'Constituent problems don't end at 5 o'clock'
A day in the life of those who represent us
When Gailanne Cariddi first became a city councilor in North Adams after years of running a family business, she went down to the city clerk's office to ask for a job description. There was none.
"I took it as ... the job is what you make of it," she said.
There was no formal description for her current position as state representative for the 1st Berkshire District either.
Although Massachusetts legislators attend "legislator school" at the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Cariddi learned primarily by jumping right in and getting involved, she said.
Broadly, her job is to listen to her constituents' needs and advocate for their interests on a local and state level.
But that job doesn't just involve filing bills and campaigning for re-election.
Her major role is to act as a kind of clearing house - she and her staff work to connect constituents with the right person for their particular issue at various state agencies.
"That's the highest priority," she said. "We always want to make sure that people are served by the right people in government."
Most of her days involve constituent contact, from fielding calls from citizens who are concerned about a bill to meeting with local interest groups and municipalities, who will inform her about their priorities - what they want her to do for them.
The Legislature acts as a kind of "court of last resort" for people who haven't gotten help from other sources, said Daniel "Dan" Bosley, who preceded Cariddi as state representative for the 1st Berkshire District. Bosley served for 24 years until 2011.
A state representative's job takes place on a large and small scale, he said.
"You have to deal with a statewide budget, and then at the same time, you have to deal with that neighbor that has water [issues] ... and doesn't know who to call," he said. "It's a big job, writ large, and individually you can help constituents."
Bosley enjoyed working on big issues like the literacy portion of the 1993 education reform bill, which provided state money for adult basic education. But the local, even individual issues were just as important, he said.
"I had people who would call me with an issue that only impacted them, and you needed to treat [that] as equally as important as those big issues," he said.
Bosley recalled a time in the late 1980s to early 1990s when he fielded calls from businesspeople who were unable to secure their required scaffolding permits, he said.
Legislators - senators and state representatives - represent both their districts and their state. They relate to the governor as the board of directors relates to the CEO of a company, he said.
Even Bosley's extensive background in politics, starting in his college years, couldn't fully prepare him for public office as a state representative.
"When you get elected ... to any of these positions, you find that it's different than you imagined," he said. "When you raise your hand and take your oath, you pledge to do the best you can."
Senators have similar roles to state representatives at both the district and state level, although they represent larger populations, said outgoing state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, who is retiring after 10 years serving the district that includes all of Berkshire County and parts of Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden County.
A legislator's role in his or her district - regardless of its size - is to meet with constituents and hear their concerns.
"A lot of being a legislator is just being out there in your community and listening," Downing said. "In your district, you listen to the issues that people bring to your attention ... and then you advocate for solutions to those problems at the Statehouse."
Senators serve as a voice for their district as a whole to make sure constituents' perspectives are heard at the state level. In rural communities like Berkshire County, this often means making sure that the areas' concerns are not neglected in response to the needs of large urban areas like Boston.
Unlike state representatives, who represent smaller groups and might advocate more exclusively for specific projects within their districts, senators have to take a regional view of priorities, Downing said.
"As a senator, it's my job to advocate for all of [these projects] and think about how they all fit together," he said.
Advocacy often takes the form of filing, supporting or opposing bills - pieces of legislation regarding everything from transportation to telecommunications to transgender rights.
Up to 10,000 bills are filed a year, Bosley said. If a legislator has an active role in a piece of legislation, he or she will monitor its amendments and try to win support for it from other, undecided legislators.
It took Bosley five years - 1987 to 1993 - to pass the first of six economic development bills.
"The whole system is designed not to pass a bill," he said.
To prevent gridlock, good legislators form alliances and build consensus to get things done, he said.
One of the biggest tasks requiring consensus is passing the yearly state budget, which must be approved by the house and senate before being sent to the governor. Legislators reconcile their districts' priorities with the needs of the state and other districts through negotiations in a special conference committee made up of three members of each side of the Legislature.
Legislators meet in informal and formal sessions - meetings en masse. Formal sessions, including budget negotiations, only take place during noncampaign times - a rule meant to draw a bright line between governing and campaigning, Downing said.
But even keeping governing and campaigning separate can't prevent legislators from having to make hard decisions when their opinions don't align with those of their constituents.
Bosley recalled having to balance his constituents' opinions with his conflicting understanding of the facts regarding the death penalty, then a huge issue in Massachusetts.
Many of his constituents supported it, but research told him that it was expensive and an ineffective deterrent to crime.
"So which decision do you make?" he said. "Do you vote based upon your research?"
He had to make such decisions on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Since he left his position as a state rep, Bosley has seen a new challenge arise for legislators based on current voter ideology.
"More people have become single-issue voters," he said. They think politicians who don't support their opinion on one issue are not committed to serving their constituents, he said.
Bosley said this wasn't his experience with other legislators as a whole.
"People on both sides of the aisle ... for the most part were really hard-working, thoughtful people who did the best they could," he said.
Some people also attribute gridlock in politics to negative stereotypes about politicians, which are rarely true, he said.
The Massachusetts Legislature includes people from a variety of backgrounds, including former teachers, lawyers and accountants, as well as those with experience in municipal, federal or international government, Downing said.
"There are few, if any, roles that prepare you for this," he said. "That's the scariest part of it."
Unlike most office jobs, a legislators' work doesn't stop after normal business hours.
Responding to constituents outside of office hours took up a lot of time for Bosley, Cariddi and Downing.
"You're a state rep 24/7," Bosley said. "Constituent problems don't end at 5 o'clock."
After receiving complaints from locals that he had forgotten to get back to them regarding questions or problems, Bosley learned to keep something in his pocket to write down people's information when they frequently approached him in public.
Downing remembered constituents stopping him in the grocery store to share their thoughts on various issues - something he found useful.
"Oftentimes, that's where some of the best ideas came from," he said.
Cariddi said she will speak to any constituent when the opportunity presents itself, whether it's during office hours or not.
"This job doesn't have a punch card," Cariddi said. "When you're a representative, you represent the people all the time."
Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.
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