Columnist Jo Comerford: Advocate for public education

  • Jo Comerford: “We must be a laboratory of democracy that demonstrates to the nation what sound, innovative public policy looks like.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 7/31/2018 7:41:41 PM

I didn’t know it at the time, but my life changed forever when I was 11 years old.

My sister Lori and I were visiting our Aunt Joan, a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brooklyn. The convent doorbell rang. We raced to the door and I swung it open.

Standing in front of me was a young woman holding the hands of her two children. I can still see the wrenching sadness on her face.

Earlier that morning, a Rikers Island prison bus dropped her off on the corner where she was arrested weeks earlier for stealing food for her family. Now, reunited with her children, she came to the convent. Joan and the other nuns took her in.

That moment forever changed me.

* * *

I came to western Massachusetts over 20 years ago to lead a campaign called Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis, to raise national awareness about the root causes and costs of the mass incarceration of women and mandatory minimum sentencing laws. I saw close up the brutally high odds against poor people and people of color — odds that remain with us today.

After earning a master’s degree in social work, I returned in 1999 to make my home here and to lead a crisis intervention outreach team, working to interrupt the downward spiral caused by addiction and the lack of affordable housing and health care, decent public transportation and jobs.

At the American Friends Service Committee, I led regional efforts to oppose the Iraq War. We spearheaded a campaign in which every single mayor in all four western Massachusetts counties signed on as mayors for peace, supporting the late Rep. Peter Kocot in introducing nuclear abolition legislation in the Massachusetts House.

As the director of programs at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, I helped combat elder food insecurity, secure resources for the region’s meal sites and food pantries, and pilot a program to ensure that SNAP recipients could buy fresh vegetables at farmers markets.

While executive director of National Priorities Project — a national budget research organization that was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in my seventh year — I directed efforts to prove that sweeping health care reform made both moral and economic sense. Our team also crunched the numbers behind progressive tax and spending policies, across issues, for lawmakers and advocates nationwide.

For the past four years, I worked as a campaign director at MoveOn, where I helped lead many of MoveOn’s critical initiatives, including a successful gun safety campaign that mobilized 37,000 responsible gun owners to pressure Barack Obama to issue an executive order on background checks.

* * *

These decades, working from outside government on concrete policy and legislative change, have deepened my conviction that legislators can accomplish great things.

This is the reason I want to be your state senator — to make government work in the best interest of all people,, to make our district a place where everyone has the ability to thrive.

* * *

So many of us are horrified by what’s happening in our nation — children wrenched from their parents, health care gains dismantled, organized labor and women’s reproductive rights threatened, investments in public education cut, policies to address climate change rejected, spending for seniors reduced and so much more.

Our state Legislature can and must be a line of defense against these assaults.

But we, in Massachusetts, can do more than play defense.

We must be a laboratory of democracy that demonstrates to the nation what sound, innovative public policy looks like — in areas that have been the focus of my life’s work: universal health care, public education (pre-kindergarten through college), transition to 100 percent renewable energy, LGBTQ rights, job creation, economic development, food security, public transportation, workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, internet access, gun safety, racial justice and immigration and refugee policy.

These are the priorities that people throughout our district have raised with me and which I will fight for as your state senator.

* * *

I bring deep and broad issue expertise and an understanding of budget spending and tax policy at the municipal, state and federal levels. I bring a strategic tenacity that builds bridges among unlikely allies and results in lasting, concrete change.

I am honored that so many of our region’s elected officials and civic leaders have endorsed my candidacy, including Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, former Congressman John Olver, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins.

More important is the support of the hundreds of volunteers who have turned out to knock on doors for my campaign, and the thousands of supporters who have pledged to write in my name on Sept. 4 in the Democratic primary.

* * *

All of us have biographies which define us.

I owe my faith in the power of love to Aunt Joan, whose compassion and fierce work for justice continues to inspire me. I owe my belief in public education and participatory democracy to my dad, a public school teacher. I owe my courage and strength to my mother, who battled addiction.

I am propelled in this race because I believe our district needs a staunch advocate for public education in our state Senate, someone with a personal stake in its success. My wife, Ann, is a teacher and a member of the Northampton School Committee. Our children, Chloe and Isaiah, attend Northampton public schools where I’ve volunteered for the last six years.

I believe that public education is the bedrock of democracy and I’m particularly proud that the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, representing public school teachers throughout our district, has endorsed my candidacy.

* * *

Even as my eyes and my heart are open to the injustices in our midst, they are also open to the immense promise of working together with you.

That’s why, if I have the honor to serve as your state senator, I will be more than one hard-working woman (the first in our district’s history). I will head to Boston — strengthened by the empathy, dedication, vision and ideals of those I serve — as a state senator for all of us.

Jo Comerford is a write-in candidate for the state Senate seat from the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district. Visit to learn more.

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