Beacon Hill Spotlights: Sen. Julian Cyr

Julian Cyr won his first state election in 2016 and is the State Senator for the Cape and Islands District in Massachusetts. YDMA spoke to him about health care challenges in Massachusetts and the importance of staying focused on the state level. We also talked about how young people matter in many purple districts, and the importance of getting involved in state and local level campaigns this midterm.

 

Mina Pollmann: When people talk about you, what do you what them to think of?

Senator Julian Cyr: Broadly speaking, my hope is that people see me as progressive, as a hard worker who is collaborative in my approach to solving problems because I want to get things done. I’m also part of a group of millennial lawmakers we have here in Massachusetts—we’re energetic, and we’re bringing a fresh perspective. I am also the only out LGBTQ member of the State Senate at the moment.

A real interest in public health and health equity is what brought me to this work. You look at the health issues we’re grappling with—whether it’s the opioid epidemic in the headlines today or health issues in vulnerable populations—that’s something that I’ve worked really hard to highlight and champion. 

And I’m proud to be a Cape Codder. I feel very fortunate to represent that part of the world. Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket are beautiful. But they are also places that have really steep challenges. People think of that part of the state as what it’s like right now—those eight, ten weeks of the summer when it’s really busy and idyllic, and there’s a lot of money there. But our communities are really struggling, and I hope that people are able to see that through my work and what I try to champion and support.

Pollmann: Could you talk more specifically about the health challenges in Massachusetts and what initiatives are needed to deal with this challenge?

Cyr: Compared to our peer states, Massachusetts is doing very well on health indicators. We’ve made a long-term investment in both public health and health care access. There are a lot of things that are working here. But if you drill down and look at health equity or health disparities—pick the metric, whether you want to look at tobacco use, at early childhood health, at HIV infections—it disproportionately impacts low-income people, people of color, and immigrants in Massachusetts. So there’s still a lot of work to do there.

Also, in Massachusetts, we’ve done a good job of guaranteeing health care access to people, but it’s costing us a lot of money. We spend more money per capita in Massachusetts on health care than any other state in the country, except Alaska, so that’s something we need to get a handle on.

I filed an amendment to the health care bill that we debated in the Senate last November that would have the State look at the costs of having a single-payer system versus the system we have now—basically, a benchmark study.

A real interest in public health and health equity is what brought me to this work. You look at the health issues we’re grappling with—whether it’s the opioid epidemic in the headlines today or health issues in vulnerable populations—that’s something that I’ve worked really hard to highlight and champion. 

Pollmann: What is your highlight or proudest accomplishment in the time you have been in office?

Cyr: The governor is going to sign a bill tomorrow [July 25, 2018] on municipal police training. That was an issue that I came to learn about while in this job. As it turns out, Massachusetts had never really provided adequate funding to support this training. We’re asking police to do more and more—whether it’s training for additional police responsibilities or meeting requirements that we passed in the criminal justice reform bill, so it makes sense that the Legislature provided a dedicated revenue stream for this important training.

The other big accomplishment of which I’m really proud is creating the Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund. As the result of a 2011 lawsuit, Cape Cod towns are legally mandated to develop and build wastewater management systems to clean up nitrogen pollution in our bays and estuaries.  With an estimated price tag of $4 billion to clean up and maintain good water quality, this Fund was developed for Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties to provide funding assistance for critical municipal or regional water pollution abatement projects. I worked collaboratively with our Cape and Islands delegation, business leaders, environmentalists, and local leaders to create this fund, which will provide one billion dollars in state assistance to the $4 billion problem of wastewater on Cape Cod.

In the criminal justice reform bill we passed and the governor signed, I was able to get protections for transgender people and for gender non-conforming people. I’m proud of that. When we worked on recreational marijuana, I was able to get language in there that allows small businesses to compete in this emerging market so it will not just be big corporations participating. There has to be access for smaller-scale businesses.  

Being a Democrat is about fairness. The Democratic Party is a big tent, and it has plenty of challenges and flaws. But it has this commitment to fairness and a real acknowledgement that we’re all in it together.

Pollmann: What does it mean for you to be a Democrat? What drew you to the Party?

Cyr: Being a Democrat is about fairness. My family and my own background—including as an LGBTQ person—drew me to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a big tent, and it has plenty of challenges and flaws. But it has this commitment to fairness and a real acknowledgement that we’re all in it together. In American culture and society, we like to focus on the individual. That’s good, but there is no way that I would be in this position without what others have done for me, and I think Democrats embrace that spirit. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.

Pollmann: What is the vision or the future of the Party? What does the Party need to emphasize to regain the trust of those people who were persuaded by Donald Trump’s appeal?

Cyr: The hard part is that we’ve seen a movement focus on the federal government, especially  the presidency. But this movement of allowing governance by twitter, distractions, an dlies coupled with a complacent Congress is frustrating and could be dangerous. This movement, it just sucks a lot of the air out of the room.

So many of the decisions that directly affect people’s lives happen at the state or the local level. Democrats will do well to really focus on localism. That’s what we’ve been doing on the Cape and Islands since I became State Senator: we’ve really focused on rebuilding the Party on Cape Cod and supporting candidates who are running.

The positions are not always necessarily partisan, but it matters who’s running, who’s serving on those planning boards and select boards. This creates a vital pipeline of talent for those who are going to serve. Strategically, it’s finding candidates that share our values and then getting them elected at the local level.  We need to get really good at doing that, and we haven’t been. And the Republicans have been good at that.

The hard part is that we’ve seen a movement to focus on the federal government, especially the presidency. This movement, it just sucks a lot of the air out of the room. So many of the decisions that directly affect people’s lives happen at the state or the local or the municipl level. Democrats will do well to really focus on localism.

