Natalie Higgins won her first election in 2016 (which we were proud to endorse her in!), and is the State Representative for the Fourth Worcester District (Leominster) in Massachusetts. YDMA is excited by the opportunity to catch up with her and hear about the great work that she has been doing on Beacon Hill since. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss student loan debt, the importance of legislation to protect survivors of sexual assault, how Democrats need to make government responsiveness and accessibility a key selling point, and how young citizens can get involved in local politics.
Mina Pollmann: In a state as blue as Massachusetts, it can be easy for young voters to feel disengaged from the political process. Why do you think it is important for voters to care about state-level politics?
Representative Natalie Higgins: One of the first things I did as state representative was move my office hours to the local high school, every Friday morning at Leominster High School. The students asked if I would be willing to do that, and I was really excited because I met my state representative when I was a senior in high school. Before that, I didn’t know we had state representatives and certainly didn’t know what they did. I think as frustrating as it can be at the federal level, and it feels like nothing is getting done, we are actually doing a lot of work at the state and local levels, and it’s important to have everyone’s voices as a part of that conversation. Often, those state and local level changes can have more of a direct impact on folks. State representatives are normal community members, so people should take advantage of that and get to know us.
Pollmann: What agenda items do you want Massachusetts voters, especially younger voters, to pay attention to in the upcoming legislative session?
Higgins: An issue that is particularly important to me is student loan debt. I am a proud first-generation college student. I went to a public university and was one of the few that graduated debt free. The average graduate of a public university in Massachusetts graduates with $30,000 in debt – and that’s just for the Bachelor’s degree.
I talk about my own debt a lot. I went to law school; I have $140,000 in student debt. My student loan debt is actually bigger than my mortgage loan debt right now. Throw my partner’s in there, and we’ve got $220,000 in student loan debt. And based on the income we take home, we are not making payments on the principal. We are just paying down part of the interest. I think this is a huge issue: to look at ways we can have debt-free public higher education, so that our generation and future generations have the same shot that our parents did at succeeding; looking at ways to support folks with debt; a student loan borrower bill of rights; and making sure that the jobs we have are living wage jobs that have benefits, like paid family and medical leave. Those were two really important votes for me.
I think this is a huge issue: to look at ways we can have debt-free public higher education, so our generation and future generations have the same shot that our parents did at succeeding.
Pollmann: Speaking to broader political issues, when people talk about you, what do you what them to think of? What are the key issues and positions you want to be known for in the community?
Higgins: I think it’s less about the issues and more about being accessible. That folks feel comfortable calling me up. Folks don’t call me when they are having a good day – they call me when they are in crisis. And I want folks to not question that I am going to be there at the other end of the phone, taking them seriously, and finding a way to find a solution. Together, we really want our communities to thrive, and we want government to work for us. And that’s what I’m really committed to.
Folks don’t call me when they are having a good day – they call me when they are in crisis. And I want folks to not question that I am going to be there at the other end of the phone, taking them seriously, and finding a way to find a solution.
Pollmann: What is the biggest misconception about how Beacon Hill works that you would like to dispel? What surprised you the most about the state legislative process?
Higgins: I love to tell two stories about advocacy. I was a rape crisis center counselor for a decade. My first advocacy project ever around the State House was in college, and it was my senior project at UMass-Amherst. It was to get the 258E Harassment Prevention Bill passed. Up until 2009, sexual assault survivors could not get a restraining order if they did not have an intimate partner relationship with the perpetrator. Yes, 2009, in Massachusetts! It’s crazy, absolutely crazy.
The bill had been filed four other times. Advocates had been lobbying for the bill for ten years, and we would meet with legislators and they would say, “This is a huge gap in the law. We need to fix this. Why haven’t we fixed this?” And then, in every session, it would get caught at the end, and it just wouldn’t make it through. I was lucky enough to come in at the end when we were really looking at a grassroots solution, having all the rape crisis centers have in-district meetings with survivors in the community to share their stories and say, “I don’t feel safe going out grocery shopping or doing normal everyday things because I don’t have this protection, and I don’t know if I’m going to run into my perpetrator.”
