NEWBURYPORT — The five candidates for state representative in the 1st Essex District took the stage for the final debate before Election Day last night. While the candidates may have differed on some subjects, the debate was measured and cordial.
Co-sponsored by The Daily News, WNBP radio and the Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury chambers of commerce and moderated by WNBP’s Pete Falconi, the debate consisted of brief opening statements from the five candidates: Newburyport City Councilor Ed Cameron, Democrat; Amesbury City Councilor Jim Kelcourse, Republican; and Independent candidates, Newburyport City Councilor Ari Herzog, Amesbury financial planner Steve Stanganelli and Newburyport independent solar consultant Joseph “Rama” Valianti. They were also posed a series of questions ranging from Chapter 70 funding to increasing the district’s tax base to ballot questions.
The 1st Essex District seat was recently left vacant when Democrat Michael Costello decided not to run again after 12 years of service to Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury. The five candidates were asked where they might see themselves differing from Costello if they were elected to succeed him.
Stanganelli was the only candidate who admitted that he would do anything differently, saying that he would focus on retirement security issues. Herzog said that he admires the way Costello has worked as a team with numerous allies and organizations to make projects a reality over the years. Cameron, who has been endorsed by Costello, said that gay marriage, an issue on which Costello was at the forefront, is an issue of importance for him, while Valianti said that Costello’s work to shut down the Seabrook nuclear power plant is an issue that is very important to him.
On the topic of the four state-wide referendum questions on the ballot on Nov. 4, Cameron and Valianti would vote “no” on a measure to eliminate gas tax indexing while Kelcourse, Stanganelli and Herzog will vote “yes.”
Cameron, along with Valianti and Herzog, will vote “yes” to expand the beverage container deposit law, while Kelcourse and Stanganelli will vote “no.”
Both Stanganelli and Valianti will vote “yes” to expand prohibitions on gaming, while Cameron, Kelcourse and Herzog will vote “no.”
Cameron, Stanganelli, Valianti and Herzog will vote “yes” on earned sick time for employees, while Kelcourse said he will vote “no.”
When asked how the candidates would increase Chapter 90 funding to improve the district’s streets and sidewalks, Herzog said he would like to see public works departments receive monetary offers from the state by March or April as opposed to early summer as it is now. Cameron said he is in favor of voting “no” on the gas tax to keep the money coming in for roads and transportation. Stanganelli said he would be in favor of proposing a change to the Chapter 90 formula itself to allow cities and towns to collectively bargain for state funding. Valianti echoed Cameron and Herzog, asking for more oversight of the Department of Transportation. Kelcourse said that he would find more Chapter 90 funds by making use of excess state revenue.
The challenge of increasing the district’s tax base through economic development while staying true to each city and town was a topic that produced a variety of responses. Cameron said he would follow in Costello’s footsteps by promoting local projects such as the Salisbury Beach Revitalization. Stanganelli stressed regional planning and working with local organizations such as the chambers of commerce to attract more visitors to the area. Valianti stressed continuing education in new technologies and green energy. Kelcourse advocated for the streamlining of the licensing process as well as doing whatever possible to keep local businesses local, while Herzog pushed the idea of establishing the Greater Newburyport region as a gateway city.
Improving the state’s Chapter 70 education funding formula was an important topic to the candidates. Stanganelli said the formula is broken and unfair and advocated changing the formula starting with special education. Valianti said he would work with former state representatives, state senators and others to get the formula right. Kelcourse said that special education transportation costs need to be addressed immediately, while Herzog said that he would like to see a line item budget for the River Valley Charter School and that charter school funding should remain flat. Cameron said that since he would caucus with the Democrats, he would be the most likely to be at the table when Chapter 70 was addressed at the Statehouse.
The candidates were asked what were the benefits of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program such as the one recently implemented in Amesbury to attract new businesses. Cameron said that he was not as familiar with a TIF, since has not been used in Newburyport recently and that he was interested in providing a strong educational base to supply good employees for the work force and improving transportation. Stanganelli said he is concerned with how a TIF formula is reached. Valianti advocated collaborating with burgeoning industries, once again advocating for green energy, while Kelcourse said that he has been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses and that a TIF is a great tool for businesses as well as the communities they operate out of. Herzog advocated working alongside nonprofit organizations, cultural councils and chambers of commerce to make a more business-friendly atmosphere within the district.
Cameron said that the first three bills he would focus on as state representative would address transparency, homelessness and improving beach erosion. Kelcourse said he would attract more business into Amesbury by making better use of the industrial parks in the city. Herzog said he wanted to be the first Jewish president of the United States when he was in third grade but today would rather be a state representative, while Valianti proposed term limits for the speaker of the House, state representatives and state senators.
The debate was held at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School auditorium.