Making Relationships And Avoiding Burnout On Beacon Hill: Incoming And Outgoing Lawmakers Talk Shop

Dec 24, 2020

The legislative session on Beacon Hill is drawing to a conclusion — and it is a time of transition. Some representatives, such as Aaron Vega of Holyoke, who represents the 5th Hampden District, are serving their final days in the House. A group of newcomers, including Jake Oliveira of Ludlow, who will represent the 7th Hampden District, will be sworn in next week.

We sat down with them, over Zoom, to talk about what lies ahead.

Aaron Vega: I mean, this is not at all how I imagined it would be, you know, back in February when I announced that I wouldn't be running. But I think what's going through my mind is making sure we actually get some things done. We've got a window to get a few things done. There's actually quite a lot going on. And then still carrying the constituent services. I mean, this has been sort of nonstop with unemployment claims and SNAP benefit claims and housing claims. So there actually has not been a lot of time to reflect, actually still just going forward.

Adam Frenier, NEPM: And Jake, what about you? Incoming lawmakers used to gather at UMass for kind of an orientation, and that would certainly be a lot harder these days during the pandemic. What's the process been like for you?

Jake Oliveira: I know we're missing some of those opportunities to interact with our new freshman class. And as you mentioned before, typically new legislators go through a pretty rigorous multiple-day training seminar up at UMass Amherst and get to know one another.

So we've kind of replicated it on our own a little bit, our freshman class. We actually are on Zoom meetings together quite a bit, whether it's on policy issues, whether it is meeting with the speaker and minority leader last week.

And then we're trying to get to know each other as well, because, as Representative Vega understands, you're one of 160 members of the House and it's about building relationships and building alliances. So we're trying on our end via online platforms to try to get to know each other and try to build those relationships before we take office on January 6.

One issue that's been front and center of late is the House leadership. Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated he's talking with Northeastern University about a new job, which, of course, would lead to his departure from the legislature.

Majority Leader Ron Mariano seems to be the favorite to take over should DeLeo decide to leave, and Representative Russell Holmes has also signaled that he, too, is a candidate. With so much going on because of the pandemic, how much will the change in leadership affect things?

Aaron Vega: I think that the body as a whole is trying to look for a smooth transition, especially in comparison to what we're seeing nationally. So I think that's why someone like Leader Mariano is able to probably step into that role pretty seamlessly. I actually think as a body, we've actually stayed focused, maybe it's because we're remote and not able all be there in the chamber together, talking.

But we've actually just  stayed focused on the police reform bill, the budget, doing the overrides, addressing the governor's amendments in the budget. So it hasn't actually been a distraction to the work. But, you know, it's definitely something to think about as we go forward.

Representative-elect Oliveira, does potentially having a new speaker as you yourself get ready to enter the House, change anything for you?

Jake Oliveira: When I worked in the building over a decade ago, I actually was there for the transition between Speaker DiMasi and Speaker DeLeo. And so, you know, as we look at all the issues that are facing the commonwealth right now — managing a pandemic, managing unemployment that's rising right now, I think having a seamless transition in leadership is something that's very important.

As a school committee member, the last thing that you want is having a change in your superintendent or having somebody come in with less experience when you're going through challenging times. And that applies to the legislature as well. If there is a transition, and appears that there likely will be, having somebody like Leader Mariano filling that role will lead to a seamless transition, since he's been in the role as majority leader for so long right now.

Representative Vega, you look back at your tenure, what are some accomplishments that you're proudest of?

Aaron Vega: You know, even pre-COVID, but the work I've done on food and security and food access around "Breakfast after the Bell," SNAP benefits, MEFAP, expanding the HIP program, the work that I've done for families with disabilities. I was the vice chair of Children and Families for four years. That was some really interesting work that we did there and trying to — again — create more opportunities, whether it be living or working or making their own decisions, those individuals and adults with disabilities.

I think the thing about the legislature, about passing bills and — not thinking about advice to folks like Jake or anyone who's taken office but — you find the ways to put your fingerprints on each individual bill. I mean, the criminal justice bill, the police reform bill, those were big bills. There are pieces of it that I worked on, that I was more focused on. Like in the criminal justice [bill],, it was a lot about making sure that ... the school resource officers, that's where I focused on, making sure that was updated. Obviously on education, you know, it was really focusing on the economically disadvantaged category and those youth in those communities like Holyoke.

Representative-elect Oliveira, in two years, when you're looking back at your first term, what single policy proposal do you hope to have had passed?

Jake Oliveira: Well, I think there are so many things on the table right now. But I think one thing that Representative Vega had mentioned, is we worked together on the passage of the Student Opportunity Act. I think making sure that we fully fund and the legislature meets its commitment on the Student Opportunity Act, which will pump, you know, millions of dollars into our most needy schools including Holyoke, but two of my cities that are in my district, Springfield and in Chicopee. And then also making sure that we set up a process to review that funding formula and not wait another 25 or 30 years before we open it up again, because school districts like Ludlow and Belchertown that are in my district also need relief. And I think over time, working on a more comprehensive package there will be something that's important to me.

Also looking at public higher education, the way we finance it — that's something that I've lived and breathed for the last 11 years working for our state university system. We have one of the most underfunded public higher education systems in the country right now. And that's reflected in how expensive it is for students to actually attend those institutions, but it's also economic development. One of the largest employers out here in western Massachusetts is our public and private higher education system. So making sure that we have access there and making sure we work on affordability and proper funding is a priority of mine.

But I think every legislator that's coming in is focused in on managing this pandemic.

And finally, Representative Vega, what's a piece of advice you have for Representative elect Oliveira?

Aaron Vega: I guess I would say, in a nutshell, know your district. And Jake already does. But there's three huge buckets that you work on, right? One is the legislation, the other one being constituent services, and that sort of other bucket is the things that you're passionate about, the things you really want to move and build those relationships and move legislation and move bigger ideas. Each one of those is sort of a job unto itself. So my only advice is, you know, we talk about life-work balance. I think, as a rep, it's a work-work balance. How much focus on answering your emails? I was very proud to answer every email that came in from constituents, but that takes a lot of time.

So figure out the workflow with your legislative aide. You know, most of us until you get a chairmanship, you have one legislative aide. So it's the two of you taking on the world. But just have a good workflow. Have that balance between how much time you're out there. Because, you know, you could be out at events and working with constituents six nights a week, which is great, but it can burn you out. So try to keep that balance.