Jack Patrick Lewis won his first state election in 2016 and is the State Representative for the Seventh Middlesex District (Ashland and Framingham). YDMA talked to him about how Massachusetts needs to do more for immigrants’ rights, and the role of advocacy groups in state-level policymaking. We also talked about the dangers of complacency and tips for campaigning this midterm.
Mina Pollmann: What state level issues are you working on that you want voters to be more aware of? What do you want them to know about it?
Representative Jack Patrick Lewis: One of the bills I am working on this year is a priority of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugees Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), one of the statewide refugee organizations. While we are fighting the big fights to protect families from being torn apart, we are also working on issues that aren’t as attention-grabbing, as headline-grabbing. One of those issues is that of foreign-trained medical professionals: people who are trained in other countries, as medics, nurses, or doctors, in countries like Iraq, Syria, or Russia, who are now immigrants here—many of whom are refugees here.
The legislation forms a commission to examine the regulations that make it difficult, unfortunately, for people with medical licensing in other countries to be able to practice medicine here. I’ve met Iraqi medics who worked with the US government as medics and translators during the war who, now because it is no longer safe for them or their families to live in Iraq, are refugees in the United States. But their medical license doesn’t transfer over, so they’re trying to find jobs doing other things. There is a large number of medical professionals who are driving taxis, who are working in stores. These are fine places of work, but when you’ve devoted your entire life to medicine, and then to not be able to pursue it because you worked with the US government during the invasion of your country…
These aren’t the things that grab headlines, but organizations like MIRA are great because they fight the big fights while also working with communities where they are and on what they need. MIRA has two priorities this year, the Safe Communities Act, which we are going to keep fighting for, and this foreign-trained medical professionals commission, which I was honored to be the lead sponsor of. That’s one of the big things I’ve been working on this year.
These aren’t the things that grab headlines, but organizations like MIRA are great because they fight the big fights while working with communities where they are and on what they need.
(Editor’s Note: While this interview was conducted prior to the end of the legislative session, we briefly spoke with Rep. Lewis in early August about the reality that while the creation of this commission was in health care bills that passed both the House and Senate, the appointed Conference Committee was not able to reach a compromise on the overall legislation before the end of formal session. Lewis commented, “While I am extremely disappointed that the Conference Committee was unable to reach a compromise on this larger piece of legislation, I remain committed to advocated for the creation of this commission in the months and years ahead.”)
Pollmann: What’s the role of or relationship with advocacy groups like MIRA in the state legislative process?
Lewis: There are groups that largely work outside of this building, groups that work on campaigns and make endorsements, and then there are groups that work very much inside the building. There’s often great overlap: many groups have lobbyists inside the building and a PAC outside. Those groups are often the larger ones—like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Sierra Club.
I appreciate knowing that they are in the building on a regular basis; I know who their advocates are. I also know that if I have a question, and I want to meet local people who are committed to that issue, they know exactly who those people are and they can invite those people in to talk to me. If I’m not doing what they wish I were doing, they’ll hold me accountable by having those same local people come in—which is also important. These organizations also play a role in the electoral process.
I hope and wish elected officials strive to strengthen partnerships with organizations doing the advocacy work. A lot of the major bills we work on originate with these organizations. MIRA wants to advocate for foreign-trained medical professionals, so they take a stab at writing some language, they approach legislators, and we partner together on it. And I like that relationship. There are other organizations I’ve reached out to because while I may have ideas, they have been working on these issues prior to my being elected, and they will be working on these issues long after me. My goal is to work with my constituents and these organizations, and figure out what’s best for the Commonwealth overall.
Immigrant protections under Trump—we need to do more. We need to do more. It’s not the most politically advantageous for some of my colleagues who live in districts that voted for Donald Trump, where their constituents support his policies, but if we can’t support our residents as State Representatives, I don’t know what we’re doing here.
Pollmann: In your time in the House, what are the issues with which you have been the happiest about the progress made, and what issues do you think still need work?
Lewis: Let me start with the issues where more can be done. Immigrant protections under Trump—we need to do more. We need to do more. Families are afraid. Kids are afraid they will come home from school and their parents won’t be there. Parents are afraid—you hear horror stories of other parents being picked up at bus stops. We live in a scary world.
While immigration is very much a federal issue, the state needs to do more. It’s not the most politically advantageous for some of my colleagues who live in districts that voted for Donald Trump, where their constituents support his policies, but if we can’t support our residents as State Representatives, I don’t know what we’re doing here. I hope we continue to strive to do a better job.
And on environmental policy, we could do better. I think in Massachusetts we pride ourselves on being number one in education, number one in environmental regulation, number one in gun safety, all these things. But I fear that we allow ourselves to grow complacent because we think of ourselves as number one, when in reality, states like California, New York, Illinois, and Washington are passing legislation that we’re not passing. When we start comparing ourselves to states like Oklahoma, I get nervous. I want to know that we’re competing with California, New York, and Illinois.
Ideally, I want to know that we’re competing with countries like Germany and Japan. If we compare our public transportation to the lowest common denominator, then of course we’re the best. But trains arrive on time in Germany—and they do so even when it’s raining and it’s cold. There’s no excuse.
I fear that we allow ourselves to grow complacent because we think of ourselves as number one, when in reality, states like California, New York, Illinois, and Washington are passing legislation that we’re not passing.
Pollmann: And for what issues are you happy with the progress seen?
