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IN THE NEWS- 'Coffee and Conversation'
May 03, 2009

By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff

Updated: 05/03/2009 09:52:50 AM EDT

Sunday, May 03



PITTSFIELD — It's the last Friday of the month, and the staff of state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing knows that means one thing.

Road trip.

But this road trip isn't of the Bluto Blutarsky type. No, it's part of Downing's regular routine: A visit to any one of the two dozen or so small communities in his district, for what he calls "coffee and conversation" for an hour or so with local residents and town officials.

The Pittsfield Democrat has the largest legislative district of any state senator or state representative in the Massachusetts — a total of 48 communities: All the towns in Berkshire County, nine towns in Hampshire County and seven in Franklin County. His district comprises more than one-seventh of the 351 cities and towns in the state.

And, said Downing, his philosophy has been to be as inclusive as possible when it comes to the smaller towns in his district.

"I'm from Pittsfield, and Pittsfield is the largest community in my district," said Downing. "It would be very easy to get sucked into Pittsfield every day of my job.

"But when I was on the campaign trail," he continued, "I heard from a lot of people that it was important to look past Pittsfield and remember that I represent more than just one city. And I agree with that."

Hence the "coffee and conversation" meetings. In March, it was Sandisfield. In April, it was Florida. This month, it's Chesterfield.

"What we try to do is hit the smaller communities in the district," said Allison Krol, Downing's district director and the person who generally schedules Downing's day. "It's a conscious effort to get to these little towns. You won't see us scheduling a 'C and C' for, say, Lenox or Great Barrington. This is for smaller towns in the district."

But, said Krol, these "C and C's" are usually scheduled around Downing's day, not in place of anything else.

On a recent Friday, for example, Downing was in Williamstown for meetings at the Williams Inn at 7:30 a.m. and at the Williamstown Pre-School at 8:30 a.m. Then it was off to the Florida Senior Center for the "C and C" with Florida residents at 10 a.m., and back to City Hall in Pittsfield at 1:30 p.m. for a press conference on child abuse. At 2:30, he was scheduled to meet with officials at Sabic Innovative Plastics, and then he had another meeting in his office at 3:30.

"I gave him the rest of the day off," joked Krol. "But very often, on a Friday night, there is another event and one on Saturday. We try not to schedule anything for Sunday."

And Krol conceded that from time to time, there are Sunday events, and Downing attends them.

It is a job that puts a few hundred miles on Downing's car on a slow week. On a busy week, it is considerably more. Berkshire legislators get a $90 per diem, but that is only if they go to Boston. Downing doesn't get anything extra if he takes a side trip to, say, Sandisfield or Chesterfield.

"I have a very good job in a not-so-good economy," said Downing of his mileage costs. "I'm not complaining."

Downing drives himself around his district.

"The senator is pretty independent," said Krol. "He likes to drive himself."

Sometimes, according to Annie Kirkpatrick, Downing's district aide in Berkshire County, it is a challenge to find a venue in some of the smaller towns. Many town halls in these communities operate on a part-time basis. Sometimes, very part-time.

"In Sandisfield," she said. "We had a 'C and C' at Tucker's Pub. That was a fun one."

In case anyone gets the wrong idea, that 'C and C' started at 9 a.m.

Downing said the individual towns have individual issues. Several Florida residents, for example, asked him Friday about alternative energy projects.

But, said Downing, he has discovered that there are also universal issues with which even the smallest towns grapple.

"Energy costs and education," he said. "There are a few others, but even though I represent a district that varies widely, from very rural towns to the city of Pittsfield, those are the two main ones."

It is a job, he said, that is exhausting — but exhilarating.

"I love this," he said. "I have a job that allows me to see every aspect of the community. I get to see how Berkshire County ticks."


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