With Comerford’s Arrival, a Senate Drama Formally Concludes…
BOSTON—All that was left was the oath and it was over. A new era had begun.
Jo Comerford, the former nonprofit policy leader and MoveOn.org campaign director, formally became the new senator for much of the Upper Pioneer Valley Wednesday. Her swearing in was also the Senate component of the near-complete turnover of Franklin and Hampshire counties’ legislative delegation. To further underscore the significance, Comerford won the Democratic nomination in her sprawling district as a write-in candidate.
The advent of Comerford’s senatorial journey also marked the final act of a drama that had seized the Massachusetts Senate and the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district for months. Scandal had dethroned Stanley Rosenberg as senate president, later forcing him from office entirely.
Comerford’s district includes Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, Pelham and South Hadley in Hampshire County, Franklin County east of and including Colrain, Deerfield, Greenfield and Whatley, and Royalston in Worcester County.
Those cities and towns, and not the circumstances that opened her seat, were front and center in Comerford’s mind.
“I’m ready to get to work. I feel energized. I feel emboldened,” Comerford said in an interview outside the Senate Chamber.
Still, reflecting on the day’s speeches, she was cognizant of the context of her election. “You heard a lot of people make reference to a turbulent time that the Senate has been through and certainly the district has been through.”
In late 2017, The Globe reported claims that Rosenberg’s husband Bryon Hefner had sexually assaulted denizens of Beacon Hill. He now faces criminal charges. Rosenberg resigned following a report found he had failed to protect the Senate from Hefner.
The opening speeches Wednesday brimmed with references to renewal and new eras. Ostensible references to the freshly renovated Senate chamber were abundant. Not once was a certain Amherst Democrat named, but the allusions were obvious.
Comerford is one of five new—or newish—senators sworn in. In addition to Comerford, Democrats Diana DiZoglio, Barry Finegold, Edward Kennedy, and Becca Rausch officially joined the 40-member body Wednesday. Their election, too, was part of a broader process of rebuilding from last session.
“You had a lot of retirements, you obviously had turmoil last session, but it does seem like we’ve turned a corner, the ship has been righted and it is full-steam ahead,” Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser said.
Senate President Karen Spilka, who was elected to her first full-term leading the chamber, sounded an eager note about Comerford’s arrival.
“I am excited to welcome Senator Comerford to the Senate and get to work on the important issues ahead of us,” Spilka said in a statement to WMassP&I. “Jo will be a strong voice for Western Massachusetts, and I know she will not be shy when it comes to speaking up for her district priorities.”
Highlighting their shared former professions as social workers, Spilka continued, “We need Jo’s listening and mediating skills now more than ever.”
Harriette Chandler, who temporarily served as Senate President after Rosenberg stepped down, concurred. She said Comerford had the potential to be a “star.”
“I’m really looking forward to great things from Jo because she has a wonderful track record herself,” Chandler told WMassP&I as inaugural ceremonies wound down.
Senators were not the only ones excited. While Comerford’s wife and children joined her on the floor, a posse from Northampton cheered from the refreshed gallery above.
Others sent their accolades from afar.
— Jo Comerford (@Jo_Comerford) January 2, 2019
Comerford differs from many of her colleagues, including her fellow freshmen, in that she has never held elective office. Rather, she had worked, as Spilka noted, in social services. Comerford transitioned to policy and political activist, leading the National Priorities Project before going to MoveOn.
Some may argue that is a better fit than it seems. In the Senate, Chandler said, almost mischievously, “You’ll find that there are 40 activists here.”
Lesser, whose district abuts Comerford’s, also expressed confidence in her. Like his new colleague, Lesser had not held office before. But also like Comerford, his first run for office was hardly his first campaign rodeo.
“She’s new to elective office, but she’s not new to politics and she’s not new to the activism and she’s not new the work of building coalitions and moving an agenda forward,” he noted. “That’s the same work that you do in the Senate.”
Her manifold and impactful experiences would serve her well Lesser said.
Discussing her legislative plans, Comerford’s warm and welcoming manner and voice belied her battle-hardened years fighting for progressive policy from outside the system.
As with her campaign, Comerford maintains her focus on income inequality and education. She has discussed progressive revenue measures with Winchester Senator Jason Lewis. Comerford also intends to support Boston Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s efforts to pass recommended reforms to education foundation budget.
She also flagged Spilka’s promise to focus on mental health. During her speech to the chamber the senate president poignantly described her own father’s struggles with mental illness.
Lesser anticipated he and Comerford would be collaborating on healthcare access, rail service—”east-west and north-south”—and public higher education. Comerford also reiterated her interest in studying rail service east from Greenfield. This echoes Lesser’s work on Boston to Springfield service.
Comerford’s Senate debut has a more immediate effect. Rosenberg resigned last May, too late for anybody to get on the ballot save Chelsea Kline who was already running. Hence Comerford’s write-in bid. That also meant the 413 and the district lost a senator for eight months. Given Rep Peter Kocot’s death, two communities—Hatfield and Northampton—had no Beacon Hill representation at all.
“There’s just a great sense of relief that now the Western Mass delegation is whole again,” Lesser said. “It ups our capacity even more to advocate for the region and push our priorities in Boston.”
Comerford has sensed something similar. For some time after winning her party’s nomination—and effectively the election—she was flying solo even as constituent needs kept rolling in. Hiring staff helped. Addressing both the big policy ideas and the individual needs of residents are part of the return to normality, both for her district and the body she now serves in.
“I feel the urgency from the entire body and certainly from constituents in Western Massachusetts to turn to the people’s business,” Comerford said. “The people’s business needs to get done.”