Jane Swift answers questions of Lee Middle and High School students

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Editor's note: Last week, a story appeared on the Learning page about the Equality Fair held at Lee Middle and High School. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift spoke at the event. This article includes remarks made during her address and in response to questions posed by students.

LEE — The question came from a young man in the audience at Lee Middle and High School: "What's the most effective way for a young person to enter the realm of politics?"

The response came from former Massachusetts Senator and Acting Governor Jane Swift, who had been invited to the school as a guest speaker as part of an Equality Fair event organized by the school's Social Justice Club.

Senior Mikayla DeSantis introduced Swift, a North Adams native who blazed that trail for both young people and women, and for people with no political legacy in their family.

Swift is a graduate of Drury High School who, in 1990, became the youngest woman ever elected to the Massachusetts Senate, at age 25.

To the young man who asked how to get involved with politics and his classmates, she said to focus on an issue or person's cause that you believe in, and to push that platform. She said it's also important to make efforts to get to know people in politics, from the politicians themselves to their legislative aides, and to offer to volunteer to help them.

"If you work hard, with passion, and keep showing up, people will remember you," she said.

Swift detailed her humble beginnings from a large Catholic family, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a plumbing contractor. To drum up support and funds, she leveraged her family's support and culinary skills to host bake sales on Fridays, using the funds to purchase campaign bumper stickers and to rent a space for her office headquarters. She also visited community centers and held living room gatherings, with support from neighbors and friends. And, she went on to serve the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Massachusetts Senate district from 1991 to 1996, as a moderate Republican in a liberal-majority commonwealth.

But, she said, her accomplishment didn't mean that everything was easy or attainable without resistance, judgement or biases.

Swift recalled for the students a time when she received a postcard from a man who had attended one of her smaller campaign gatherings in a friend's living room. He told her how he showed up to be a good neighbor but left impressed by some of the things Swift had to say. Then, he offered the young, aspiring politician some advice.

"Can you guess what that advice was," Swift asked the Lee Middle and High School students. A young woman in the audience took a guess that it was something about appearance.

Swift affirmed the girl's guess, and said, "He suggested I wear fingernail polish and high heels. ... To this day, I never wear high heels or nail polish. I have been successful in life because I worked harder than my competition."

In 1997, she went on to become the state secretary of consumer affairs, and then won her bid to become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1998. In April 2001, she became governor after then-Gov. Paul Cellucci was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada, but lost her bid for re-election within her own party to Mitt Romney in 2002.

Today, she lives in Shelburne, Vt., is the CEO of a digital language and summer course program called Middlebury Interactive Languages, and is raising her three teenage daughters, whom she was pregnant with while in office.

Swift explained to the high school students that her gender, family life, fashion sense and age often took the front pages in media reports about her political career, versus her actual policies and political actions on her pet causes, like education, child welfare, economic development and the environment. She told the students that a quick Google search will illustrate how she was characterized while in office.

As a senator, she helped enact education reform, which led to the creation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. As acting governor, she signed legislation in 2002 requiring clergy and religious officials to report suspected cases of child abuse to state officials. She also advocated for reforms in the child welfare and foster care systems of the the state and legislation for working families throughout her career.

Asked by a student about her thoughts on the current federal tax reform actions, Swift said, "The one thing I'm still Republican on is fiscal policy." She said she doesn't like how current reforms are pushing the national deficit even higher, and said, it's "ridiculous" to do tax reform without reforming so-called entitlements, like Medicaid, Social Security and unemployment programs. Swift said she supports a flat tax rate.

On environmental and conservation matters, Swift said she supports open space land and resource protection, clean water legislation and better policies and guidelines for agricultural lands and land management.

And after beginning her talk about her experiences being a female in politics, another young woman asked Swift about her views about widespread sexual assault allegations and politicians like Sen. Al Franken being accused and stepping down from office.

"I grew up at at time when the challenges for women in male-powered offices were very difficult," said Swift.

She said there "were subtle things you would put up with then that we would have never let our daughters go through now," noting that it would be "naive" for her to say that she was treated the same as her male peers while in office.

While she did not elaborate on any specific incidents, Swift said, "There is a lot more work that needs to be done about this."


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