Dick Alcombright Wins in North Adams

Ousts Barrett After 26 Years as Mayor

By: - Nov 04, 2009

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Yesterday, the voters of North Adams opted for change through Dick Alcombright and not more, and more, and more of the same with the Commonwealth's longest running incumbent, ousted Mayor John Barrett.

After 26 colorful but egocentric years the Barrett era has come to an end. There was joy and titubation among Alcombright supporters who wore their green and turned out in force at the Eagles last night. While nary a dry eye prevailed among Barrett's fiercely loyal following to whom it was a like a death in the family. He made a terse but feisty concession speech.

Alcombright thanked his grass roots supporters and introduced his family, wife Michelle, daughters, Casey, Ashley and son Matt. Another son, Paul, will be home for Thanksgiving. Casey was the campaign manager.  There was a special tribute to his mom "Red." As well as an emotional memory of his dad, Danny, a former City Councilor. "I wish he had been here to see this" Alcombright said struggling to maintain composure.

"All good things come to an end" Barrett said. "I had a bad feeling this afternoon when I saw people going to the polls. I saw a different voter going to the polls. A younger voter. I used to joke that the people I've brought in here, with all the changes we've made, were going to be the ones who voted me out. That day has come."

There was a different tone as Alcombright told a cheering audience that chanted Al-Com-Bright,. Al-Com-Bright "For the past seven months we've waged a people-powered campaign that will be remembered in this city for years to come."

Reporting in the on line, Tammy Daniels, quoted Barrett "I think my biggest disappointment in this election was seeing  the artists's community come out so strong for Dick Alcombright. Everything that we did, we built an arts based economy here, to bring people here, to include them, to make the people of this city understand how important it was. Yet they turned on us. I'm just amazed by it. I'll never understand their rationale or their thinking but I'll accept it."

He may well have been thinking of Eric Rudd who the Mayor assisted by changing the zoning that allowed him to develop the Eclipse Mill. The former factory structure now houses 40 loft units for live/ work spaces. They were among the core of city wide artists who backed Alcombright.

Remarking on this significant change  Rudd told us "today we have our civil liberties returned to the citizens. And today, we (everyone, not just artists) can dust off our ideas and visions and believe that we will be listened to.  We now have to do the hard work of putting together action plans to solve our community problems and to bring this city into the future.  Mass MoCA was an imaginative project first proposed 23 years ago.  We have not had other large projects in those years since.  It's about time.  We have a mayor-elect who wants that energy and who will help direct it and support it. The election showed overwhelming support for positive changes."

When Alcombright first announced Phil Sellers was quick to host a meet and greet for his artist neighbors at the Eclipse Mill. He and his wife Gail, who operate River Hill Pottery in the Eclipse Mill, have visibly supported not only Alcombright but also the successful bid for reelection to the Council by Lisa Blackmer. She serves as a member of the Open Studios committee which Sellers chairs.

"I have never been so involved in a political campaign" Sellers told me the other night over beers and burgers during a boys' night out. "For me this is very personal. I hate to think of the consequences if Alcombright loses."

He and Gail were among those that Alcombright thanked for "Putting their livelihood on the line in supporting me." It is widely known that individuals, journalists, arts organizations, and businessmen  who crossed Barrett often suffered consequences. For many we spoke with last night it was payback time after decades of fear and abuse.

As one individual put it "Now we have to get rid of the Transcript." This reflected Alcombright's comment that he was not endorsed by The Eagle, The Transcript, or The Globe. His only media  endorsement was here at Berkshire Fine I thanked Alcombright for posting it on the home page of his website. "We thought it was important" he told me.

Overall, with an official final count yet to the posted, Alcombright carried about 60% of the vote. There was a 52% turnout of the some 9,000 registered voters. Alcombright won by some 800 votes.

Overall, the artists in North Adams may have represented 100 votes for Alcombright. It would be productive to have more accurate numbers and a clear census of their critical mass. While their numbers did not turn the election arguably their energy and enthusiasm was a factor. Hopefully, others will step up and exert  leadership. Like Rudd, who has led the struggle for many years, and Sellers, who has put his shoulder to the wheel. Too few artists have understood or become involved with the all important political process. Perhaps that will now change with a Mayor who is willing to listen to and work with them.

While Barrett expressed disappointment in not being backed by artists it is a significant indicator of how poorly he understood his own hackneyed mantra about a "Creative Economy."  We have attempted to make the point that this means More than Mass MoCA. A true Creative Economy means a rising tide that will raise all of the boats of individuals and entrepreneurs. Hoping for a trickle down impact from the biggest act in town no longer cuts it.

Since the old guard of  Glen Drohan, editor of the Transcript, Joe Thompson, founding director of Mass MoCA, and Johnathan Secor, arts and programming director for MCLA (Gallery 51 and DownStreet), staunchly supported Barrett it will be interesting to see just how they scramble to build bridges with Alcombright.

