Parting ways: Together, Kulik and Scibak close long chapter of public service

  • State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, center right, and his wife, Pat, right, talk with Lee and Alfred Hutt, of South Hadley, during a reception honoring Scibak, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 at South Hadley Town Hall. Scibak is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 2nd Hampshire District for 16 years. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Above, State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, at the Williamsburg Town Hall. Kulik is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 1st Franklin District for 25 years. 

  • At left, State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, talks with Ellie Klepacki, of South Hadley, during a reception honoring him, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 at South Hadley Town Hall. Scibak is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 2nd Hampshire District for 16 years. Klepacki served on the South Hadley Planning Board and the Canal Park Committee.

  • State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, at the Meekins Library in Williamsburg, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Kulik is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 1st Franklin District for 25 years.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, talks with Jeanette Teece, of South Hadley, during a reception honoring him, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 at South Hadley Town Hall. Scibak is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 2nd Hampshire District for 16 years. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Reps. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, left, and John Scibak, D-South Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF PHOTOS

  • A cake for state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, rests on a table during a reception honoring him, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 at South Hadley Town Hall. Scibak is retiring at the end of his term after serving the 2nd Hampshire District for 16 years. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 12/14/2018 11:55:44 PM

For years, they sat next to each other, attended the same events, and when it came time to retire, they did that together, too.

After announcing they were not running for office on consecutive days, state Reps. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and John Scibak, D-South Hadley, held their retirement parties one night apart.

The two are close friends — and more importantly, the last in a string of veteran western Massachusetts representatives to leave office, taking a legacy of regional advocacy and a combined 41 years of experience with them on their way out.

“The impressions they left have been unambiguously positive,” said Matt Szafranski, editor-in-chief for Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight. “They were dedicated to the issues people in their districts cared very deeply about … these areas that are very much activist communities felt like they had a voice.”

Former state rep. Ellen Story worked closely with the pair during her 24 years in the House representing Amherst, Pelham and part of Granby. She described them similarly — smart, hard workers, fighting not only for western Massachusetts, but their respective communities.

“We would ask for things together to have more clout and we liked each other which made working together very easy,” Story said. “I hope that will continue and think it will.”

“We all felt very privileged to represent western Mass. Lots of people in Boston have never been out here, so it’s important for us to stand up for it,” she added. 

Kulik, 68, has represented the sprawling 1st Franklin District, which covers 19 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties as well as the town of Chester in Hampden County. Scibak, 65, has represented Easthampton, South Hadley, Hadley and part of Granby in the 2nd Hampshire District. 

With their retirements, five veteran western Massachusetts legislators, including Story, have left office in the past three years with a combined 107 years in office. The late state representative Peter Kocot, D-Northampton died on Feb. 22; Story retired in 2016; former state senator Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, resigned in May after a Senate ethics investigation found that he failed to the protect the Senate from his estranged husband’s pattern of “disruptive, volatile, and abusive” behavior. On Jan. 2, five new legislators will take the oath of office during an inauguration ceremony at the Statehouse. 

Since announcing their retirements, Kulik and Scibak said many constituents have voiced concern over lost experience. Over time, recently retired legislators were able to build relationships and high levels of leadership that afforded western Massachusetts a loud voice on Beacon Hill, according to Szafranski.

“These were people that had been there for such a point that they were pretty much guaranteed positions on important committees,” said Szafranski. Kulik has been vice chair on the powerful  Ways and Means Committee, while Scibak was House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Higher Education. In these roles, they could affect significant changes to local funding and institutions.

“What I’ve told people is that I’m very confident in the reps coming in,” Kulik said in a recent interview. “Some influence may be gone for a while, but it’ll be back.”

Roots of advocacy

Both Kulik and Scibak came to western Massachusetts as outsiders and grew their political careers laying roots in their local communities.

Kulik moved to Worthington in 1977. Coming from Boston, he and his wife were searching for a rural area to build a new chapter in life.

“I started going to town meetings and observing how incredible local governments are,” said Kulik. “It was open, inclusionary, everyone was involved.”

Kulik started on the planning board and soon became a selectman, and served for almost 11 years. At that time, Kulik also became involved with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which took him to Beacon Hill as a statewide advocate on local issues. After becoming president of the association, he ran for state representative in 1993.

