PITTSFIELD — Lots of people have lost faith in government, but Jondavid "JD" Chesloff is not one of them.
Chesloff, who grew up in Cheshire, has spent more than 25 years on Beacon Hill in a variety of government and public policy roles. He has served as the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, a public policy organization made up of senior executives from some of the state's largest employers, since 2010. The group, which Chesloff joined in 2004, advocates for initiatives that benefit the state's business community as a whole.
A 1984 graduate of Hoosac Valley High School, who now lives in Arlington, Chesloff has worked on both sides of the aisle in Boston. He interned with late U.S. Rep. Silvio Conte of Pittsfield, a Republican, and was a staffer for former state Rep. Daniel Bosley of North Adams, a Democrat.
We talked to him recently about growing up in the Berkshires, his love for government, and his duties with the roundtable.
Q: I know you grew up in Cheshire. But are you from the Berkshires originally?
A: I was actually born in New York. I was born in Queens. I moved to the Berkshires when I was 10. We had a second home in Cheshire while we were living in White Plains (outside of New York City). We had already been coming here years before that. My first full year (in the Berkshires) was fourth grade.
Q: You majored in telecommunications at Syracuse University (Class of 1988). Did you plan on entering politics right out of college?
A: When I went to school it was for communications. Telecommunications writing was what I was going to do. I was going to write movies or TV. About halfway through that I found out I was more interested in public policy and that was from my internship with Congressman Conte. I kept my telecommunications major but I also have a law and public policy major. I graduated with a dual major.
Q: Why have you stayed on Beacon Hill for so long?
A: I would say a love for and a belief in government and its ability to impact people. We did some pretty interesting work at Bosley's office. I then went to work at the House Ways and Means Committee putting together budgets and seeing how state programs can influence and impact people. I worked in the state Treasury when Shannon O'Brien was there and then went to work on her campaign. (O'Brien was the Democratic Party candidate for governor in 2002.) But to me it's this love of public service and the belief that government can be a force for good.
Q: What is it about public service that interests you so much?
A: I would say it's the ability to possibly impact the lives of people who need it. When I worked for Congressman Conte I was really a constituent person, so for me that gave insight into the problems people were having and how government can mobilize to address them. I think that's probably where it starts.
Sometimes government, particularly the federal government, can be pretty removed from people. But when you're doing constituent work in a district office, you're pretty much on the ground. So I think that's where it started for me. That ground thing, dealing with people and helping them solve their problems is probably what hooked me early.
Q: I can see how you can make a difference in politics working at the ground level. But how do you keep that direct impact alive when you're working just on policy?
A: That's a really good question because the further you get away from that constituent work the further you feel from having a direct impact. I absolutely get where the question is coming from. I know there are ways to work on issues where you can have a broad impact. I'll give you an example of something that I've worked on for years, which is child care [and] early childhood education. You can make a difference in terms of two primary issues around child care which are access and quality; to make sure that families have the ability to access high-qualify health care. That story isn't finished. There's a lot of work to be done there, But when you can influence the money that's being spent, the regulations that are being drawn up to make it easier for people to access care and have that care be of higher quality, that's pretty impactful.
Q: Lots of people have lost faith in government. It doesn't seem like people want to enter public service anymore because of that. Based on your experience, how do you change that?
A: I agree with you. I'm saddened by the narrative to be honest with you because I think the narrative doesn't match the experience. If you work in government it's stunning how committed people are, how talented they are, and how important the work they're doing is without a lot of pay. A lot of it is mission driven. Unfortunately, one of the only ways to change that narrative is to experience it.
Q: What does the Massachusetts Business Roundtable do?
A: We're a membership organization. We have 90 or so CEOs, senior executives from across the commonwealth. We basically do three things. We convene members — it's a business development networking organization for them. The second thing is we work with state leaders on state public policy solutions to make Massachusetts a better place to do business. The third thing we do is we serve as a platform for members to share best practices with each other. Predominately I would say we're a business development networking and public policy organization.
My dirty little secret, and it probably won't be a dirty secret anymore if you print it, is that I am a essentially a business lobbyist that works for a business association. I have never worked a day in the private sector. My career has been public and nonprofit. I think what's interesting about that is the roundtable kind of sits at the intersection of the public and private sectors. It sort of translates the different languages of each to the other. It's just an interesting perspective
Q: Out here you always hear that everything is Boston-centric when it comes to business. What's your opinion?
A: I think there's truth to it. But I think representation matters. It's very important to have a voice at the table where decisions are being made. That's what I try to as a Berkshire native working in Boston; to make sure that voice is represented.
Q: What are the major issues facing business in the Berkshires right now?
A: The top two that I hear are workforce, just to find people to fill all the jobs in the Berkshires, and housing. It's what I hear every time I talk to folks out there. Particularly workforce housing. The third one that I always used to hear a lot about was broadband. My understanding is the state has made some progress, but I don't want to pretend that that's been resolved either.
Q: Costs are so high in Massachusetts that it makes it difficult for us to compete with other states on a variety of economic issues. So how do we do that?
A: It's hard. I think what you have to do is double down on what you do well. You hear Secretary Hao (Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao) talking about this. What do we do well? We do well in industries like health care, life science, education, building ecosystems around certain industries. But we also need to be thinking about how economies look different now. Mobility has completely changed the equation. People can be anywhere. Some employers can be anywhere. When you're looking at who's winning these competitions it's generally the lower cost jurisdictions. It's definitely what we're up against.
Q: There's no easy answer to that question.
A: There's not.