We were ultimately successful, and that was really formative for me to see: Here’s a gap in the law, here’s a solution, here’s how we organize to make that happen. I always say, you have to be ready to fight for ten years for these things. There’s a reason it is a deliberative process. We have 160 people in the House and 40 people in the Senate that you have to convince this is a good idea. And it takes time, and it takes relationship-building.
There are times where you have to be ready to work that decade-long push to make these things happen, but also build those relationships so that when those opportunities present themselves, you can pass something that you thought might be a little more of a haul – because the timing is right, the messaging is right.
Fast forward to my first term in the legislature, and I filed a bill with another Representative, Carmine Gentile (D-Sudbury), for rape kit tracking. If a survivor doesn’t report their assault to the police right away, they still have a 15-year statute of limitations. We want to be able to make sure those survivors know where their kit is, know where their evidence is, so that they have the peace of mind and comfort of knowing it is ready for them, if and when they are ready to report the crime. That’s really important. And we thought it was going to take six years. It takes a million dollars to implement, we have to set up the software across the state, but it’s super, super necessary. But we were ready to keep filing it, and make that progress.
And then on the second day of the criminal justice reform debate, we both found out that some of the Republican members had taken our bill and filed it as an amendment – and left it pretty unchanged. It was a pretty amazing moment for us to go to leadership and say, “Hey, this is our bill and it’s really good. Can we get this done?” And they said, “Yeah, go write your maiden speech.”
There are times where you have to be ready to work that decade-long push to make these things happen, but also build those relationships so that when those opportunities present themselves, you can pass something that you thought might be a little more of a haul – because the timing is right, the messaging is right. This was in November of last year, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and it was really a great way for us as a House to say, “We understand what survivors are going through. We understand that it might not be safe for someone to report their assault right away. But we want to make sure you know we have your back when you are ready to do that.” And I am so, so proud that this was my first piece of legislation to get through, as someone who worked in the movement for a decade and as a survivor.
Pollmann: I was going to ask about your proudest accomplishment, but I’m guessing this one is it?
Higgins: That is definitely, 100% my proudest accomplishment. It was amazing to be able to share my story and say I chose not to report my assault to the police – that was my decision to make – and that it’s still counted. And what happened to me was still wrong. And to be able to say that to my colleagues, and to the other survivors out there who aren’t ready to come forward because it’s not safe for them, it’s not the right decision for them right now.
Pollmann: Emotionally, too. You might not be ready in that moment to report the assault.
Higgins: Yes, and it takes time to heal. It takes time to wrap yourself with a support network. For me, when I was a teen counselor at the rape crisis center, that was one of the reasons I wanted to go to law school, because I saw how the legal system is meant to protect our community, and yet sometimes it misses the mark. For so many of my teen survivors, it took too long. It was really re-traumatizing to have to keep telling their story over and over again. At some point, when you’re 16 and you’re trying to navigate high school, you just want it to go away. You don’t want to deal with it anymore. I’m really thankful for the dialogue that is happening nationally and within the state to understand how trauma impacts survivors, and that when someone takes back their story, it doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen, it just means that right now that is the easiest way to continue the healing process.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to law school was because I saw how the legal system is meant to protect our community, and yet sometimes it misses the mark.
Pollmann: Could you speak a bit more about being a woman in politics, and why it’s important to have more women representatives?
Higgins: Yes, I heard this quip from a former female colleague of mine: that we will have true equality when even mediocre women can run for office – and win. That really struck a chord with me. Women are held to a different standard, and we have to be on our A-game all the time.
There are different expectations for men and women in politics. I am turning 30 this month, and I’m not married and I don’t have kids. And it’s funny how that cuts across voters in different ways. We had someone at the door, who asked, “Is she married? Does she have kids?” And the volunteer replied, “No…?” hesitantly, not sure how it was going to go, and then he said, “Oh great. Then that means she has all the time in the world to dedicate to this.” Then there are other folks who are like, “Oh, you’re not married? You don’t have kids? Go do that. You can’t really represent us until you have those lived experiences.” And I’m like, no, I still think I’m a pretty good representative even if I haven’t done that yet.
I’m going to have to navigate potentially starting a family while I’m in this role. I think that’s important, because we have plenty of male colleagues who have had kids in the last year, and they don’t get asked, “Can you still handle the job with that?” I think the more we get women involved in politics, the more we can have conversations like this about different expectations.
