|Q&A: Mark Hopes to Move from House to Senate|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
04:40PM / Saturday, August 20, 2022
|Paul Mark poses for a photo in the courtyard at Mass MoCA. Mark, state representative in the 2nd Berkshire, is running for Democratic nomination in the state Senate primary.|
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Asked to position himself for a photo in front of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's signature upside-down installation "Tree Logic," Paul Mark is ready with a quip.
"I'm an old lineman," Mark says. "I like that"
As he campaigns for a seat in the state Senate, Mark works his life experience, which includes time as a lineman for the phone company, into a variety of contexts.
One context is his commitment to the concept of Medicare for All, which drove him to be an inaugural member of the Medicare for All Caucus in the state House of Representatives, where he has served the 2nd Berkshire District since 2010.
"When I worked at the phone company and I was a member of the IBEW, the biggest sticking point every contract was health care," Mark said. "The IBEW, in one of our contracts, we went on strike to guarantee health-care benefits for people who hadn't been hired yet. Because they were going to offer us a two-tier system where, 'You get 100 percent paid, and the new people get 20 percent.' So, no, we stood strong and we didn't give in, not when I was there.
"And IBEW negotiated with Verizon, $2 million in like 2003, for the two to work together to try to find a way to get to national health care. So it helps unions because it takes that [issue] off the table, so then we could bargain for other benefits. We could bargain for vacation time, sick time, maternity leave, paternity leave, all these other things that are so important if everyone didn't have to sit around thinking about health care."
Mark is thinking about and talking about health care among a host of other issues as he campaigns against Williamstown resident Huff Templeton in the Democratic primary that will be decided on Sept. 6.
The seat is open as the current senator, Adam Hinds, decided to make an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor rather than for re-election.
The winner of that contest goes on the ballot for November's election to represent the newly configured Senate District 1, including all of Berkshire County and parts of Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire County. The new district includes much of his old House district, which was a victim of redistricting following the 2020 Census.
Mark recently sat down in the courtyard at Mass MoCA to talk about his campaign and his priorities for the future.
Question: What has the process been like getting out and getting into some parts of the district that you're not as familiar with?
Mark: It's been interesting. I announced, I think, in October of last year. Since then, we've gone through another spike in COVID, we've gone through heat waves, we've gone through all kinds of interesting stuff. It's been really exciting at times because we're back in person. It's been a lot of driving. I've easily lost 25 hours of my week, just in terms of getting around. It's a 57-town district, and I've represented 25 of the communities in the past.
There are still 32 that I'm getting to know.
I've been up in North County. I'm familiar with what goes on up here. I've worked really closely with Rep. [Gailanne] Cariddi in the past, Mayor Bernard, Mayor Alcombright, Rep. [John] Barrett. It's going more in depth into some of the issues.
But in some places like Southwick — Southwick is new to me completely, but it's also new to the district. It was Sen. [John] Velis until just this year in redistricting. So that's been an area that is very different, politically, from most of Berkshire County. And when you talk to people down there, they relate more to Hartford, Conn. You've got a lot of different worlds. The district is almost six different regions, when you get down to it.
Q: How much, over the years, in dealing with Rep. [Smitty] Pignatelli in South County or Rep. Cariddi up here, were you able to tap into some of those issues that are distinctly important to those areas?
Mark: We're a pretty tight-knit delegation. That isn't just the Berkshires. I'd say it's the rural Western Mass delegation that is really connected. Springfield is tight as well and friendly. But the Hampshire County, Franklin County and Berkshire delegation is really tight. So connecting with my colleagues over the years — if I said to Smitty or John Barrett or Tricia [Farley-Bouvier] or whoever, 'This is happening in Dalton, this is important,' it was always important to me to have their backup. When you're in the Legislature, you're one of 160 [in the House] or one of 40 [in the Senate]. There's nothing any one of us accomplishes on our own. The only way you have any success is by building good relationships, being good at communicating a message and taking the time to listen and help as much as you are willing to talk and ask for help.
Q: Getting into some of the issues that you've identified as your priorities, specifically you mention education funding and fixing the state aid formula. That's not a new concern for the Berkshire delegation, but with the demographics of the commonwealth changing, isn't it going to be that much harder to get the folks in eastern Mass to pay attention to that funding disparity?
Mark: On one hand, we're in a great moment because we're on track to actually fund, properly, K through 12 education. We're fulfilling the promise of the Student Opportunity Act. There's a lot of money right now in the state that none of us really had a reason to expect would be available even four or five years ago. And if the Fair Share Amendment passes, that's going to be, potentially, another billion dollars heading toward education. That's the good news.
