking eighth on both health outcomes and health factors. Berkshire County was ranked 11th in health outcomes and ninth in health factors.

Hampden County showed higher-than-average rates on a number of problem health behaviors, including adult smoking (19 percent of county residents smoke, versus 15 percent statewide), adult obesity (29 percent of Hampden residents versus 24 percent statewide) and physical inactivity (27 percent of Hampden adults reported getting no “leisure time physical activity”; the statewide average is 22 percent). Hampden County fared particularly poorly on teen-birth rate (41 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, compared to the state average of 19 births per 1,000) and rate of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia (Hampden had 611 cases per 100,000 residents; the state rate was 346 per 100,000).

On access to care, Hampden County did fairly well: residents were screened for diabetes and breast cancer at about the same rate as the statewide figures, for instance, and had health insurance at roughly the same rate as the state average (6 percent of Hampden residents over 65 are uninsured, compared to five percent of all Massachusetts residents). The county has fewer dentists and primary care physicians per capita than other parts of the state, although it does have a better ratio of mental health providers to residents than the state does overall.

Betty Agin is the director of Universal Community Voices Eliminating Disparities, which address health disparities in Springfield, Hampden County’s largest municipality. So many of those disparities, she told the Advocate, “have to do with economic differences. … where you work, the money you make, where you live.” The health of a community is connected to the complex issues of race, class, educational opportunities and criminal justice policy, as Agin explained it. People with higher levels of education—and these days, she noted, that doesn’t just mean a high school diploma, but a college or graduate degree—are able to get better-paying jobs. People with more money have access to better healthcare and to information about good health. In Hampden County, with its large population of poor people of color, “it’s not a level situation across the board,” she said.• —MT


Pay Day Comes Late for Women Workers

For close to 20 years, advocacy groups around the country have drawn attention to gender-based wage disparities by declaring an annual Equal Pay Day—the date, they say, when the average American woman’s earnings catch up to what the average man earned the previous year. This year, that date was April 8.

On Friday, April 11, the Valley nonprofit MotherWoman and students from Mount Holyoke College will mark Equal Pay Day by reaching out to people at that evening’s Arts Night Out in Northampton. The students will hand out balloons and information that will “illuminate some of the shocking facts” about the issue, Liz Friedman, MotherWoman’s program director, told the Advocate.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, the median earnings of full-time workers were $49,400 for men and $37,800 for women; in other words, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, the gap is greater.

The reasons for that gap, Friedman said, are complex, having to do with workplace discrimination, the heavier family responsibilities typically shouldered by women, and forces that direct women into lower-paying jobs, among other factors. So closing the gap will require a multi-pronged approach—for instance, addressing the need for more family-friendly public policies such as paid parental leave and flexible work schedules, as well as supports such as affordable daycare.

“In the U.S., motherhood is treated as a hobby, and leaves no safety net for women once they have children,” Leigh Edwards, a Mount Holyoke student and MotherWoman intern who’s organizing the event, said in an announcement. “If policies were in place that allowed women more options and flexibility for their families, such as affordable or universal childcare, paid maternity/paternity leave, the wage gap would decrease.”

Activists at the Equal Pay Day event will also invite people to take part in an online survey about public policy matters. MotherWoman’s work includes advocacy for efforts to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts and to guarantee workers in the state earned sick days. The group also supports passage of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand on the 1963 Equal Pay Act by making it easier for victims of wage discrimination to seek redress and protecting workers from retaliation by management for sharing their salary information.

Looking ahead, Friedman said, MotherWoman is considering ways to address the issue on the state level, including through legislation that would guarantee workers a living wage and other social policies to support women workers.• —MT


McCutcheon vs. FEC: Money Wins

The last weekend in March, four Republican hopefuls for the 2016 presidential nomination flew to Las Vegas to seek the backing of gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who with his wife channeled more than $90 million into the 2012 race, much of it through Super PACs. John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Scott Walker shuffling before the billionaire kingmaker: as a commentary on the state of election finance, the meeting drew wry comment in the blogosphere.

The potential impacts of last week’s Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon vs. FEC are being assessed against the backdrop of the lineup in Las Vegas. Shaun McCutcheon, a Republican, is an Alabama businessman who donated to 16 candidates in the 2012 elections but was prohibited from channeling all the money he wanted into the election by campaign finance law, which capped the total amount of money individual donors could contribute in one two-year election cycle at $123,200. McCutcheon sued the Federal Election Commission; a federal court dismissed the case, but he appealed.

The Court has now ruled five to four that laws limiting the total that individuals can donate in the two-year federal election cycles are unconstitutional. The ruling lets stand the “base limits”—limits on what a donor can give an individual candidate or committee—but it strikes down the aggregate limits by holding that a donor should be able to give to as many candidates and committees as he/she wants, allowing, in theory, that one donor could give up to $3.6 million. It paves the way for even more money to flood campaigns than was unleashed by the Citizens United decision of 2010 (“Bucking Citizens United,” January 29, 2013, The justices in the plurality claimed that limiting contributions violates a donor’s First Amendment rights, and that the FEC’s concerns might be addressed in other ways, such as tighter restrictions on exchanges of money between committees.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont didn’t buy the First Amendment argument. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” he demanded. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

Already indignant over the Citizens United decision, campaign finance activists had arranged in advance for more than 140 demonstrations across the country to protest a McCutcheon victory.• —SK


Vegfest a Runaway Hit

When an event whose organizers expect 400 attendees gets 400, that’s—well, an event.

When an event geared for 400 gets 1,100, it’s no longer just an event but a sign of the times.

The first Valley Vegfest, held at JFK Middle School in Northampton March 29, was a showcase for vegan cuisine. It drew the interest of people wanting to learn or display the skills involved in meatless, plant-based cooking, either for nutritional reasons or because of a distaste for cruelty to animals, or both. And they came in droves, not only from the Valley but from Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Boston, New York, Hartford and Albany have vegfests, as do a growing number of communities in other parts of the country. Closer to the Valley, Worcester has one that has grown by leaps and bounds since it started four years ago. Two years ago it drew 3,000 and had to move in 2013 to a larger venue, the Worcester Airport; last year, reportedly, 6,000 came. This year’s even graduated to the city’s glitzy DCU Center.

The Valley event was organized by a small committee that was reinforced on March 29 by about 50 volunteers—“college students and others, animal rights groups,” according to organizer Sara Tower, who works with immigrant farmers for the Lutheran Social Services in Springfield. Tower, who said she “really [doesn’t] know how the word got out” that brought over a thousand people to the festival, added that the unexpected show of interest has all but ensured that there will be another one next year.

“A lot of people are encouraging us to do it again,” she said. “We’ll have more interest, hopefully more food vendors, more people who will want to participate now that they know it’s successful.” But rather than trying to enlarge the scale of the festival by reaching out to regional and national vendors, she said, “we’d like to focus on the local restaurants and chefs that we have here.”• —SK


Author: Advocate staff

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