What is at stake is having Drohan and the North Adams Transcript support the ambition and programming that Alcombright will initiate. Last night Alcombright referred to the "Crap on the blogs" (Transcript's Topix) which had been so hurtful to his teenage daughter Ashley.

In addition to the vile comments on Topix there were other dirty tricks. We quoted Marie Harpin in an earlier article on the rumor that Alcombright had the questions in advance of the first debate. Last night Alcombright turned that around. He denied that he had the questions in advance, acknowledging the rumor, but stated that "I had the answers in advance."  Indeed, he was thoroughly prepared with a well organized book of tabbed notes and accurate figures. The Mayor, during the debate, chided him for not speaking more extemporaneously. Alcombright shot back "I came prepared." Arguably, with that remark it was game, match, and set. After that he never looked back.

 The momentum has changed and Drohan,  as editor of the conservative Transcipt, has been slow to get the message. This is also true for Clarence Fanto and other editors at the Eagle. It is an interesting comment that and Berkshire Fine Arts (including the coverage by Larry Murray) have been more accurate indicators of political change.

This is also a signifier of the declining readership and clout for print media underscoring the ever greater influence of on line reporting. The New York Times, in a recent survey of the erosion of print readership, noted that its own base had declined by 7% while that of the Globe was down 18% in the past year. There were no figures for the Eagle and Transcript.

 In their endorsements the Eagle and Transcript supported Barrett. But some 60% of their readers had a different opinion. It is also fair to speculate that the 40% of those who voted for Barrett represent the city's oldest citizens. Younger readers get their news on line.

Many feel that Mass MoCA can do a lot more for the city of North Adams. It was, after all, created with some $35 million of taxpayer's money. While it is doing a terrific job of  "filling its parking lot" with 150,000 annual visitors it needs to work with Alcombright on strategies to bring more than the current 10%  of that traffic to Main Street.

While Alcombright rightly acknowledges Mary Grant and Johnathan Secor of MCLA as a force for change, there are other players, and organizations in the arts community that deserve his ear and a seat at the table. An immediate priority will be how to fix the conundrum of the development of the Mohawk Theater. Another immediate task will be finding an operator to replace and upgrade the dismal former North Adams Megaplex. What to do about the demolished mall on Route 8, not yet shovel ready, and stalled negotiations with Lowes?

Once the euphoria of victory wears off it will be time for Alcombright to roll up his sleeves and face daunting tasks. There is much to be done during a time of tough economy and declining state and Federal support. Barrett has left the next mayor with $15 million in projects for the coming year. But it remains to be seen what, after 26 years, a lame duck Mayor does between now and January. Arguably, it will entail more than packing up the souvenirs.

In his remarks Alcombright was brief but gracious in acknowledging Barrett's contribution. "John Barrett fought for the city of North Adams when Sprague walked away. He said things in a way that things needed to be said. But now it is my job to be mayor for those who voted for me and those who voted for John Barrett. Your concerns are now my concerns."

One of those concerns is a City Council that remains largely intact. They were noted for mounting little opposition to Barrett. Of these Gailanne Cariddi, who had the most votes at 3,230, of some 4000, and Marie Harpin, who placed third, with 2,906, were among Barrett's staunchest supporters. The youngest of the three new Councilors, David Bond, came in second with 2,982 votes. It is widely viewed that Bond has a bright political future. The only Council member to be unseated was Robert Moulton who backed Alcombright. Returning are incumbents Michael C. Bloom, Lisa Blackmer, Alan L. Marden, and Ronald A. Boucher. The other  new Council members are Michael S. Boland with a strong showing of 2,811 votes and David Lamarre with 2, 446. He barely edged out former City Councilor Keith Bona by just three votes.

When we spoke with Bona today he stated that there may be a change as some 50 or so votes are factored into the final tally. He does not plan to ask for a hand recount but will likely request an electronic one. He has stated all along that his priority has been to see that Alcombright won. He sees nothing wrong with Lamarre as an effective Councilor. Also he predicts that the Council will work well with Alcombright. We asked if he expected to have a role in the next administration. He affirmed that this is likely but no specifics have been discussed.

It is anticipated that given Alcombright's management style there will be new faces and consultants as we move forward. Many are energized and looking forward to being involved. There is a lot of creative talent in the city that Barrett never worked with. It just wasn't his style.

And yes, thanks Mayor Barrett for 26 years of service to the community. You saw the city through hard times when it hit rock bottom. For that, here's a tip of the hat. Pax wobiscum.

Eagle Editorial

Transcript Editorial

Berkshire Eagle coverage

Eagle Lauds Barrett

Jennifer Huberdeau's Post Election Alcombright Interview

Tammy Daniels for iBerkshires

More iBerkshires coverage