Amherst, Mass., State Rep. Leaves Democratic Party And Becomes Independent

Feb 21, 2018

Amherst, Massachusetts, state Representative Solomon Goldstein-Rose made headlines in 2016 when he was elected at the age of 22. Now, he’s making news again, for dropping his Democratic Party affiliation.

The move caught many of his constituents and Democratic officials off-guard, and left them to wonder why he would separate himself from the party’s powerful majority on Beacon Hill.

Goldstein-Rose said becoming an independent -- or, as it's known in Massachusetts, unenrolled -- is something that's always been in the back of his mind.

"For me, this is the right decision to promote the idea, and to show, that you can be effective without needing to be partisan, which is how I've always tried to work," he said Tuesday. "It's not a change in my direction so much as an embodiment of who I already am."

Goldstein-Rose said many younger voters are disenchanted with the two-party system. He said his frustration is not with the state Democratic Party, but with inaction at the federal level.

Still, that national political scene is exactly why retired state Representative Ellen Story said she disagrees with Goldstein-Rose’s decision. She held this seat before him, as a Democrat, for 24 years.

"I think in this time of [President Donald] Trump, it's more important than ever for people to be on the other side, to be Democrats," Story said.

Story said she's known Goldstein-Rose since he was a child, and said he gave her a heads-up about his decision last Friday.

"He did not ask for my advice. But he said he wanted to tell me in person rather than have me read it in the newspaper," Story said. "I just don't completely understand his reasoning for this. Yes, it is difficult."

Goldstein-Rose may have also opened himself up to a contested race this fall in the Third Hampshire District, which includes Amherst, Pelham and part of Granby.

On the one hand, a plurality of the district’s voters, 48 percent, are registered as unenrolled, while 45 percent are registered Democrats. But Democratic candidates win big there. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton received 78 percent of the vote.

So Goldstein-Rose has to really worry about voters like Melissa Paciulli of Amherst. She said she voted for Goldstein-Rose the first time, but isn’t sure she would have if he were unaffiliated.

"I often think that you're representing party priorities and party initiatives, and so if I might not understand fully about all of his positions, I would vote my party," Paciulli said.

Sources: Statewide data from Secretary of State (February 2017); Amherst and Granby Precinct 1 data from Town Clerks (February 20, 2018); Pelham data from Secretary of State (February 2017)

To get his seat on Beacon Hill, Goldstein-Rose had to win in a six-way Democratic primary in 2016. The second-place finisher was Eric Nakajima, who said he'll now take a look at running again.

Nakajima said the district could lose clout having a representative who isn't a member of the Democratic majority.

"You have to work within a committee structure, which is aligned with the parties," Nakajima said. "Having that affiliation as well as collegiality with other colleagues who are members with the Democratic Party and Democratic caucus, have to only be helpful in getting yourself heard."

Nakajima and Story both said that potential loss of clout comes at a bad time for the Pioneer Valley, with veteran state Representatives John Scibak and Steve Kulik announcing plans to retire -- not to mention state Senator Stan Rosenberg losing the Senate presidency because of an ongoing ethics investigation.

Still, Goldstein-Rose said he's the right person to help carry on for the district and the region, party or not.

"People are saying I need to step into those shoes," Goldstein-Rose said. "I've been here a term now, and I've established all the relationships that are crucial in this building. I've learned the ropes, I've introduced bills, I've gotten some things done along the way."

And Goldstein-Rose does have something going for him as he gets ready for potential election challengers: the state Democratic Party chair, Gus Bickford, appears to be giving Goldstein-Rose a pass.

"I'd leave that up to the local people," Bickford said. "We're going to be focused on people that don't have Democratic values as Goldstein-Rose does, and try to replace them."

Goldstein-Rose is now the second state representative without party affiliation, and they’re both from western Mass. Last year, Susannah Whipps of Athol left the Republican Party.

Jill Kaufman contributed to this report.