Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Interview With Jim O'Day - Candidate for 14th Worcester

Last weekend I had the opportunity to talk to Jim O'Day, candidate for state representative in the 14th Worcester special primary election, March 20th -- one week from today. O'Day is a West Boylston father of four, a social worker and an officer in the Service Employees International Union Local 509 who described himself to me as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. His candidacy was endorsed by progressive groups like Mass Alliance, Neighbor to Neighbor and the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts. He counts education, affordable housing and health care reform among his top issues. He supports Governor Patrick's push to allow municipalities to enter into the state's health insurance and pension systems, but is wary of any increases to the meals tax. He also indicated that if he were in the legislature last February, he would have voted against the same-sex marriage ban at the Constitutional Convention. Locally, he'd like to see better rail service from Boston to Worcester while also increasing economic opportunities in Worcester itself. At times his rhetoric on Worcester reminded me of now Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray's in that they both talked about how Worcester can and should be an easy sell for economic development given its good universities, its low crime rate and other advantages.

I've had a tough time finding any good information about the 14th Worcester race, so I was grateful that Mr. O'Day took the time to chat with me, particularly since I warned him that events in my life might cause a delay in my posting this. I emailed requests to other candidates in this race, but he was the only candidate to respond.
Read excerpts from the interview inside...
Q: Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself and your campaign just to give people who might not be familiar with the special election an idea of what you're about?

I've been active with a number of different campaigns, Deval Patrick obviously, I was active in his campaign and I was a delegate to the convention. Tim Murray, who is the Lieutenant Governor from here in Worcester is a family friend of ours, and both my wife and myself have always been pretty active. In this most recent campaign we got really excited about the things that were being said by these individuals, we really believed in the message they were presenting. Being a social worker, over the past twenty-three years, I've dealt with some very difficult circumstances, but I have always believed that as long as you can continue to give folks hope that most anything is possible. But when people begin to lose hope, then you really start to struggle with getting people to believe that things can change. So [Patrick's campaign] really struck a chord with me. We became very excited and really worked hard for both of those guys.

When on a Sunday afternoon with some friends, I was playing golf and somebody mentioned that Jim Leary is going to be tapped to become Tim Murray's chief of staff, all kinds of bells and whistles and lights and things went off in my head. I was thinking "Wow, what an opportunity!" ... We're going to have a governor in the statehouse whose ideas and principles and values really excited me and when I heard that message, I got on the phone with my wife and said, "Hey, what do you think about this idea of me running for state rep?" ... The next thing I know I'm into this deep. I called some other folks I know, obviously the SEIU because of my affiliation down there to see what they thought about the idea, would they be willing to support me? They immediately jumped on board. So, that gave me a great impetus to get started.

I've been aware of Neighbor to Neighbor over the years. They're beyond great. Six years ago when Jim Leary first ran, I'd had some affiliation with those folks and worked with them hand in hand on his campaign. I know of the great work they do with families, with low-income families and their issues are really important issues to me -- education, affordable housing, health care reform -- all of those really important social process issues. I went to them, expressed my interest in working with them and having their support. I went through the interview process with them -- they interviewed all the other candidates who are running for this seat -- and I was fortunate enough to be the candidate that they thought best reppresented their views and their ideals, and they endorsed me. So that also gave me a tremendous shot in the arm and I thought that with the support and backing of that kind of an agency, that a grassroots effort, in trying to win this very unique kind of election really gave me some credibility, I thought, being a first-time candidate, and we haven't stopped. We haven't looked backwards, we're just banging on every conceivable door and dialing every conceivable phone number in attempting to reach out to the voters of the district.

