Incumbent North Adams mayor faces challenger

Joey Fox

Voters in North Adams will go to the polls next Tuesday to determine their next mayor in a nonpartisan contest that pits incumbent mayor Thomas Bernard ’92 against McCann School Committee member Rachel Branch. Bernard, who identifies as a Democrat, is likely favored over Branch, who identifies as an independent, due to his incumbency and financial advantage.

The Nov. 5 election will not be the first time the two candidates have faced one another. In the September 2017 preliminary election, in which the top two candidates advance to the general election irrespective of party, Bernard and North Adams City Councilman Robert Moulton Jr. topped a five-candidate field with 65 and 27 percent of the vote, respectively. Branch received 4 percent, and the two remaining candidates received the remaining 4 percent. Bernard went on to handily win the general election over Moulton with 70 percent of the vote.

For Bernard, who worked at Smith College, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art prior to the 2017 election, his first term as mayor has been a learning experience. “It’s like any other job, and certainly any other leadership position,” Bernard told the Record. “The first thing you learn is everything you didn’t know, and where you might have made some assumptions that weren’t based on accurate information.”

“When you campaign, you have a vision and a set of priorities, and then you face the reality of the job and the conditions that you’re dealing with,” he continued. 

Bernard said he is particularly proud of two hires he has overseen during his tenure. In April of this year, the town hired Jason Wood, the city’s first new police chief in 38 years, after several community meetings. The city has also dealt with the retirement of its long-serving IT director, which caused Bernard to appoint a team which he said “has hit the ground running and is really moving the IT function forward in some great ways.”

Bernard also emphasized his focus on several important initiatives during his first term. “My priority has been education, my priority has been financial sustainability, it’s been strong economic development,” he said. “The good news is, we’re seeing a lot of terrific momentum on all those fronts in North Adams right now, and really working to continue and to build on that as I look to a second term.”

According to pre-election reports filed with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Bernard has raised nearly $13,000 while Branch has raised just over $500. Given Bernard’s incumbency, as well as this large fundraising advantage, Branch faces an uphill path to the mayor’s office.  

Branch, a self-declared “low-income seasoned citizen,” said in an interview with the Record that she is running again “to stand up, to speak up, and because I think nobody should run unopposed.”

“I have the background and the experience and earned qualifications to become your mayor,” she added. “My campaign message states: 2020 vision, we need 2020 vision, one-to-one together. I hope that I would inspire people to bring forth solutions so North Adams could continue to be the great international city that it has been since its birth.”

Branch, who was raised in North Adams but lived in Colorado, Libya and Connecticut before moving back to the city in 2000, is no stranger to politics. During her time in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she unsuccessfully ran twice for local office. Her activism against power plants and the fossil fuel industry, however, has been more effective.

“In Bridgeport, I helped stop two asphalt plants from being built in my vulnerable South End neighborhood and on the east side of Bridgeport,” she said. “I testified in Hartford three times to clean up the power plants. These were both successful. In Massachusetts, I helped stop the Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas pipeline from being built.”

In 2015, after she had moved back into North Adams, she won an open slot on the McCann School Committee on the strength of a last-minute write-in campaign. Because of an empty space on the ballot, Branch explained, “I wrote my name in. And on election day – you know, I just told a couple of people, ‘I wrote my name in!’ – I wound up being elected with nine votes.”

Now, as Bernard’s lone challenger, Branch is running on a platform to improve infrastructure and to combat climate change and gentrification. Branch also noted that, if elected, she’d be the first female mayor of North Adams since the city’s incorporation in 1895, which she called “just stunning.”

Her focus on infrastructure is shared by Bernard, who is planning to prioritize projects such as a robust bike path between Williamstown and North Adams if re-elected. “Certainly when I was at Williams there was an active bike culture, I know there still is an active bike culture,” Bernard said. “And if you have the infrastructure to support biking, then it will just continue to grow and to thrive.”

“We have a huge capital menu that we need to address,” he continued. “Some of it is deferred maintenance, some of it is stuff that is urgent and imminent. And it’s using every tool we can to priorities, what the order needs to be, and how we pay for it.” Bernard mentioned that the city will bring in a consultant fom the state to advise the city on its infrastructure budget and physical plan.

Bernard, who is both a College parent and alum, also highlighted the interactions between the College and North Adams. “It’s a good relationship, I think, with CLiA [The Center for Learning in Action], with the current strategic planning process they’re doing – I was at a session last week held in North Adams – and then the kind of leadership priorities I’ve seen from President Mandel,” he said.

Branch also noted the relationship between the College and North Adams, although she was more critical of the College’s role. She specifically cited the example of the North Adams Regional Hospital, which closed in 2014 despite pressure from community activists, and how the College declined to play an active role in maintaining the hospital.

However, Branch went on to say that “anything that would increase participation with students and the city of North Adams would be extraordinarily welcome and wonderful.” 

Both candidates attested that the contest has been a civil one. “I do not, and I will not, participate in attacking [Bernard] personally,” Branch said. “I’m not running against him, I’m running for the office.”

Bernard similarly insisted that his campaign was about his own accomplishments and initiatives. “I position myself on the work that I’ve done. I position myself on the vision for moving forward – so, again, strong neighborhoods, good jobs, great schools – and then, working to achieve the vision on each of those areas, and doing it in a way that is respectful and responsive to everyone in the community,” he said.

“I truly love the city of North Adams,” Bernard concluded. “I believe that we’re in a good place and we’re building from strength, and I want to see that continue, and I’m not done yet.” 

Branch, meanwhile, brought up the signature line of her show Solutions Rising, which airs on North Berkshire Community Television and WilliNet: “If each one of us picked up one problem and solved it, imagine the incredible view we would all have of solutions rising.”

In addition to the mayoral election, North Adams will also hold City Council elections, where fifteen candidates are vying for nine at-large seats. The election will happen alongside a competitive mayoral contest in Pittsfield, as well as state and local races across the country.