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Nothing to Do But Push

James Arena-DeRosa would use the lieutenant governor’s office to advance his agenda.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pity the candidate running to be Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor.

In addition to the challenges that come with running for any high-level political office—the fundraising demands; the exhausting schedule of parades and coffee hours and diner meet-and-greets; the seemingly endless, sometimes conflicting polling data—there is the fact that the position is simply not on the radar screen of many residents. The lieutenant governor’s formal role is rather limited: he or she chairs the Governor’s Council (a perhaps even more obscure entity that advises the governor on judicial nominations, sentence commutations and pardons) and would assume the role of governor should the incumbent not be able to finish his or her term.

Indeed, Massachusetts has managed to operate without a lieutenant governor for the past year, after Tim Murray, mired down in political controversies, resigned the post to take a job leading the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But to James Arena-DeRosa, the relative thinness of the lieutenant governor’s job description presents great opportunities. “The lieutenant governor has only a few prescribed pieces to the job,” Arena-DeRosa, a Democratic candidate for the post, told the Advocate. That, he said, opens the door for the person who holds the office to take on and advance crucial issues—in his case, a decidedly progressive agenda that includes a focus on healthcare and education reform, sustainable development, environmental protections and equitable housing and food policies.

 

Arena-DeRosa is one of four Democrats competing to be the party’s nominee. The others are Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung; Steve Kerrigan, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention; and Mike Lake, president of the nonprofit Leading Cities. Karyn Polito is the sole Republican seeking the job and is running on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker.

Save his time as a member of the Finance Committee in Holliston, where he lives with his family, Arena-DeRosa has not served in public office before. But he has served in high levels of government, most recently as the Obama administration’s northeast administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that role, he said, he managed a $12 billion budget and oversaw 15 programs dealing with farmers’ markets, food stamps, school nutrition programs, food banks and other assistance programs.

Prior to that, Arena-DeRosa was director of public policy at Oxfam America, which works on poverty and social justice issues in developing countries, and New England regional director for the Peace Corps under the Clinton administration. He also has a background in labor organizing.

That broad experience, combining both community-based and high-level government work, Arena-DeRosa said, leaves him well prepared for the job of lieutenant governor. At Oxfam, for instance, he developed and led a program that brought to policy makers the concerns and needs of community groups. “I really do believe in community participation in decision making,” he said.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), vice chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, cites Arena-DeRosa’s resume as one reason he has endorsed his candidacy. Over his years in politics, Kulik told the Advocate, he’s seen effective and ineffective lieutenant governors. “The ones who succeed are the ones who come in with some life experiences that are relevant,” he said.

Kulik praised Arena-DeRosa for his “comprehensive vision about how local economies fit into the economic issues of the whole commonwealth” and his commitment to issues of great importance to Western Massachusetts, such as the environment, local agriculture and education. “For a guy that doesn’t come from Western Mass., I think he understands what we’re all about,” Kulik said.

“To me, he represents the complete package of someone who’s thought about how government can really lift people up, through education, through supporting local economies,” Kulik added. “And I think he has the background to make these things happen in the administration. … We need a really strong progressive in the executive branch, and I feel he represents that. But he’s not overly idealistic. He has roots in real-world experience.”

 

Arena-DeRosa’s platform is centered around a “Renewed Deal” that his campaign describes as “a fairer compact between state government, its cities and towns, workers and small businesses and all citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Not surprisingly, given his experience at Oxfam and the USDA, agriculture and food security are key elements in Arena-DeRosa’s campaign, and the candidate links those areas to related issues such as public health, the economy and the environment. In the Pioneer Valley, the candidate said, “the community was way ahead of the government in terms of access to fresh, healthy food.” But, he continued, the government needs to support that local priority through, for instance, policy changes that would make it easier for small farms to sell their products to schools and other public institutions such as hospitals.

He also supports an expansion of free in-class breakfast programs for elementary-aged children. While administrators express concerns that such programs eat into instruction time, Arena-DeRosa said, “Studies show that kids do better with breakfast”; in fact, some schools that don’t normally have breakfast programs offer it on days when students are taking standardized tests. And, he added; “this isn’t just about the poor kids”—any family rushing out the door to school and work every morning would benefit from such a program.

Arena-DeRosa’s education policy calls for more accountability from districts on how they spend state aid, to ensure that the money is serving students’ needs first and foremost. He supports universal pre-kindergarten and a sliding-scale childcare tax credit to help working families, and contends that the associated up-front costs would be offset by the long-term benefits of early investments in children’s education.

Public schools, Arena-DeRosa said, should offer a holistic, “classical” approach to education that includes arts, sports and other subjects that have been subordinated or eliminated to make time for narrow, test-driven curricula that fail to foster creativity in students and teachers alike. (Arena-DeRosa and his wife opted to homeschool their own kids, he told the Advocate, after a teacher complained that one of their sons was “disruptive” for asking too many questions in class.) While standardized testing can reveal useful information, test results are too often used to penalize teachers or schools, he said.

Arena-DeRosa also calls for reforms to rules governing charter schools—which he says have failed to deliver the educational innovations promised by their backers—including changes to funding formulas and a requirement that new charter schools be approved not just by state education officials but also by their host school districts.

On healthcare, Arena-DeRosa supports a single-payer, or “Medicare for All,” model, which, he argues, would cut healthcare costs by replacing the profit-driven private insurance industry with a system in which the government is the insurer. Under the existing system, he said, the focus is on containing costs once someone is already sick and needs expensive care. A single-payer model could shift the focus to preventative measures that save both lives and money. “It’s the whole concept of investing in healthy lifestyles and life-long care rather than sick care,” he said.

In addition, he contends, such a change would spare municipal governments the high employee and retiree health insurance costs that so many are struggling to cover. “Massachusetts has arrived at nearly universal coverage through a pioneering patchwork of policies and private insurance companies, but in order to be a sustainable system which does not increasingly crowd out many of our other priorities, we must implement a systemic solution to the problem of affordably providing health care for all,” the candidate says in campaign materials.

Arena-DeRosa supports paid maternity leave; policies to reduce the high rate of caesarean section births; and guaranteed paid sick time for workers. He also supports raising the state minimum wage and, in fact, creating a higher “living wage” that families could actually live on.

 

This weekend, Arena-DeRosa will be working the floor at the Democratic state convention in Worcester. Convention delegates will select the party’s nominees for all statewide offices, although any candidate who wins 15 percent of delegates’ votes will qualify for the Sept. 9 primary.

While Baker, the Republican frontrunner, has selected Polito as his running mate, none of the five Democrats seeking gubernatorial nomination has aligned with a lieutenant governor candidate. But given Arena-DeRosa’s experience with large government institutions such as the Peace Corps and USDA, whoever emerges as the Democrats’ pick for governor “would benefit with James being their partner in the corner office,” Kulik told the Advocate.

“He strikes me as someone who could work with any governor, and that’s important because the profile you have as lieutenant governor is given by the governor. The governor has to trust your instincts and abilities to be a good team player,” Kulik continued. Arena-DeRosa “can be a nuts and bolts guy who can make government work efficiently and productively, and any governor would welcome that in terms of a partner.”

Kulik said he planned to take Arena-DeRosa around the floor at the convention, introducing him to his constituents and others in the party. At this point, he said, “I think the lieutenant governor’s race is extremely fluid, and it’s wide open.”•

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