Significant change in legislative voice

  • The legislative delegation from western Massachusetts is changing with loss of the three state representatives above. Pictured are 2nd Hampshire District State Rep. John Scibak, center, the late 1st Hampshire District State Rep. Peter Kocot, left, and 1st Franklin District State Rep. Stephen Kulik. Scibak and Kulik have announced they will not be seeking re-election. And with Kocot’s death last week, his district will elect a new representative as well. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Recorder
Thursday, March 01, 2018

For many years, the members of the delegation representing parts of western Massachusetts have brought extensive experience to their positions and wielded significant influence on policies and the budget developed at the Statehouse in Boston.

This will change in 2019, with the recent announcements by Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, that they would retire, and last week’s death of Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton. This follows the decision by Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, to step down from his position as Senate president late last year, and the 2016 retirement of Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst.

How this will play out for the region is uncertain.

Scibak, whose 2nd Hampshire District includes Easthampton, South Hadley and Precinct 2 in Granby, said that it would be naive to believe that these changes won’t have an impact. Still, those who live in western Massachusetts should understand that many of the interests in the four westernmost counties are aligned, and there has been an ability for legislators to stick together, even across party lines.

“We have to do that because there are more legislators from the city of Boston than the four counties of western Massachusetts,” said Scibak, who has served since 2003.

Even though Scibak, Kulik and Kocot have nearly 60 years of combined experience, Scibak said the House still has long-serving representatives from the region, including Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, James Welch, D-West Springfield and Todd Smola, R-Palmer. On the Senate side, Scibak said he is confident in the abilities of Rosenberg, Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who is in his second term, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Rosenberg agrees with Scibak that the regional delegation has a collaborative spirit, and noted that it has been pulling above its weight on Beacon Hill because many have stayed longer than the typical eight to 10 years that legislators serve. But new legislators, Rosenberg said, even without the current seniority, will have an important voice.

“Hard-working legislators develop credibility here very quickly, and develop seniority very quickly,” Rosenberg said.

Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Timothy Brennan said experience and knowledge, such as Kulik being a statewide expert on zoning reform and a leader in crafting the state’s Community Preservation Act legislation, will be lost in the Legislature.

“Is it a matter of concern? Yes,” Brennan said. “Is it a matter of panic? Surely not.”

“You can’t just snap your fingers and immediately replace these top experts,” Brennan added.

He is certain, though, that the new legislators will work with those who are more seasoned.

“What’s bedrock about being a western Massachusetts legislator is having to work together as a team,” Brennan said. “Whoever comes in has to commit to being part of that team.”

Experience lost

Story said the experienced legislators who have served the residents in the region have been an asset.

“We have been very well positioned in the last decade and a half,” Story said. “The longer you’ve been there the more you know and the more effective you are.”

She points to the roles Scibak, as chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and Kulik, as vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, hold.

“Both had an unusual influence in what was included in the budget and what issues committees took up,” Story said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said Kocot, as chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Finance, was a valuable partner based on his 35 years of experience in Boston as both legislator and legislative aide.

“He has been such a strong advocate for the city and the district and has worked closely with me in a number of important instances, and with my predecessor, Mayor Higgins,” Narkewicz said.

Narkewicz said Kocot’s work included shepherding legislation, such as the city’s charter change in 2012, and numerous bond bills.

Story noted that long-serving legislators also have a chance to dedicate themselves to specific priorities, such as she did with women and children’s issues. Scibak has made dental care for the underserved a focus, and Kulik has centered on resources for the many small, rural towns he represents.

Kulik’s 1st Franklin District covers 19 towns in Franklin and Hampshire counties, as well as the town of Chester in Hampden County.

Dave Christopolis, executive director of Hilltown Community Development Corp., said the turnover in the delegation will be difficult, especially for the towns with the smallest populations.

“It’s hard to lose him because the Hilltowns are underrepresented in so many ways,” Christopolis said of Kulik. “He’s done so much for us and I can’t say enough about him.”

Michael Sullivan, town administrator in South Hadley and previously mayor of Holyoke, said the basic element of the local delegation will be unchanged.

“You realize in any municipal role how critically important it is for your member of the House to know your community and what needs there are and to have a voice at the table, so to speak,” Sullivan said.

‘Brain drain’

But because of the structure of seniority, and the culture on Beacon Hill, the departures are akin to a brain drain.