Lewis: Oh, yes, happy with. We’re definitely making efforts to be prepared for whatever the Supreme Court might do around reproductive justice. We just repealed old abortion laws that were still on the books. There was some awful laws that made it illegal to have an affair, made it illegal to access birth control if you weren’t married, made it illegal to access abortion. We’ve repealed those rules.
We’ve passed legislation to ensure privacy around medical decisions, and passed some legislation requiring that birth control continue to be available without a copay even if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. We’re doing better on some fronts, but we can’t grow complacent. We need to be out and in front on these things.
I support the core values of the Democratic Party, and for me, those are providing people with opportunities, supporting people with a solid social safety net, striving towards universal health care, working to have sensible environmental regulations, protecting a woman’s right to choose.
Pollmann: What does it mean for you to be a Democrat? What called you to the Democratic Party?
Lewis: My values are more aligned with the Democratic Party. If I ever questioned that, this current President confirmed that for me. Being a Democrat doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything. There is a Party platform, but most Democrats don’t agree with 100% of it. But I support the core values of the Democratic Party, and for me, those are providing people with opportunities, supporting people with a solid social safety net, striving towards universal health care, working to have sensible environmental regulations, protecting a woman’s right to choose. And to be honest, as an out gay man in my early 30s, I have seen the Republican Party in my lifetime act as one of the major roadblocks to my being able to get married and have a family.
I’m happy as a member of the Democratic Party, but sometimes we need to get our own house in order. Before we worry about Republicans, even here in Massachusetts, there are some Democrats that we need to invite into careful reflection about what it means to share our values.
Pollmann: When people talk about you, what do you what them to think of?
Lewis: I strive to make sure everything I do gets connected back to the district. Ashland and Framingham, for me. I only come into Boston a couple days a week so that I can spend the other days meeting with people for coffee, having lunch at the senior center, going to events at local schools. Making sure that I’m in the community so that people know that I’m accessible—that they can stop me at Trader Joe’s while I’m shopping—is paramount to me. I hope people will see that and understand that.
I don’t agree with my constituents on every issue, but I want them to know that I read every email that comes in, I listen to every message that comes in, and I strive to respond to those as honestly and openly as possible even when we don’t agree.
When it comes to issues, youth health and wellness have been very close to my heart. I have worked with young people in different capacities, and I want to take those experiences to what I’m doing here now. By extension, healthy youth require great education programs. Healthy youth require great public health. Healthy youth require sensible gun regulations. By putting young people as one of my priorities, we are touching many other communities at the same time.
Healthy youth require great education programs. Healthy youth require great public health. Healthy youth require sensible gun regulations. By putting young people as one of my priorities, we are touching many other communities at the same time.
Pollmann: How can voters get to know their representatives better?
Lewis: One of the great things about the state legislature is that all the bills we file, all the amendments we file, are available online. You can get a glimpse of the issues that most excite your State Representative or your State Senator by looking at what bills they file, and what are the bills they file year after year. Many of us are committed to everything from fighting for better health insurance to insuring that immigrants have better protections to reproductive justice. But most of us don’t file bills as the lead sponsor on all three of those topics—or any of the other 60 topics that interest us.
I encourage people to take a stroll down what we are the lead sponsors on and what we are the co-sponsors on. I have a great interest in youth health and wellness, advocating for our immigrant communities, public health, and animal welfare. A lot of the bills I filed this year, the 12 or 13 bills I filed, fall into those categories. And then I cosponsored over 500 bills, and those include my commitment to a host of other things.
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?
Lewis: A lot of the political decisions that affect us are often at the local level and state level. We talk a lot about international politics, about national politics, and about the Supreme Court. Those things have a huge impact on our lives and the future, but most of the laws that are passed, most of the laws we must follow, are done at the local and state level.
It’s important to get involved at this level, not only because this is where many of the decisions are made, but also because to understand international politics, you need to understand national politics, and to do that, you need to have a grasp of federalism and state politics. It all ultimately boils down to local government, so it’s important for folks to find the avenue that interests them and get involved.
Pollmann: What is your advice for young people who want to get involved?
Lewis: Get involved. I first got involved in a campaign when I was 16. It was a gubernatorial campaign, and I was entrusted with real responsibilities at fundraisers. In college, I was involved in a presidential campaign, and led trips to Arizona from Utah to knock on doors, to canvass as an 18 or 19 year-old.
My first campaign was run by a student who hadn’t graduated college yet and someone who had just graduated high school. The two of them were given responsibilities of people double their age, and they were successful. My campaign was largely run—and won—by a lot of young people. And I will always be grateful for them.
My campaign was largely run—and won—by young people. And I will always be grateful for them.
We have people in this building who were elected at the age of 22, 23. Candidates are always looking for volunteers, always looking for interns. This summer my office has ten interns, and their average age is 16. There are opportunities to get involved if you have the time and the energy and the commitment. People just need to show up and share their skill set, learn and not be afraid of making mistakes.
Pollmann: Canvassing and phone banking are some of the most critical—but also difficult—parts of a campaign, and I was wondering if you could offer some advice around that specifically?
Lewis: Stick with it. Do it with a friend, because when you’re going door to door, a lot of people won’t be home, and you’ll have a lot of time by yourself. Find a way to get yourself excited by it; challenge yourself to hit a certain number of positive responses. Don’t let the haters get you down.
Just remember that these campaigns are won through these phone calls. Even if you knock on doors for three hours and only talk to one person, that matters. I won my first election by 64 votes. That’s a lot of door-knocking. Taking one afternoon off from the doors for me could have meant a very different election. It’s vitally important, and good candidates will celebrate the role you play.