Mass. progressives see something missing on Beacon Hill

Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Rep. Natalie Higgins, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge discussed legislative priorities at the Progressive Massachusetts lobby day Wednesday.

BOSTON — Massachusetts progressives gathered at the State House Wednesday to tackle a puzzle: in a blue state with Democrats controlling both branches of the Legislature, what keeps their priorities from advancing?

The grassroots group Progressive Massachusetts held a lobby day to champion causes including single-payer health care, criminal justice reform and free public higher education. Some of the bills on their agenda have been filed for years but failed to gain traction on Beacon Hill.

"We have a fully Democratic Legislature, supermajorities. We have a governor who's a Republican, but we have veto-proof majorities so what's the issue there?" said Harmony Wu, who serves on the group's board of directors. "Something's been missing. Many things have been missing, but one piece that we haven't had in Massachusetts is a sustained, long-term grassroots-organizing, citizen advocacy push where we are speaking up with one voice saying we are tired of this way, we'd like to see leadership in this way."

The organization's 17 priority bills cover affordable housing, "economic justice," education, health care, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, voting access, the environment and renewable energy.

Members of the group told the News Service they are trying to understand what their obstacles are in the State House, where they hope they can give lawmakers whatever push they need to get on board.

"At the federal level, we have pretty solid progressive leadership, but there needs to be a little more nudging at the state level, so we're trying to nudge, because we really see these values as very important," Dover resident Deborah Baldwin said.

John Kirk, a member of the group's Needham chapter, said the lobby day is part of an effort to help the state "fulfill its progressive promise" by letting them know "the passion's real" behind the issues.

"Since it's a Democratic-controlled Legislature, why don't we pass these obvious bills that everybody's in favor of and make perfect sense? Well, we're trying to figure that out," said John Kirk, a member of the group's Needham chapter.

Democrats hold 125 seats in the 160-member House, and 34 seats in the 40-member Senate, which currently has one vacancy.

The two branches often differ in their priorities, and the House — led by Speaker Robert DeLeo, a more moderate Democrat who has joined Republican Gov. Charlie Baker the past two years in resisting calls for higher taxes — last session declined to take up Senate-backed initiatives dealing with education funding, criminal justice reform and paid family and medical leave.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a liberal Democrat from Amherst, said Progressive Massachusetts has "a very clear agenda and set of values that are reflected in that agenda and their ideas compete with the ideas of others here in the building."

"Not all districts are progressive," he told the News Service. "And not everybody in every district is either conservative or progressive, so it's a question of developing constituencies around their ideas and competing with other compelling ideas and points of view."

The Senate, often seen as the more progressive branch, fared slightly better than the House on last session's Progressive Massachusetts legislative scorecard, with most senators scoring in the B+ to B- range, wil most representatives scored between a C+ and a C-. Only one lawmaker from either branch — Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Jonathan Hecht — received perfect scores.

Asked by a lobby day participant why lawmakers might not support education-related or environmental bills despite agreeing they addresses important issues, Eldridge cited a lack of available revenues and said many legislators focus their attention on job creation.

Eldridge urged the group to ask their lawmakers to "really fight for" progressive legislation they cosponsor by speaking at rallies, touting it in their districts and asking DeLeo, Rosenberg and committee chairs to back it. He said holding lawmakers accountable is one way to change a system where a reputation as a Democratic state "doesn't always translate into the legislation that passes here in Beacon Hill."

Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster, a freshman Democrat who said she represents "one of the more purple areas" of the state, suggested the election of new, younger representatives could shift discussion in the House and potentially bring in a more progressive slant.

The co-president of the freshman representative class with Framingham Rep. Jack Lewis, Higgins discussed the effects of student debt on recent college graduates and said she wondered how much easier it would be to save sufficiently for her own retirement if she were not paying $450 each month toward her student loans.

"I'm really worried about what is going to happen, and this is why I'm so glad eight of the 12 in the freshman class are under 36, and more than three-quarters have joined the progressive caucus, so I'm really excited to see as new classes come in and we start talking about these issues," she said.

Acknowledging political realities mean some of the bills on their agenda represent aspirational, long-term efforts, speakers at the lobby day highlighted a bill (H 536/S 449) requiring health insurance coverage for contraceptives as one achievable goal this session.

"The contraception bill I think is very winnable this session, so that to me is a something we really can accomplish, whereas I wish I could say my Medicare-for-all bill will pass this session, but that's more of a longer-term effort," Eldridge said.

Andy Metzger contributed reporting

caption: Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Rep. Natalie Higgins, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge discussed legislative priorities at the Progressive Massachusetts lobby day Wednesday. [Photo: Katie Lannan/SHNS]