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Northampton City Council Candidates Drop Out of Racial Justice Forum

Despite receiving all questions in advance, some candidates felt there would not be a “level playing field.”

By Will Meyer

As the race heats up for City Council elections next week, three candidates have dropped out of a forum on issues related to racial and economic justice hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Northampton Abolition Now (NAN). 

The organization REAL (Racial Equity and Learning in the Northampton Schools) was originally slated to be a co-sponsor of the event but backed out due to scheduling conflicts. REAL declined to comment further.

The week began with all candidates for At-Large scheduled to attend a forum Wednesday, where candidates would all answer the same questions that organizers sent in advance. Ward councilors are scheduled to answer the same questions Thursday. The questions The Shoestring reviewed were all open ended, asking participants to speak to their personal views on issues related to the organizations’ missions and providing links to resources for further reading. 

The candidates who dropped out are At-Large candidate Marissa Elkins, Ward 1 candidate Stan Moulton, Ward 3 incumbent candidate Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 4 candidate Garrick Perry never agreed to participate, allegedly due to a scheduling conflict). All four of these candidates have received support from establishment figures in the city, including, most prominently, outgoing At-Large Councilor Bill Dwight. All but Jim Nash have suggested through their websites and campaign materials that they support having conversations related to economic and racial justice and/or the Department for Community Care. 

Among the principal complaints were that NAN had already endorsed candidates. In a statement released publicly, NAN responded, writing, “The…candidates who declined or withdrew from the forum all cited the fact that NAN in particular has already endorsed other candidates as reason for not attending. We support any candidate who shows a real commitment to racial and economic justice, and we are strongly committed to productive, thoughtful public education around these issues. NAN would be thrilled to endorse additional candidates who demonstrate that they stand by our values. NAN hopes that one day we can endorse every single candidate running for office, because that will mean our community has developed a strong consensus in favor of racial justice.”

Another complaint was that NAN was a partisan group. NAN’s statement points out that candidates participated in forums hosted by Climate Action Now and Northampton Neighbors, groups that have a policy agenda, noting that, “The reason Climate Action Now and Northampton Neighbors are not seen to be biased in their agenda is that we’ve all agreed that environmental issues are a priority for the city. This is not the case when it comes to reducing the racist harm that policing causes in our city. Just as we categorize environmentalism as non-partisan, we should do the same for systemic racism. We believe that the candidates’ refusal to engage in public conversations about the systemic violence of policing points to their unwillingness to take a stand in support of racial justice as members of our government.” 

According to Marissa Elkins’ website, the candidate is running to “meaningfully engage with issues of racial and social justice.” Elkins did not respond to a request for comment from The Shoestring. In a letter to organizers, Elkins wrote, “Now that REAL is no longer hosting and has been replaced by an organization which has already endorsed candidates, I must respectfully decline to attend.” 

Garrick Perry, a booking manager from Bishop’s Lounge, who is Black, never committed to attending the forum, and did not return a phone call requesting comment. Perry is running against Jesse Hassinger and issues around policing have been a sticking point. Perry told radio host Bill Newman that he took a “more nuanced approach” than his opponent and didn’t support ​last year’s cut to the police budget, which he called a “knee-jerk reaction.” According to Perry’s website, “Now is the time for us to seriously rethink the impact that improper policing has on our marginalized communities.”  

Former Gazette editor Stan Moulton, a candidate for the Ward 1 seat, declined to participate in the forum because the event is sponsored by Northampton Abolition Now, describing it as a “partisan event.” In a statement released with Jim Nash, the candidates wrote that they didn’t believe that there would be a level playing field due to the fact that NAN had endorsed candidates. When reached by phone and pressed on how there wouldn’t be a level playing field given that all the candidates will be answering the exact same questions that they were all sent in advance, Moulton said he would allow the statement to speak for itself. On his website Moulton expresses support for the proposed Department of Community of Care. 

In the statement, Moulton and Nash express that they feel slighted by NAN’s insinuation that by refusing to engage these issues in a public forum that they are “exercising an arrogance rooted in white privilege,” writing, “White privilege is real, but to weaponize language to attack those who are trying to engage in a learning journey for racial justice further corrodes the important public conversation on this topic.” Nash didn’t respond to multiple phone calls requesting comment. When asked about his “learning journey for racial justice,” Moulton pointed to his answers to REAL’s questions about racial equity, an op-ed he had written, and suggested via email that, “Since the beginning of my campaign, I have identified engagement of underserved communities as among my immediate priorities.”

In their statement, NAN critiqued the insinuation that their forum was partisan, writing, “[Candidates] are suggesting that fora run by organizations dedicated explicitly to the platform put forth by the Movement for Black Lives are uniquely ‘biased.’ Under this small measure of scrutiny, we see these candidates’ invocations of ‘impartiality’ collapse into a smokescreen for maintaining a white supremacist status quo.” When asked for his definition of impartiality and partisanship, Moulton declined to comment, suggesting his statement would speak for itself.

The second of two racial justice forums will be held tonight and accessible via this link from 6-8:30 p.m. The candidates expected to attend are David Murphy (who couldn’t attend Wednesday), Lemy Coffin, David Kris, and Jesse Hassinger.

[Editor’s note: the piece has been updated to reflect Stan Moulton’s answer to a question about his learning on racial justice issues and now notes that REAL declined further comment as opposed to The Shoestring being unable to reach the group.]

Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring.

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