“These important voices that won’t be there, it’s really going to have an impact for quite some time,” Sullivan said.

“It’s going to be a challenge when that much experience is lost in Boston,” said Narkewicz, adding that both seniority and institutional memory vanish.

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman uses the metaphor of falling off a cliff to reflect the loss of power the region will experience from the changes.

“It (the delegation) has had an excellent reputation as being smart and savvy in a leadership role, and representing the district and constituents well, and now we don’t know what the future holds,” Bockelman said.

One clue about the power and clout the region will hold moving forward came during a reorganization of the Senate on Tuesday, which left western Massachusetts lawmakers out of any leadership positions. Rosenberg also doesn’t currently serve on any Senate committees.

Still, Rosenberg said if he is re-elected he hopes to return to leadership in some form. He stepped down from the Senate president role in December to allow for an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by his husband and whether his husband had improper influence on Senate business.

“This is a temporary situation I’m going through, and come January it’s a new day,” Rosenberg said.

Story said all legislators understand that the University of Massachusetts is one of the main economic drivers and that it is particularly important for Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, who represents Amherst, Pelham, and Granby’s Precinct 1, to be the strongest advocate possible for the university campus.

Similarly, she said, the representatives throughout the region know that UMass is also critical for many families who want to send their children to a school that offers high quality education at an affordable price.

Brennan works closely with local politicians at the regional planning commission, noting current advocacy for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and its potential funding shortfall, explaining to them the human and economic toll increasing rates and cutting service would mean. The approach he takes of reaching out doesn’t change, whether veteran politicians are in office or there is someone who is new to the job.

New faces show interest

So far, three Democrats have announced they are interested in Kulik’s seat: Kate Albright-Hanna of Huntington, an Emmy-award winning journalist, Natalie M. Blais of Sunderland, the executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and Casey Pease of Worthington, the chairman of the Worthington Democratic Town Committee.

Democrat Daniel Carey of Easthampton, director of the Drug Diversion and Treatment Program at the Northwestern district attorney’s office, is the lone candidate who has announced to run for Scibak’s seat.

A new legislator can take some getting used to, Sullivan said, citing his own experience working with legislators in his roles and adapting the approach to make sure his voice, and the community’s voice, is heard in Boston on grants and other funding opportunities, or making sure the legislators know what is liked or disliked about pending legislation.

Narkewicz said city officials and others in Kocot’s 1st Hampshire District, which also includes Hatfield, Southampton, Westhampton and Montgomery, will have to work harder.

“We’ve had good strong relationships and we’ll try to work with whoever our next set of representatives for our Valley are,” Narkewicz said. “We’ll redouble our efforts to make sure our representatives are armed with information about the issues.”

Scibak said cities and towns, agencies and institutions worried about the changes should reach out to the new legislators as soon as they are elected to let them know where their priorities should be, and when committee assignments are made they can be in the best position to immediately advocate.

“Though first-term legislators won’t be in a position to be chairman or vice chairman, they will have ample opportunities to weigh in with the chairs and vice chairs of their respective committees,” Scibak said.

Leadership position void

Story cautions it can be a decade or more, which means at least five election cycles, for legislators to rise to those higher posts. “You have to learn the ropes before you can take a position of leadership,” Story said.

This is in part, due to the Massachusetts Constitution, which predates the U.S. Constitution, being hierarchical to the extreme.

“Our great and general court has had plenty of time to get protocols and procedures in place. It takes a long time for a new person to figure all of that out and to be accepted by the people who hold the power,” Story said.

In addition, there are 160 distinct personalities to navigate. “Sometimes they are welcoming to a new person, sometimes they are not,” Story said.

One of the best ways to begin a legislative career is to get advice from those who have served. Scibak said he will be available to mentor his successor, as well as others elected this fall, so they can gain knowledge in a time when experience is being lost.

“It may put a little more premium on our successors in getting up to speed quickly and being stronger advocates,” Scibak said.

Though the session beginning in 2019 may be a challenge for the region because of the newcomers, Story is confident that House Speaker Robert DeLeo and his colleagues in the House will give them a good reception.

“I do think the speaker will be gentle, and other representatives will understand, that we’ve had a tremendous upheaval out here, and they will be welcoming to the new people,” Story said.