Dear Jo: People make government work best

  • The dots represent constituent cases for people or municipalities Sen. Jo Comerford’s office has responded to on specific issues, and issue groups focused on education, climate justice, the arts, and more.

Published: 12/5/2019 2:30:42 PM
Modified: 12/5/2019 2:30:31 PM
Editor’s note: If you have a question for the senator’s monthly Dear Jo column, in which she answers constituent questions, please submit to and

DEAR JO: How can constituents have an impact? How have you cross-walked your work as an organizer into the Legislature?

— Preston Smith,
South Hadley

DEAR PRESTON: I get these kinds of questions frequently from constituents who are eager to bend state government to work in the interest of all people.

I’ve long believed that government works best when people make it work. I’m delighted to tell you that organizing matters in the State House — collective, individual and legislative.

Grassroots organizing

When advocacy groups flood the State House or take over the Beacon Street steps, the building rumbles with chants and cheers. K-12 education advocates made this happen for the Student Opportunity Act — demanding the urgency that led to the creation of a comprehensive bill and its passage. But that full-court press isn’t reserved only for education. Around climate justice and more, statewide lobby days are essential to power the commonwealth’s democratic engine.

Grassroots organizing also breaks through in the form of calls, petitions, district meetings, letters and tweets. Each contact we receive reminds us that bold action on pressing issues cannot wait.

Individual advocacy

As much as collective action helps issues take center stage, individual advocates are also mighty. I have a list (too long to enumerate here) of examples where I’ve been activated around an issue thanks to an individual.

In each of these examples, advocates sounded the alarm or called forward an opportunity through their persistent and heartfelt actions. Whether it’s a constituent asking for help and suggesting we should do something about the state’s draconian estate recovery policy (and we are), or a someone flagging proposed new pricing structures that may cause towns to stop offering recycling services, these actions help set the direction for our Senate team.

Organizing within the Legislature

Organizing within the Legislature takes many forms. It can look like the work of the Hampshire County delegation to save retiree health care and pensions and prevent municipalities from taking on financial burden as we bring a just resolve to the Hampshire Council of Governments, or the delegation’s work to watch dog the new Valley Flyer rail service — meeting monthly with planning agencies, municipal, state and federal officials to problem solve and advocate.

Sometimes it looks like regional legislative listening sessions, which House members and I held last winter and are kicking into gear again Friday. These sessions are great examples of legislators organizing ourselves across districts and issues to better receive ideas and feedback from constituents. Check Facebook on Saturday for a full report:

Organizing can also look like a legislative caucus — like the first-ever Medicare for All and Rural caucuses, both of which I’m a member. (You can see a full list here:

The bottom line is we’re stronger as elected officials when we’re together.

The people-powered bond

And then there are moments when organizing inside meets advocacy in the community. Take the Food Systems Caucus inside the Legislature. It’s the largest caucus in the building (aside from the Democratic caucus), bipartisan, bicameral and active on everything from food security to farm-related concerns. The caucus is in strong partnership with the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, CISA, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Northeast Organic Farming Association and others.

The inside focus plus outside advocacy creates a virtuous cycle where food and nutrition-related issues are consistently top of mind. I took advantage of this powerful organizing machine when we launched this fall’s Food is Public Health Oversight hearing at Greenfield Community College, focused on the intersection of nutrition, food security and public health. I was delighted to lead this on behalf of the Joint Committee on Public Health — a collaborative hearing co-sponsored and attended by members of the Rural and Food Systems Caucuses, crafted by advocates and people-powered.

You can read the report here:

Let’s close by taking a quick look at the accompanying map.

The dots represent constituent cases for people or municipalities, individual contacts we’ve had from constituents on specific issues, and issue groups focused on education, climate justice, the arts, and more. (Note: They do not represent phone calls. There are more of those! And they don’t represent contacts we’ve had from across the commonwealth.)

Since mid-January, we’ve logged a jaw-dropping 6,987 unique constituent contacts — each one sharpening the office’s work, strengthening our belief that civic engagement and organizing matters. That people matter.

Our district is unparalleled in this advocacy. And the commonwealth is healthier and more just because of it.

State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.

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