One hundred days of learning

To the editor:

 

A favorite memory from when my kids were small was the 100-day project. I recall helping my daughter glue 100 pieces of pasta to a giant poster board. My son used cheerios. The point was to celebrate reaching roughly the halfway point of the school year, while reflecting on the learning that had taken place up to that point.

Recently, I reached 100 days of my first term as the state representative for the 8th Essex District. I didn’t break out the glue gun, but I did take some time to reflect on these exciting, dizzying, interesting days.

My term began on Jan. 4 with the pomp afforded an institution entering its 385th year. Yet, one of my favorite memories occurred in the Capitol Coffee Shop across from the State House. I walked in, and the guy behind the counter chirped, “Hey, I remember you!” There he was: The same person who kept me caffeinated as the Governor’s speechwriter more than 20 years earlier.

I was stunned. A staggeringly good memory aside, the moment underscored rare continuity in a society obsessed with change. In these first days in office, I have learned that continuity — of process, norms, staff, even the building’s sturdy marble and brass — is what enables stability and wisdom to emerge from chaos (on a good day).

House Clerk Steven James represents continuity at its finest. In his 59th year of working in the House, he has an encyclopedic understanding of the procedures that govern its operations, which he runs with precision. And he’s a generous and gracious guide to new legislators. That he is a constituent of mine from Swampscott is icing on the cake.

I am also incredibly fortunate to benefit from the deep experience and wisdom of state Sen. Brendan Crighton, my colleagues from Lynn, Reps. Dan Cahill and Pete Capano, and the entire North Shore legislative delegation.

Of course, the risk of excessive continuity can be stagnation. “We’ve always done it this way” is no substitute for good policymaking. But if you look at the recent record of the House — from climate change to gun safety to reproductive rights — Massachusetts legislators do not shy away from big fights.

That’s not to say the Legislature isn’t deliberate, and slow at times. It is by design. And that can be frustrating. On the one hand, continuity and deliberation are the guardrails against rash decision-making — especially in the age of easy outrage fomented by keyboard warriors. And time often improves the legislative product. Facts and new perspectives emerge in hearings and through discussions with advocates, experts, and constituents.

On the other hand, good people can end up waiting for change far longer than they reasonably should. It takes in the ballpark of four to eight legislative sessions for a bill to find its way onto the floor or attached to a larger piece of legislation. The new law allowing undocumented Massachusetts residents access to a driver’s license took 20 years from initial filing to the Governor’s desk.

As contradictory as this may sound, the measure of a piece of legislation is not always final passage. I’m increasingly convinced that there is significant value in the conversations started by filing a bill. Legislators and policy leaders are educated about problems and forced to grapple with possible solutions. Those solutions may turn out to be regulatory in nature, or aspects may be implemented at the local level. It’s not unusual for sections of one bill to be incorporated into a different piece of legislation that’s on a faster track. Those left behind are reintroduced in the next session.

And then there are the invaluable relationships developed through the process: Citizens, legislators, state agency leaders and staff, local officials, and advocates all connect with each other. My constituents have taught me more about public policy in the last few months than the classes I took for my lofty graduate degree. Through them, I have learned how to do my job and serve as an even more passionate advocate for their causes and concerns.

And that’s what it’s all about: service to the people of Marblehead, Swampscott, and Lynn. Easing a burden, cutting through red tape, or even just listening to someone’s challenges are the highest privileges of serving as a state representative. A person’s story is a gift. As the House marches through the next 100 days and beyond, those stories will inform all aspects of my work. I am grateful for the opportunity.

 

Rep. Jenny Armini
8th Essex District