Dylan Fernandes won his first election in 2016 and is the State Representative of Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket in Massachusetts. YDMA caught up with him to hear about his first two years representing the “most beautiful” district in the state. We spoke further about his passion for policies to address climate change and the importance of young people getting involved.
Mina Pollmann: What got you personally involved in politics?
Representative Dylan Fernandes: When I was really young, my mentor was my aunt. She was involved in politics, and that got me first interested. But I always had a sense of fighting for social and economic equality. I come from this classic “American Dream” story, where my father was one of nine brothers and sisters who grew up in a really poor Portuguese family on the Cape. College was never an option for him; he didn’t even graduate high school. But he started a small business, worked to see it grow, and witnessed the reward of his hard work as I graduated from college—the first person in this very large Portuguese family to do so. Giving back to this community, Falmouth, where I grew up, and the region that helped foster and grow my own family’s story, was very important to me. And so is sticking up for people that come from lesser means and don’t have as much of a voice in our democracy. That’s why I got involved.
Pollmann: Can you tell me more about your district, and what it is like representing them?
Fernandes: My district is awesome. I mean, it really is. It’s definitely the most beautiful district in Massachusetts, and it’s not just me saying it. Everyone else in the building actually agrees. I represent Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Falmouth; they are profoundly beautiful communities, but they also face a lot of challenges.
They are very seasonal. Tourists and seasonal homeowners from all around the world are there during the summertime, but during the wintertime, we face a lot of challenges, especially around housing affordability. The average home price in Nantucket is $2.4 million. So how does someone who grew up there, graduated from college, and goes back to work at the local police station or as a firefighter afford to live there? It’s basically impossible.
Martha’s Vineyard has similarly high home prices, and the Cape is not far behind, so we face a lot of challenges there that people don’t realize. When they think about the Cape and Islands, they think about the mom opening the back door and the kids piling out on to the lawn, running down to the beach, and just having this relaxed, comfortable lifestyle. For three months out of the year, for the people who are seasonal residents or tourists, that’s true. But for the full-time residents, the people who work there, they are working 80 hours a week during the summer months because that’s when they make their money, and they really struggle to get by through the entire year. Fighting for those people has been really important to me.
Giving back to this community, Falmouth, where I grew up, and the region that helped foster and grow my own family’s story, was very important to me. And so is sticking up for people that come from lesser means and don’t have as much of a voice in our democracy.
Pollmann: When people talk about you, what do you what them to think of? What are the key issues and positions you want to be identified with?
Fernandes: To me, as a millennial, there is no issue that is going to impact my generation and my children’s generation more than climate change. That’s something that we are really focused on addressing at the State House.
The first bill that I passed through the House, which was the first climate bill we did this year, was a bill joining Massachusetts on to the Paris Climate Agreement as a non-party stakeholder. It’s really important that we send a message to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the nation, that the handful of climate deniers in Washington don’t speak for us here in Massachusetts.
One of the things that I’d really like to see next session is a price on carbon emissions—a carbon fee. That’s something we’re really going to be pushing for, along with a host of other clean energy measures.
Other issues specific to our district are housing affordability, the opioid and heroin epidemic, and health care access in general. If I had to pick top three or four, those would be it.
Pollmann: What has been the highlight of your time in office so far?
Fernandes: The highlight was being the first new representative to pass a major piece of legislation. It was a standalone bill; it wasn’t an amendment. The entire body was voting on the bill, having Massachusetts join the Paris Climate Agreement. I got to carry the bill on the floor and give my maiden speech about it. I was very grateful to Leadership for letting me do that, and it allowed me to reflect on all the work it really took to get here in the first pace. It really just made me feel humbled by all the support from the district that allowed me to have that moment. Things are pretty pragmatic and calculated here, but that was an emotional moment for me.
It’s really important that we send a message to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the nation, that the handful of climate deniers in Washington don’t speak for us here in Massachusetts. One of the things that I’d really like to see next session is a price on carbon emissions—a carbon fee.
Pollmann: Looking forward to the next legislative session, what agenda items do you want Massachusetts voters, especially younger voters, to pay attention to?
Fernandes: When it comes to young voters in particular, it’s very important that they are engaged in the process and understand how their government works. There is so much at stake for millennials and Generation Z because frankly, our generations are objectively worse off than our parents’ generation, and even the generation before that. If you look at the past 80 years in American history, every single generation was better off than their parents were. We are going to be the first for whom that is no longer true when you look at all the most important metrics—housing, health care, the environment, student loan debt.
We didn’t create this mess. Our parents and our parents’ parents created a huge mess and left us with it. It’s really incumbent on us to fix it. You’ve seen this with the March for Our Lives, where a bunch of young people were looking around and said, “What the heck has been going on here? How did you guys create a system that allowed for rampant gun violence, especially in schools, to occur? This doesn’t make any sense. Let’s fix it.” We need that moment of realization and action on all the issues that I listed before, and we need it to be started by young people who are frustrated about how policies have left them and their generation behind.
Pollmann: In a state as blue as Massachusetts, it can be easy for young voters to feel disengaged from the process. Why do you think it is important for voters to care about state politics?
