December 2017 Column: Reflections on First Year in Office
The question I get asked most, when out and about at events in our district, is “What’s it been like for you?” I have my short answers: exciting, sometimes frustrating or confusing, fun to be people’s conduit for connecting with this concept we call government. If I have more time, I’ll go on a ramble about the vagueness of the legislative process, how I’m trying to figure out how to get topics on the agenda, how large bills get created by the House leadership and the House as a whole in response to external pressures such as press stories or world events. And I usually throw in the line “it’s been an interesting first year to be in this.”
2017 certainly has been. When I was elected, I thought I would be entering as one of only a few young members of a legislature that got good things done, but did so much more slowly than I wished, and that we would be working in the context of a new Clinton Administration.
Trump changed the agenda in Massachusetts. New Federal policy proposals – constantly a factor our legislative leadership must react to – have caused us to take up certain bills that wouldn’t have been on the agenda otherwise, such as a prohibition on sending MA inmates to build a wall along the Mexico border and a guarantee of free access to contraception for women.
My agenda didn’t change, though. I introduced four system-level bills on education, energy, and election laws that move us where we need to go regardless of the current Federal Administration. All are quite bold, and all exceed what one first-year Representative can shepherd through the process without some huge external forces also pushing the issue. Unfortunately, by and large those topics haven’t been on the mind of many legislators or our current Governor this year.
There’s still great hope for movement on those in the next few years. But in the meantime, what has gotten done during 2017? Most recently and most notably, the legislature passed a fairly comprehensive criminal justice reform bill. As part of the Progressive Caucus, I advocated for the inclusion of pretrial diversion programs, repeal of mandatory minimums, expungement options for juvenile records, an increase in the felony-larceny threshold, and better data collection. All of these were included in the bill, and the caucus ended up feeling that over 80% of our ideal policy changes were in the House version. We also passed a bill to give schools more flexibility around English Language Learner education, and authorized the usual state aid to towns and statewide budget spending.
I’ve had two personal triumphs: in response to a joke Ellen made last fall, I got a bridge in North Amherst named the “State Representative Ellen Story Bridge;” and in the budget process I got a commission created and funded to study the feasibility and best structure of a battery technology testing facility in Western Mass. I am now chairing this commission as it begins its work.
I’ve also been able to organize several different projects to get folks more engaged with politics – especially young people who, in our time, tend to be the least engaged of any age, and of any era. With the Amherst League of Women Voters, I created the annual event CivicsFest (you can register now for the April 2018 event at lwvamherst.org). I’ve spoken to many classes, from elementary school through college; I’ve done communications trainings for high schoolers; and I’m setting up a training in February for young candidates.
It is this last topic that gives me so much hope for the coming years, for Trump’s was not the only election that surprised me late last year. I found out I was entering the MA House with four other 20-somethings and three 30-somethings, out of 12 total new Reps whom I love. Under-30-year-olds ran in both the MA House special elections in 2017, and one of them won! The fact that this most disengaged generation is not only beginning to re-engage, but to run for and win seats in the legislature, gives me hope that moving into 2018 we will indeed be on a path to the revitalized democracy we deserve.
So as you enjoy Christmas and New Year, know that I have found my weekly drives to Boston thoroughly worthwhile, and appreciated all the active constituents who have lobbied on policies this year. I’m incredibly lucky to have you all as my community. Onward to an exciting next year!