US House Race Sizzles in Bay State

Western district voters have clear choice between liberal Democrat, conservative Republican. MASSACHUSETTS ELECTION

NINETY-degree spring temperatures have only added to the political heat of a tightly contested special congressional election here in western Massachusetts. Two ideological opposites - liberal Democrat John Olver and conservative Republican Steven Pierce - are sweating out the last few days of the race to succeed the late United States Rep. Silvio Conte (R). Tuesday's election will be held in the state's First Congressional District.

``You've got two classic vehicles here. You've got a classic liberal and a classic conservative,'' says Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

The distinctions are sharp: Mr. Pierce, a former minority leader in the State House of Representatives, blames his opponent for the liberal ``tax and spend'' policies that he says led to the state's current fiscal crisis.

Olver is pro-choice

State Sen. John Olver, on the other hand, cites his pro-choice position on abortion and strong voting record on funding social programs. He says his opponent is ``out of touch'' with the voters.

Pierce has focused his campaign on his fiscal conservatism, with high priority on providing jobs and keeping taxes down. ``I was brought up to understand you can't spend what you don't have,'' he said in a recent debate. Western Massachusetts has been hard hit by the recession, he says, with unemployment as high as 15 percent in some areas.

The former state congressman from Westfield served 12 years in the Massachusetts House, the last three as minority leader. After an unsuccessful run for governor last fall, he was appointed as the state secretary of communities and development early this year but resigned to run for Congress.

Senator Olver, whose home is in Amherst, is a former college professor who has served as a state senator since 1972. He is chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation and a member of the Senate Ways and Means committee. He has supported the same social service and education programs as the moderate Republican Conte.

``I want to invest in people again, in housing, in education, in health care. I want to defend our civil rights, and a woman's right to choose,'' Olver says.

Pierce has the advantage of Washington connections. Last week, President Bush made a campaign appearance with him in Boston. Silvio Conte's wife, Corinne, and US Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas are also campaigning for Pierce.

Both candidates have resorted to negative campaigning. Pierce has accused Olver of helping cover up the state's deficit programs when former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was running for president. He also criticizes Olver for voting for tax increases.

Olver, on the other hand, is calling Pierce a right-wing conservative who has no social conscience. He has also accused Pierce of not being straight forward on the abortion issue. He says that Pierce voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment banning all abortions but has since modified his position to opposing abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman's life is in danger.

Pierce has come out against the recent US Supreme Court decision banning employees of federally funded public health facilities from discussing abortion. Olver campaign manager Jay Marlin calls the move a ``high wire flip-flop.''

State Republican officials, for their part, are hoping to recapture the one Massachusetts congressional seat traditionally held by a Republican. Representative Conte was the only Republican congressman in the state's 11-member United States House delegation. But the GOP has made some gains in this traditionally Democratic state; last fall, voters elected three Republican candidates for state constitutional office, including the governor.

``We think it's very important for the Republicans to retain [this congressional seat].'' says Alan Safran, press secretary for the state Republican Party. ``We want to sustain our momemtum.''

Predictions difficult

Although observers agree it is a close race, no official polls have been conducted, and it is difficult to predict district voting patterns. According to Mr. Safran, slightly under 50 percent of the voters are independents, 37 percent are Democrats, and 13 percent are Republicans.

Although the area is more Democratic than Republican, voters have consistently reelected the Republican Conte since 1958.

``The problem with the district is that is that it was Sil Conte's. He was the thing that held it together,'' Mr. DiNatale says.

Public interest is another factor. Voter turnout was low for the primary and observers say it may be low for next Tuesday's general election.

``I haven't detected any sign of widespread interest in this election,'' says Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor and political observer at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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