Western Mass. sends wave of women to Beacon Hill

  • Four newly seated western Massachusetts lawmakers — Reps. Natalie Blais, Lindsay Sabadosa, Mindy Domb, and Sen. Jo Comerford — spoke at UMass Amherst on Monday. shns photo

Published: 1/31/2019 11:12:23 PM

Decades ago, a panel discussion featuring state legislators may have looked quite different. But on Monday afternoon, four recently elected female lawmakers spoke about gender in Massachusetts government to a crowd of nearly 100 – consisting mostly of women of all ages – at the University of Massachusetts Old Chapel.

Reps. Natalie Blais of Sunderland, Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, and Mindy Domb of Amherst, and Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton appeared at the event hosted by the UMass School of Public Policy and the UMass Women into Leadership program, titled “Women Leading Western Mass.: Campaigns, Policy & Public Service.”

Blais, Sabadosa and Comerford are all the first women to serve in their respective offices. Domb represents a district formerly represented by Ellen Story. “In a way, I think that is historic,” Domb, who was wearing Rosie the Riveter socks, said about being the second woman to represent the district.

“We need to make the face of the State House look like the face of Massachusetts,” Domb said later on, in regards to voting more women of color into office.

The legislators highlighted challenges they faced as women on the campaign trail.

“I think we’ve had this idea that when women run, they kind of have to act like men, and we have to pretend we don’t have families, and that, you know, we don’t fix our makeup in the hallways before we come in, and we don’t do all of these things that we do,” Sabadosa said.

“We need to be honest about that, because it starts to be a culture shift where it’s acceptable to be a woman running for office,” she added.

Comerford said she fielded questions about how her children and husband would be affected by her campaign (despite the fact that she has a wife).

“I found those real opportunities, honestly, to talk about the fact that I’ve been a working mother, that my wife and I balance our responsibilities with our two really beautiful kids,” she said. Comerford believes that many 21st Century mothers can relate to juggling work and home life.

“It’s an opportunity to see other ways forward,” Comerford said about aiming for more female representation in state government.

With 46 women in the House and 11 in the Senate, female lawmakers hold a 57 of the 200 seats in the state Legislature this cycle, for a record high of 28.5 percent.

The legislators also took the opportunity to summarize their policy preferences.

In addition to supporting a Medicare for All plan, Sabadosa said she’s filed legislation to prevent sexual harassment in the State House.

“Sexual harassment in the State House is a problem,” she said. “And if we can’t address it within the building, we have absolutely no hope of passing any legislation in the Commonwealth that will protect everybody else.”

Earlier this month, allegations surfaced that a female legislator was groped during a December orientation for new lawmakers at UMass Amherst.

“I think Rep. Blais said it really well,” Sabadosa said, addressing the crowd. “This [the State House] is your building, you should feel comfortable there, as should we and so should our staff.”

Comerford said her legislative goals revolve around four categories: education, health care, the environment and revenue. She supports the PROMISE Act, which she said “would fulfill the really great advocacy that didn’t come to fruition in the last session to fully fund K-12 institutions.”

“If we can’t fund public education, it is a real risk for everyone in the Commonwealth,” she said.

While Comerford takes pride in bills she has sponsored, she emphasized that she’s just as proud to cosponsor bills.

“One of the things I’ve learned is there are brilliant minds in the State House and they’ve been working for a very long time on good bills like carbon pricing, or like the Safe Communities Act, or Medicare for All,” she said.

About a week ago, Comerford and Blais filed a resolution to propose that state government create a task force to assess the impact of the federal government shutdown. Around the same time, Comerford filed a resolution with legal reasons to go forth with impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Domb compared filing legislation to pulling a string on a sweater – once you start, you keep pulling. While working on legislation to allow any lawmaker to affirm, rather than swear in, she noticed that a specific section of the Massachusetts Constitution referred to said lawmaker as “he.”

“And then I realized that’s actually in the entire constitution, it’s ‘he,’ so we have another amendment to strike all the ‘he’s’ and replace them with ‘they’s’,” she said.

Domb has also worked on legislation in support of gender neutral bathrooms, and to regard those seeking sanctuary in places of worship as temporary residents in reference to state building codes.

Blais’s main focus in her district is infrastructure; some communities in the district still lack access to broadband Internet service.

“So if you want to do your schoolwork, you go to your local library and you sit in the parking lot [if it is closed],” Blais said. “It is 2019. That is unacceptable.”

As the hour-long event came to a close, the legislators answered questions submitted by the audience on slips of paper.

When asked about electing more women of color in Congress, Blais said the key is creating paid internships. “If we are not fostering those connections for everybody, no matter where you come from, from the very beginning, then we are failing. Bottom line,” she said.

All four lawmakers encouraged students to get involved in public policy.

“They’re incredible,” said UMass freshman Hayden Latimer-Ireland, who hopes to work in public policy after graduation. As a political science and psychology student, Latimer-Ireland said the discussion was inspiring.

Gina Rheault, a 62-year-old Amherst resident, pedaled a mile and a half on her bicycle to hear the lawmakers speak and said she appreciated the election of so many women to Congress.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” said Rheault.

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