Fernandes: Especially right now, the work being done at the state level is incredibly meaningful because at the national level there’s a lot of gridlock and, frankly, a lot of the policies are going in the wrong direction. At the state level, as a Democrat, you have more power than a lot of the Democrats in Congress do. As a representative of 40,000 people in a small, far-flung place in our state, I have a lot of power to create change that affects six million people here in Massachusetts; that is incredibly important and meaningful. It’s important that blue states show how Democrats can lead the nation forward, on really innovative policies at a time when the President and Republicans in Congress are rolling back a lot of really strong initiatives put forward by the Obama administration.
Especially right now, the work being done at the state level is incredibly meaningful because at the national level there’s a lot of gridlock and, frankly, a lot of the policies are going in the wrong direction.
Pollmann: What are the key issues that drew you to run for the Democratic Party, and what are the issues the Democratic Party needs to focus on going forward?
Fernandes: It’s really important that the Party embrace all of the large social movements that are going on right now and treat them like they are a part of the Democratic Party. The March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, the March for Science—it’s really important that the Party embrace and bring all these people into the larger tent because our values are aligned and the Party can learn something from these movements in terms of capturing energy and enthusiasm for progressive values, energy, and enthusiasm against the rollback of these values by the Trump administration and Republicans.
The Party also needs to be more progressive. We need to have new, fresh, younger voices be able to speak out and have a place in the Party. Look, I tell young people, nobody ever gives you power. You have to go out and take it. It’s also on younger people to, if they’re frustrated, run for something, or volunteer on a campaign for someone whose values align with yours—get involved somehow. It’s on young people who feel kind of left out, and like their state or their town or their country isn’t moving in the direction they want it to, to get involved.
The March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, the March for Science—it’s really important that the Party embrace and bring all these people into the large tent because our values are aligned and the Party can learn something from these movements in terms of capturing energy and enthusiasm for progressive values, energy and enthusiasm against the rollback of these values by the Trump administration and Republicans.
Pollmann: How do you engage with Republicans in your district?
Fernandes: That’s a good question. I had a few people during the election who came up to me, and told me they were voting for me and for Donald Trump. I was like, “Okay?” (Laughing.) On the local level, people don’t really care. 90%, if not more, of local issues are nonpartisan. The question is just, what is best for the nine towns and three counties I represent? Those aren’t Republican or Democratic issues. Those are just good policy issues on what’s best for the residents of the district.
And for the Republicans and conservatives who voted for me, I think they wanted to see someone who brought a lot of energy to the job, brought some new ideas, and brought a commitment to working really, really hard for the people of the district. That, at the end of the day, was what won over a lot of the more conservative voters. We won by a large margin in both the primary and the general elections, so I imagine there were some Republican voters who voted for me.
I have no problem going up and speaking to Republicans in my district because I have no problem speaking to anyone in my district about where I stand on the issues. It’s really important for any representative to be engaging and open and transparent about where they stand on the issues, and to give their constituents an opportunity to let them know how they feel, whether they agree with you or not. I’ve never shied away from going up to people that might disagree with me and chatting with them.
It’s really important for any representative to be engaging and open and transparent about where they stand on the issues, and to give their constituents an opportunity to let them know how they feel, whether they agree with you or not.
Pollmann: In the two years you’ve been in office, what surprised you most about the legislative process?
Fernandes: The committee process was interesting to me—how many committees a bill has to go through before it gets to the final vote, and the advocacy through each of those processes. It’s a long process to move a bill in this building—and that’s a good thing. These bills can change the lives of six million people, so it’s important that a lot of people have vetted them. The flip side of that, of course, is that sometimes, in your mind, you’re thinking, “This is so obvious. Why don’t we do this? This makes all the sense in the world.” And yet it gets held up for a while… It’s the right process, and we do things correctly here in terms of really thoroughly vetting legislation, but the flip side of that is that it’s frustrating how slow it can be at times.
Pollmann: What advice would you give to young people considering going into politics?
Fernandes: A couple of things. First, for any young person thinking about running for office, it’s really important to be thoughtful about it, to plan out your run. Certainly, write a whole plan. Be strategic about it. But, also, you have very little to lose as a young person.
I ran for office when I was 26. I don’t have any kinds, don’t own a home, don’t have to make mortgage payments. I fortunately didn’t have any student debt. The worst-case scenario is that you run, you put yourself out there, you learn a lot about the process, you meet a lot of good people—and you lose. Then you go back to doing whatever you were doing before. You’re going to be fine.
Whether it’s running for office or being an entrepreneur, starting a new business, your 20s provide an incredible opportunity that is very low-risk for you to just jump in and do it. And I would recommend that every young person—in their teens, 20s, 30s—take a calculated risk about something they are passionate about. Because you have very little to lose, and it will be very tough to do this in your 40s—when you have kids, you have a job, and you have a bunch of responsibilities.
You have very little to lose as a young person running for office. The worst-case scenario is that you run, you put yourself out there, you learn a lot about the process, you meet a lot of good people—and you lose. Then you go back to doing whatever you were doing before. You’re going to be fine. And I would recommend that every young person take a calculated risk about something they are passionate about.
The other thing that is really important that young people are aware of is that, as Steve Jobs said, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it.” It’s true. It’s really not that big of a delta between peoples’ intelligence, and this entire world you live in was treated people just like you. So don’t be intimidated by that, and don’t be intimidated when you look around and see these large institutions and these huge businesses. Don’t think that you are too small or too inexperienced to be a part of it. This was a really important realization for me.