At a time when other voters around the country are choosing who will represent them in their state legislatures, the voters of Bedford have little to decide: neither Ken Gordon in the House nor Mike Barrett in the Senate is facing an opponent.
This week The Citizen caught up with both State Representative Gordon and State Senator Barrett to ask what it’s like to run unopposed, what they’re doing with the time they would otherwise spend campaigning, and what they would say to Bedford voters if they were campaigning.
“Doing the job and campaigning are not that different,” Rep. Gordon observed. Both involve “being accessible to the public” and “continuing to work with our residents”. He sees constituent services, i.e., troubleshooting how residents interact with state government, as a constant and central part of his job. Early in the pandemic, he offered as an example, his office was fielding 10-20 calls a week from people who needed help navigating the state’s new online unemployment system. “Campaigning means that you take the things that you do anyway and put them on a card,” he said. “I don’t do anything different. I just don’t get to talk about it as much.”
Senator Barrett described campaigning as “a lot of fun, because typically you’re meeting a lot of people”, but observed that due to the pandemic he’d mostly be campaigning by phone, which is “not as satisfying” because “I love going door to door.”
He’s not having trouble staying busy, though, because he’s leading the Senate side of a conference committee that is trying to harmonize the two very different climate bills that passed in the Massachusetts House and the Senate. “It’s taking all my time.” Working out a compromise when the bills are so different, he said, isn’t the usual split-the-difference process, but “trading apples for oranges”, which he finds far more difficult to negotiate. “I’d have been hard-pressed to do both. If I’d had a serious race, I don’t know how I’d have juggled it.”
If he were running against an opponent, Barrett told us, he would keep the focus on climate change, and try to make the election “a referendum on progressive climate policy”.
Rep. Gordon is also working on legislation. Building on his background in employment law, he would like to extend worker rights in two ways: One bill he is writing would create a legal presumption that a frontline worker who contracts Covid-19 was infected on the job, removing any doubt of coverage under worker’s compensation. The second would limit the rights employers can ask workers to sign away when they are hired, for example, stipulating that issues be resolved under the laws of some other state. “Massachusetts law should apply to all Massachusetts workers,” he said.
Both are staying involved in the election through other people’s campaigns. Each has allies in the legislature that he supports, and Barrett is also involved in Pennsylvania, where Democrats hope to regain control of the legislature.
Each has a project or issue that he talked about excitedly and shifted back to whenever the conversation flagged. For Gordon, it is his participation in the Middlesex County Restoration Center Commission (which also includes Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno and is co-chaired by Middlesex Country Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian). The purpose of the proposed center would be to divert people in crisis (for example, those with substance abuse or mental health issues) from the criminal justice system to the public services they need, preferably reaching them before incidents that could lead to arrest.
Barrett kept returning to his climate bill, which (in the Senate version he supports) would mandate that the state vehicle fleet be zero-emission by 2027 and that public transportation buses be electric by 2030. “I’m terrified by climate change,” he said. “I don’t need an opponent to keep me thinking about that.”
Running unopposed, Barrett also noted, is not that unusual in Massachusetts, where Democrats have such an advantage that Republicans don’t contest all the races. In some cases, he said, this allows a senator to “fall behind where the voters are”, but for the most part he reports being impressed by his colleagues, who are into their work and “drawing on a well of idealism” to motivate themselves. You usually know by April whether you’re going to have an opponent, he said, and then “if you’re a policy wonk, you turn to policy.”