More broadly on the vision, I’m biased, but I came into this world through Deval Patrick and his really strong message about a collective spirit, about respect and dignity, and I think we need to have more of that and more of working together.

The real challenge is that Donald Trump is so outrageous and so dangerous. The twin challenge is that I could spend all day tweeting about Trump and end up not  doing my day job, but I also don’t want to normalize it and ignore that. But I know what my lane is: focusing on the job. Nine of the ten things I do are not partisan things, so doing a really good job representing my district will build trust and support in my constituency for me to go out to bat for really important values, values that are important to me and to the Democratic Party.

Pollmann: The challenge of this time is getting involved in politics without feeling polarized. You either completely disengage and check out of the whole process because it’s so negative, or you try to engage, but if you do, you have this very emotional, gut-level reaction that makes it difficult to talk to people on the other side.

Cyr:  The space to talk to people who disagree with you has been shut down on the national level. The Republican Party has explicitly charted that sort of strategy, but I’m sure some Democrats do it too.

When you are working on things that matter to people everyday, it gives you the ability to focus on that. I am so fortunate in my job because I am so busy being a representative for the Cape and Islands, both in the district and on Beacon Hill, that I can’t pay attention all the time to the latest horrible, awful news from Washington.

Working on everyday issues is a really good outlet. It’s a long game, and if you’re anxiously watching MSNBC late at night… the best cure to that, the only cure I can offer, is to get up and knock doors. I have a competitive race. I have colleagues who do too. I represent a purple district. Get out and get involved. That’s really important. That’s how you build political power, and that’s how you build political parties.

First of all, Massachusetts in the aggregate looks like a very blue, progressive place, but when you look to our individual communities, it is a much more politically diverse place. If you are a young Democrat or someone who cares about Democratic values and politics in a place like Cape Cod, getting engaged can actually really make a difference.

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?

Cyr: First of all, Massachusetts in the aggregate looks like a very blue, progressive place, but when you look to our individual communities, it is a much more politically diverse place. Not only blue and red, but different ilks of Democrats and Republicans. If you are a State Rep, you represent about 40,000 people, and if you are a State Senator, you represent about 180,000 people. Those districts can be quite diverse. For those who live in the region I represent, the Cape and Islands district, it’s quite purple. If you are a young Democrat or someone who cares about Democratic values and politics in a place like Cape Cod, getting engaged can actually really make a difference.

Second, even for those who are living in Cambridge, in those truly deep, deep blue places, there’s still a lot of important work around equity and justice. Just look at the housing issue. While these issues don’t necessarily line up as a Democrat or Republican issue on partisan lines, they do line up as a NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”) or YIMBY-ism (“yes in my backyard”), and so that engagement is still important. As a young person, you can sometimes have a disproportionate influence because so few young people show up.

Pollmann: What is your best piece of advice to young people who want to get involved in politics?  

Cyr: Show up. Just show up, and continue to show up. Young people aren’t afraid to work hard—don’t be afraid to work hard. By showing up, you build relationships with people. Thinking you can’t do this is just as large of a barrier as anything else. Showing up really counts for something—whether it’s to knock doors, attend council meetings, or engage in other types of volunteerism.

I really encourage people to knock doors. I need help this fall and a lot of folks do. Sometimes people in Massachusetts lament, “It’s so blue—what can I do?” There is plenty you can do. So get out there and get involved.

And organizing is how you build relationships with people, and so much of politics is about relationships. The opportunity to build relationships with other activists and young people interested in this is another way to get you further involved.

I really encourage people to knock doors. I need help this fall, and a lot of folks do. Sometimes people in Massachusetts lament, “It’s so blue—what can I do?” There is plenty you can do. So get out there and get involved.

Pollmann: What were the issues and priorities in your community that first got you involved in politics?

Cyr: My family is not a political family. I did not grow up in politics. In high school, I was really involved in the arts and music program. When I was a junior in high school, there were pretty significant cuts in state funding to regional schools, including to Nauset Regional High School on the Cape where I attended. We had a $1.8 million budget gap, and we needed to go to town meeting and ask voters to pass Proposition Two-and-One-Half overrides, because if the overrides failed at town meeting, we would eliminate forty teaching positions and staff across the district, including my choir teacher, who was a very kind and important person to me.

I had never done anything political, but I couldn’t let that happen. So we went out into my community, and led an effort to convince the taxpayers and the district members of the four towns to pass the overrides—and we were successful. It was the first time I had an experience of “Hey, I can step out into my community and create change!” It was pretty formative. I was 16 or 17 at that time, so that really steered my interest in more public service and advocacy. I didn’t imagine I would run for office myself, but that’s where I started off. 

Pollmann: What professional or life experience did the most to prepare you for a political career?

Cyr: My family owned a seasonal restaurant, and the best thing was spending fourteen summers working in that restaurant. Mostly waiting on tables, but also working behind the line and doing all sorts of things you do in a restaurant. People always ask me, “What’s it like being a State Senator?” And I ask them, “Have you ever worked in a restaurant?” Because you have to juggle like ten or twenty different things, and you have to deal with people—some of the best people and some of the more difficult people. That experience was really key on the professional side.

Pollmann: What surprised you most about the state legislative process? Do you have any “secrets” to success?

Cyr: I had a good sense of the process because I was a staffer up here. I am pleasantly surprised that I got more done than I thought I would as a State Senator in my first term. It helped to know the dynamics of the Legislature.

You have to be collaborative in this job. No one passes a bill on their own. You have colleagues and another chamber to work with, so the more collaborative you are, the better off you are.

It’s also true that you have to play the long game in legislation. Unless we are reacting to something immediately, it’s a deliberative process. It’s constitutionally structured that way, which makes it frustrating, especially from a progressive policy agenda. But you just have to stay focused on how to persistently do your best to represent your district.