Hampshire delegation adapts to remote legislating

  • Clockwise from top left: Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Mindy Domb, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Sen. Eric Lesser, Rep. Natalie Blais and Rep. Dan Carey. GAZETTE FILE PHOTOS

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Mindy Domb GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais during her first virtual legislative session. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • State Rep. Daniel Carey GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/26/2021 11:51:10 AM

BOSTON — Legislative sessions, in-person office hours and community meetings have disappeared, replaced by telephone calls and Zoom sessions as Hampshire County legislators mark the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic upending the normal rhythms of Beacon Hill.

For Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, hosting coffee hours in various cafes in her district allowed her to connect with constituents in an informal setting, and legislating at the Massachusetts State House gave her the chance to learn about fellow legislators during lunch breaks or after work.

Domb says virtual office hours allow for people who could not otherwise travel across the state to meet with her — but nothing can replace in-person meetings. Greater access to hearings and one-on-one meetings with representatives keep the public more informed and engaged, which benefits democracy, she said.

“Even if it’s by Zoom and people can drop in, it’s not quite the same as people getting their morning coffee and being able to sit and talk with them while they’re waiting,” Domb said. “So I’m really looking forward to resuming that whole informal piece.”

Domb took office in 2019 and worked in person for about 14 months before the pandemic raged through Massachusetts. She said working in person afforded her the chance to understand her colleagues’ values, ask why they voted a certain way and find common ground.

“It really sort of helps me understand my colleagues and what their priorities are, and I think that in turn helps me be better at my job in terms of representing my constituents’ concerns and trying to get the 3rd Hampshire priorities passed,” Domb said.

Since the start of the public health crisis, lawmakers have called in by phone to vote or debate on bills. Representatives who want to speak about a particular bill must notify their division monitor by 10 a.m. on the day of the formal session. The speaker then creates a final list of members in support and opposition and emails it to all members before the session, according to the State House News Service.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said she relies more heavily on social media and email newsletters to connect with her constituents. Pre-pandemic, Sabadosa’s campaign team would provide Facebook and Twitter updates about the latest piece of legislation she was working on. Now, her team creates graphics for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to inform the public of changes to safety restrictions, where to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and new coronavirus testing sites.

In addition to passing pandemic-related legislation, such as the eviction and foreclosure moratorium, Sabadosa said the House passed a police reform bill and an act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy.

“We’ve proven that we can continue the work in this new reality that we live in, as well as addressing all of the pandemic-related needs that have come up,” Sabadosa said.

Reaching out

The pandemic has allowed state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to be more engaged with her constituents, she said. Her office has received an influx of messages and calls since the start of the pandemic and hired an additional full-time worker in her constituent services department.

Comerford hosted a 90-minute virtual town hall in December to invite residents in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district to ask questions and share their ideas about what they think the state senator should address in the 2021-2022 legislative session.

During the town hall, Comerford also previewed some of the bills she had planned to file, including an omnibus food security bill and a bill to improve environmental health.

“I do think that we’re doing our best to reach people and have people be able to reach us,” she said. “Public health is paramount. I think we have to continue to be innovative, continue to experiment with new forms of reaching people. We have to be painstaking in our own listening.”

From answering phone calls to personally responding to each email she receives, Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, has sometimes spent 12 hours a day in front of a computer screen. The impact of the pandemic has made the job more fulfilling, Blais said.

“As a public servant, this work is critically important in terms of making sure that we’re there for our constituents, that we’re caring for them, that we are connecting them with the services they might need, and we’re bringing their voices to the State House to bear on policy and regulations,” Blais said.

Parts of Blais’ district does not have broadband access, so she made it a priority to communicate over the phone and keep her cellphone on hand at all hours of the day. For western Massachusetts residents, Blais said, it can be difficult to travel to the State House to testify in person in support of legislation. Post-pandemic, she hopes a mix of in-person and virtual hearings, as well as office hours, will continue.

Rep. Daniel Carey, D-Easthampton, is also looking forward to meeting with people in his community face to face.

“You can have more informal banter among participants when you’re in a room together than when you’re speaking on Zoom, and you can pick up more of people’s nonverbal communication and body language,” he said. “Stuff like that is just totally gone when you’re online.”

Kami Rieck writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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