We had a fundraiser a couple of weeks ago, again it's my first shot at public office, I've been very active in my community and also with my union involvement, but we had over 200 people show up at our fundraiser, and that was fantastic.
Q: How much did you raise at that?
About $8500. We were thrilled, absolutely thrilled.
Q: You mentioned that you were a big supporter of Deval Patrick and Tim Murray. I was wondering what you thought of their municipal aide proposals, particularly the two provisions allowing for communities to set their own meals taxes and to enter into the state's health insurance program.
I absolutely would support the municipalities being able to somehow piggyback onto the state retirement system. I think that really makes a lot of sense. I do not have this overwhemingly strong business background -- if I have any shortcomings, that's probably where they are. Not to make myself sound ignorant to those issues, but there are small restauranteurs, and the meals tax could be problematic for them. I would like to be able to have a little more information on how exactly that's going to impact their abilities to turn a profit, how many people they're going to have to lay off or decrease in paying. So, I'm a little uneasy with that. I think there's a possibility of it working, but I guess I would like to have more information about that, but certainly the insurance piece for the municipalities, I think that's a good idea. I certainly am also in agreement with the closing of the corporate loopholes.
Q: and the property tax rebates that he's talked about recently?
Yup, basing it somewhat on the elders model. I would also like to look at the folks being included in that, maybe stretching that a little bit, making it a little wider net, giving more families an opportunity to take advantage of that, I think it's a good first step, but maybe there are a little larger pool of folks that can take advantage of that.
Q: Your district is part of Worcester and all of West Boylston. Do you see Worcester as its own economic engine or as more of a bedroom community for Boston, a commuter community?
I think I see it both ways. I think there would be a greater likelihood of us being able to connect a little better with the Boston economic engine if we had better access to Boston via the rail system. You'd have to live in a bubble not to know that that's a big issue, a big concern for Tim Murray, and a big concern for a lot of our businesses in the area and in Boston, that it's just very difficult with only two or three trains leaving here in the morning and coming back in the evening. There's very little going on during the course of the day, or even after say 7:00 at night, that makes it very restrictive, so I think he's on the right track about having to increase our rail ability.
Q: How would you foster economic development, particularly in Worcester and in Central Mass?
I think there are a number of projects presently being developed in Worcester, and we need to be supportive of the projects that are currently taking place, and obviously we need to be always looking for additional companies to be brought into the area, but I also have to say that we can't be doing so and also be giving away the store. I personally think that Worcester's a great city. I've lived here all of my life, or just outside of it all of my life -- I grew up in Worcester, born and raised in Worcester, and nine years ago we just moved out to West Boylston. ... I've always loved Worcester, I think it's a great city and we need to keep a really positive attitude -- we have a whole host of colleges in the area, our educational system is pretty strong, our crime rate is pretty low, so to encourage businesses to come in here really to me doesn't seem like a hard thing to do because there are so many attributes for the city. So I think it continues to be a process of being good salesmen, about all the good attributes here in town, and going out to solicit other businesses to come in here. But when you have to start promising people big time tax breaks, this that and the other, I'm not sure that's the most pragmatic thing to do when companies should be happy to come into Worcester because of the many good things that it has to offer for folks.
Q: Do you favor any solution for things like smart growth and affordable housing to increase the affordability of your area?
An issue here in West Boylston is 40B housing. I think the real gist of that is a good idea. I think affordable housing is absolutely a necessity. How it really plays out though, is another concern of mine. They're talking about constructing condominiums as affordable housing at $180-190K per unit ... that's still not that affordable. That brings all these additional costs on our infrastructure, our light and our sewers and all of those things, and yet we're not really having affordable housing. So that's a concern of mine, affordable housing needs to be what it is, a family of lower-income status or working class family status should be able to afford those types of housing and I don't see that when I think about 40B.
Q: In January, the legislature voted for the first step to put a gay marriage ban on the ballot. If elected, how would you vote in the second round of that?
Clearly I would vote to keep it off. No hesitation, no reservation. This has already been voted on. The SJC has already determined that equal marriage is a civil right and it should remain that way, end of story.
Q: The other big issue that has come up over the past year is the health insurance law. That's still in the implementation phase, even though it's almost a year old now. We're still trying to figure out how to do it. Do you have any ideas or concerns about that?
I do have concerns. First of all I think it's certainly a baby step in the right direction. We are acknowledging that there's a huge segment of our population that is without health insurance that needs to have health insurance to be able to maintain healthy families, healthy adults, healthy kids. Not having some sort of health insurance for all our citizens doesn't make sense to me. It puts an unbelievable burden, great stress to be putting on people who don't have any heath insurance who are half a second away every day from ruin. So, what concerns me is that when we're looking at families paying upwards of $300 a month, and if they're unable to do so and we immediately tell them we're going to penalize them, I think that's not the spirit of what we're trying to correct. Beyond that, we're talking about a company like Wal-Mart only having to pay $289 a year for an individual plan. It seems to me that wthole issue, which unfortunately seems to come down on many issues of equity, we have to find an equitable way of doing this. We're potentially being punitive to individuals who can't afford it. That troubles me.