The next good part is, moving from the House to the Senate, as one of 40 and where I've worked with most of these people already as colleagues in the House or on committees that are joint — you have the chance to really put the stamp of this region on some pieces of legislation. We saw it with Sen. [Ben] Downing. We saw it with [Sen.] Adam Hinds with the rural school aid. If you take the time to explain the differences — and I've already had five different senators out in this region taking a look at things, hearing more of what we deal with that's unique — you have such a bigger opportunity in the Senate than you do in the House. And as a Democrat, you will chair a committee. My number one ask is Higher Education. If I were to chair the Higher Education Committee, I get to put the stamp of, 'What does higher education look like in the Berkshires?' We have a private college, we have a public college, we have a community college. Getting that imprint onto any piece of legislation that pushes through that committee, I think is going to be gigantic. What are the obstacles for affordability here? Why is enrollment down at MCLA? How can we help change that? How can we position ourselves to invest in the future?
The tough part is yeah, you're one of 40, but you're one who has 57 cities and towns in four counties versus the three or four [senators] who represent the city of Boston proper. You can be as effective as possible, but there is a reality that we're always short-staffed out here.
Q: And it's getting worse.
Mark: You're right. That's getting worse. But now the silver lining in the district growing is ... the Berkshires are all me, and I share that with the Reps. Franklin County, you share with another senator. Hampshire County, you share with more than one senator. Hampden County, you share with a couple. And so you have that opportunity to become part of a team to make sure we're bridging the mountains. The Berkshires are separate even from the Pioneer Valley, which is ridiculous, and as a rep, I've done a lot of work to connect the part of Pittsfield I have and the part of Dalton I have with Greenfield and balance that.
Q: One thing that's an issue everywhere is economic development. And I know it's a priority for you. What are some of the specific legislative solutions that you have for promoting small business, the kind of thing that you talk about in your platform?
Mark: At this moment in time, the Berkshires is poised to take advantage, I think, of an opportunity that it really hasn't had in the past. We talk about the work we've done on broadband over the past 10 years. We talk about the work we've done in transportation, including rail but also in terms of expanding access to the [regional transit authorities], trying to expand this idea of micro transit for smaller towns — I think they have a nice plan right now in South County, that, if it ends up being successful, could serve communities all over rural Western Massachusetts.
When you look at what's happening around the state in terms of housing affordability. Housing, in the eastern part of the state, is becoming unaffordable. People are going to be looking to relocate.
You look at what's happening nationally now. If you look at some of the political decisions that have been made in the past six months, there's a lot of people who are going to want to move out of places like Texas. If I were the governor of Massachusetts or even the mayor of Pittsfield or the mayor of North Adams, I'd be running an ad in Austin, Texas. Austin, Texas, is a competitor of Boston. And I'd be saying, 'We're open for business, and if you're a young person, this might be where you feel at home.' We've got snow, but ... If we make those efforts. This is a beautiful place. If you want to be outdoors, if you want to live a quieter life but still have access to world-class entertainment, world-class museums, world-class hiking, world-class biking, all this stuff — we're ready to take advantage. We have the tools here, and we have the tools coming. As the only senator for the county, you can be the connector. You can help put people in touch with each other. You can help be a resource for everybody — help steer them toward, maybe, legislative opportunities they didn't realize were available. That can also work with the business community as well. Having a good partnership with One Berkshire, with chambers of commerce, with Mass Hire — having good relationships with those organizations.
… One of the things that I thought was the most important thing I helped work on in my time in the House was an advanced manufacturing training program in Franklin County. There were manufacturing companies located in Franklin County that couldn't hire people; Franklin County is the poorest county in the state. They couldn't fill the jobs with relatively high unemployment. So the business community put up a third of the cost, the state Legislature — I filed an earmark — put up a third of the cost and then they came through with a grant from the governor's office. And it came up with a partnership between the tech school, the community college and the manufacturing programs to develop a course that allowed people to get training in advanced manufacturing and get jobs right in the region. It has graduated over 10 classes in the time that it's been up and running, and those people have gotten jobs that pay in the $70,000 or more range.
So replicating that — having the knowledge of how state government works, to be prepared and help push along groups, entities and municipalities that are looking for help, I think is gigantic.
Q: I wanted to ask you what one or two of the legislative accomplishments are that you're most proud of.
Mark: The Healthy Incentive program, a benefit to both low-income people looking for good food and local farmers. I've been the lead sponsor of a bill to make this program permanent. What it does is it doubles the value of [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits if you use them at a farmers market. So we have made this a permanent program in the state. We're still looking to codify a part of it so that a future governor can't undo it or anything like that. …
The work I've done on student loans and debt. My second term they made me the chair of the subcommittee on student loans and debt, and we came up with a nine-point plan that turned into a 34-section bill. We had hearings all over the state. We had one at BCC and one at [Greenfield Community College]. Parts of that have come to fruition as well, like matching college savings plans. …
My life story is: I go to college out of high school, my family is poor, I drop out because I don't have any money. Then I get a job at the phone company. I'm in a union. And I go back to school and associate's degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, law degree and a doctoral degree. The difference is I couldn't have afforded it. I obviously always had the talent and the desire and the drive. But without breaking down that barrier, there's no opportunity. So anything I can do to break down that cost barrier for someone else is something that I get extremely emotional about — but in a good way.