“We will have true equality when even mediocre women can run for office – and win.”
Pollmann: What does it mean for you to be a Democrat? What issues called you to this side of the aisle?
Higgins: I grew up in a working-class family where government didn’t feel like it worked for us. We were struggling; we didn’t know how to access the programs that it seemed like other folks had access to. Being a Democrat means that I believe that government should be a resource for communities, that everyone should have the same opportunity to thrive and succeed, and that there are some basic needs that should be met – a living wage, housing, healthcare, food. That’s a role that government should play for those who can’t provide for those things on their own.
Pollmann: Why do you think Donald Trump appeals to the working class, and how can Democrats position themselves as the advocates of more effective solutions to their concerns?
Higgins: I actually talk about this a lot, because I have plenty of folks who supported my campaign who supported Donald Trump, and who probably continue to still support Donald Trump. I think it’s important for us to understand that the reasons that they supported his candidacy are real – economic inequality; feeling like they can’t get ahead; feeling like their kids aren’t going to have the same shot as they do; and that government isn’t listening to them, isn’t representing them, isn’t accessible. Those are all the things that I ran to change.
Being a Democrat means that I believe that government should be a resource for communities, that everyone should have the same opportunity to thrive and succeed, and that there are some basic needs that should be met – a living wage, housing, healthcare, food. That’s a role that government should play for those who can’t provide for those things on their own.
We need to figure out how to do our messaging better. Government should be responsive, and listening to you, and available to you. We need to tackle income inequality. I think the biggest issue is how to find ways to invest in our public goods – like infrastructure, transit, and education – things that impact all of us every single day? And how do we make sure that we still have really good jobs in our communities? Having those conversations, continuing to show up, continuing to be open and understand where those concerns are coming from is important, because it’s really just based on the economic inequality, and in Massachusetts, it’s so stark.
I represent a gateway city in central Massachusetts. Our voices are not heard to the same level that the voices from Boston are heard. They just have more representation, they have a larger share of the population – that’s just how the numbers work. So we have to be organized, and we have to make sure that our stories are being told. That’s one of the things I ran on, and I wanted to make sure that that perspective – being from a working-class family from north central Massachusetts, from a small, gateway city – is represented, and our issues are taken seriously. I think we can’t lose sight of the frustration with government, and that the Democratic Party is the Party to provide those solutions. Economic inequality should not be the norm, and folks should not be seeing stagnant wages. We really need to make sure everyone has access to opportunity and the ability to thrive.
Pollmann: With the campaign season coming up, could you share a funny or inspiring story about that experience?
Higgins: The best part of campaigning is all of the friendships that I’ve made. I’m so fascinated by how much people are willing to share at their door or on the phone. And for every rough door or call you have, you have so many more amazing ones. You just don’t connect with people one-on-one in this way anymore, and especially with the door-knocking, you get to have these amazing conversations and find out what motivates folks.
The Democratic Party needs to figure out how to do our messaging better. Government should be responsive, and listening to you, and available to you. Having those conversations, continuing to show up, continuing to be open and understand where their concerns are coming from is important, because it’s really just based on the economic inequality, and in Massachusetts, it’s so stark.
Pollmann: What is your advice for people who are interested in politics and want to get more involved?
Higgins: Talk to folks who you admire, who you think are doing a great job. Ask for one-on-one’s. Ask to get coffee. I do that all the time. I love doing that.
Don’t be discouraged when someone tells you not to run. I was told not to run. There’s this story that women need to be asked seven times to run. I was told, by multiple people I have a lot of respect for, that I was crazy, that I shouldn’t run. But I’m here. I won. It worked. Figure out who are the people who really support you – for me it was my family and the close friends who believed in me and knew that I had a positive vision for the community. They were there for me at a time when folks in the traditional political landscape weren’t. I’m forever thankful for the 1,475 people who showed up to vote, and to believe in me, in that primary.
Also, connect with resources. I did the Emerge training. Some of my family members did MassAlliance, and we learned how to run a real grassroots campaign. Especially for young women who are Democrats, who are thinking about running or running campaigns one day, Emerge is a really wonderful program.