“I thought, ‘Why not try?’” he said. “I’ve been there 25 years now, elected 13 times.”

A Rhode Island native, Scibak arrived in South Hadley in 1981 with experience in the health care industry. He cut his teeth on the town’s solid waste committee and ran for the Select Board in 1989. He lost by 300 votes and ran again a few years later, winning. He never lost another election and has served in the Statehouse for the past 16 years.

In 2002, former state rep. Nancy Flavin, a Democrat from Easthampton, decided not to run for reelection to her House seat. Largely motivated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Scibak decided to run.

“What 9/11 really did for me was demonstrate how fragile life was,” Scibak said. “I didn’t want to live wondering, ‘What if?’”

Despite their shared advocacy for western Massachusetts, the men often focused on different causes.

Kulik was largely concerned with rural issues like agriculture and infrastructure. Some of his proudest accomplishments in office were gaining tax credits for dairy farmers and increasing the reach of broadband in the area.

Szafranski said one of the more important things Kulik consistently accomplished was securing state funding for local school transportation.

“Rural transportation was huge for Kulik. There are kids traveling dozens of miles to school and it’s a very expensive thing to maintain. They’ve never gotten as much as they’d like, but without what he’s been able to get, these towns would be virtually bankrupt,” he said.

“There is nobody who is looked at with more respect,” Scibak said of Kulik. “He always did things quietly and effectively, and represented his district well.”

Scibak gained a reputation as an advocate for people suffering from personal health or social issues. Living with hearing loss personally, he sponsored a bill that mandates insurance coverage for children with hearing loss. He also sponsored a bill that extended dental care access in the state.

“John has been a champion for people with health and social challenges,” Kulik said. “He really cares about people and has done whatever he could to cut through bureaucracy that prevents that.”

Szafranski emphasized the importance of Scibak’s role in higher education.

“A lot of people in his district work at or attend the local universities,” he said. “It really helped the district to have someone that the chancellor of UMass could bring into his office and request action on certain issues.”

Changing of the guard

Kulik and Scibak have tips for the incoming representatives: be accessible, read bills carefully, bring asparagus.

The last point is not quite as literal.

“Every year I would get some South Hadley asparagus and distribute it,” Scibak said. “It’s some of the best in the world … because of it, I would get to talk to people I might not otherwise have the chance to talk to.”

Following the September primary, the lawmakers said they have reached out to the representatives taking their seat, Scibak said.

State representative-elect Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said she’s relied on Kulik and Scibak for their institutional knowledge and as models for representation. She will be replacing Kulik as representative for the 1st Franklin District, while Daniel Carey, D-Easthampton, will be moving into Scibak’s seat in the 2nd Hampshire District. 

“They were incredibly accessible, always showed up,” Blais said. “They each emphasized how much they loved this job which was definitely evident in everything they did.”

Blais said all of the new reps know they have big shoes to fill.

“We’ve talked about it with each other,” Blais said. “We’re not going to be as influential right out of the gates, but we’re trying to work together.”

Kulik and Scibak said they’ve communicated the need to work as team with the new reps. The message appears to have been received.

“Someone made the comment recently, asking if we’re going to purchase a VW bus because we’ve been seen together so often,” Blais said. That someone turned out to be Szafranski.

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Kulik actually held two retirement parties: one in Greenfield with about 200 attendees and the other about half that size in his hometown of Worthington.

“I really just wanted to use it as an opportunity to thank my most basic supporters. There have been ups and downs through the years and I just felt like I needed to share my gratitude for having the opportunity to do it,” he said. “To put myself before the voters and get reelected a dozen times … it’s special.”

Scibak said he’s happy he is leaving in the same year as Kulik and the late Peter Kocot. Sometimes called the ‘Three Polish Amigos,’ the trio and their families grew close over the years. It was best that the three of them go out together, he said.

In their retirement, Kulik and Scibak will be moving apart. Scibak will soon leave to live in Sarasota, Florida, while Kulik plans to stay put. They both look forward to driving less without the mandatory cross-state commute, but have different ideas for how they’ll spend their time.

Kulik said he may finally pick up the guitar he bought years ago and learn how to play the instrument. Scibak said he will explore his passion for photography. Separately, both mentioned using some of their experience and possibly joining a local board or teaching.

Whatever comes next, they both said they plan to stay in close contact. 

Patrick Lovett writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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