Q: Anything else?
Mark: Something that gets overlooked is also the census. I was the chair of redistricting, working hand in hand with the Secretary of State's office and the U.S. Census Bureau. Even in spite of COVID, we were ready. For the first time, we funded a grant program through the Secretary of State's office to make sure local groups like the Berkshire County Complete Count Commission that went through [Berkshire Regional Planning Commission] were able to apply for these grants and get the funding they needed that would help them with the local knowledge of what would help turnout. And we beat expectations. We had a decline in Berkshire County, but we beat expectations by far, and we did that in a year that was marked by COVID.
For the state to come in over 7 million people was — we thought we were going to lose another member of Congress, and we didn't. ... It was a big win, and it was something that didn't get a lot of publicity, but it was something I was put in charge of, and I was happy to see that we did a good job.
Q: When you line up the platforms between you and your opponent, you have similar priorities in a lot of areas. One area that kind of jumps off the page is health care. I spoke to Mr. Templeton the other day on the issue of Medicare for all, and he made the point that the state shouldn't go it alone. Why should it?
Mark: Massachusetts has a responsibility to be a leader. We have the education, we have the progressive ideals. We've always been a leader in this country from the Revolution onward. We were the first state to come up with what became Obamacare. It was 'Romneycare' originally, and it became Obamacare. And we went it alone. We went it alone because we had a Republican governor who wanted to run for president, and we had a Democratic speaker and a Democratic Senate president at the time who knew this was something important, that there were kids uninsured in this state, there were people uninsured in this state. And they found a way that was workable to get almost every single person in Massachusetts insured. That became a model that the rest of the college eventually followed.
Similarly, in Canada, the province of Saskatchewan was the first province to take the jump to come up with a single-payer system, and the rest of the country followed suit when they found out it worked so well.
This is what single-payer health care means: First of all, we're already paying more in taxes, per person, in Massachusetts and in the United States than every other country that already has a national health plan. But while we're paying more in our taxes for that service, you can also have a medical bankruptcy here. You can go into medical debt in Massachusetts. And that is not true in Canada. That is not true in the United Kingdom. That is not true in Japan. It is not true in any other industrial nation in the world. Health care is over 40 percent of our state budget now. And, again, they did the Romneycare — the guaranteed insurance — because the idea was if every person had to be insured, the pool becomes much bigger and the cost comes down.
… Throughout my time in office, there have been ballot questions in my district and several others, and the people of this region and throughout the state consistently say, 'We want guaranteed single-payer universal health care from our government.'
… It has to happen. It would save money for business. It would save money for our cities and towns who also are trying to recruit talent competing with the private sector. And public sector officials generally get paid less than their private sector counterparts, but part of that is because they generally get better benefits, and part of their total compensation is health care. So taking that off, to make North Adams not have to compete based on health care because everyone is in the same pool getting the same quality health care access.
Q: It goes back to something you talked about earlier: making the state more attractive for people to move to.
Mark: Right. We can't compete with a state that offers no income tax, no sales tax. Like, we can't compete with Texas on that. But what we can compete with Texas on is we have a better-trained workforce, we're a more attractive place to live, we're a more welcoming place to live. There's a lot of reasons to be here. So this is a place where we could actually potentially compete on cost — lowering cost by going to a better system that works everywhere else in the world.
Q: There's an issue that isn't really called out as its own plank in your platform but kind of runs through a number of priorities you talk about. And that's the issue of racial justice. Are you hearing much about that out there in your campaigning?
Mark: From an environmental standpoint, I hear a lot about racial equity. I'm going to say that residents of Berkshire County — and this is an overwhelmingly white area — recognize that there is a degree of privilege that we have this beautiful playground, we have this beautiful place we live in. And while we don't want dirty air and we don't want dirty water, we also don't expect that we're going to use as much electricity as we want from any source we want and pretend that somewhere else there's not a coal plant. So the climate bills we've passed, and there have been two of them this session, have really ensured that environmental justice — and that's a relatively new concept — is included. That's the idea that, 'Even though I don't live in that community, I don't want the inner city polluted either. I don't want areas where economically disadvantaged people are to be polluted. And I certainly don't want pollution to happen because it's a racially diverse community.' I have heard a lot of that.
And when we talk about education, I like to say that no one should have a bad education at a public school because of their ZIP code. To most of us in this district, that means because you live in a small town it's difficult to afford to keep your school open or to fund education services and administrators and teachers the same way they can in, say, Boston. But in the cities, including parts of Pittsfield, including parts of North Adams, including Brockton, Boston, Lawrence, wherever, it's important that your ZIP code there, which might be based on old racial divides from redlining and things like that — that they're not not left behind either.
If you look back at Brown v. Board of Education, part of that decision said you have to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson because separate inherently cannot be equal. People look at, 'Oh, you went to that school,' and they're not going to accept you to Harvard. So making sure that in Massachusetts, where we have the No. 1 education system in the country, that isn't denied to anybody.