Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Interview with Jeff Ross - Candidate for State Senate

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with Jeff Ross, a Cambridge human rights attorney who is running in the Sept. 11th special election to replace former Senator Jarrett Barrios in the Middlesex, Suffolk and Essex state senate district. Ross is up against Cambridge City Councilor Anthony Galluccio, Chelsea City Councilor Paul Nowicki, and Cambridge attorney Tim Flaherty. I contacted all four candidates, but Ross is the only one so far who responded to my request for an interview.

Ross touted himself as an independent progressive voice for the legislature, one with fewer ties to the political establishment. He noted that environmental problems were among the most important that the district, and that bringing clean energy jobs and technology to the area would be a priority. To that end, he supports Governor Deval Patrick's plan to invest a billion dollars in high-tech and would consider tax incentives for companies looking to set up shop in Massachusetts. That said, he also favors closing corporate tax loopholes.

While Ross does not favor deregulation of the auto insurance industry in the Commonwealth, he would like to see more competition and more companies moving into Massachusetts. He also spoke of the need to fully fund our health care system, particularly our public hospitals, and the expansion of state immunization programs.

One of his more unique suggestions was the idea of setting up issue-based councils of advisors so that the various communities in the district could share information and collaborate on solutions to similar problems.

In addition, Ross noted his support for the Urban Ring and North/South Rail Link projects and favors raising the bond cap for infrastructure repairs. He notes that apathy among youth is a pervasive problem and would like to see more after-school community programs, a Boys and Girls Club in Everett, on demand treatment facilities for substance abuse, CORI reform and job training and development programs. While he told me that he supports merit pay for teachers, he is not in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools until the funding formula can be fixed.

If you're interested in supporting Jeff Ross' campaign, his website can be found at and his campaign email is

Read the full interview inside
Q: Your website touts you as the progressive Democrat in the race. What makes you the progressive choice, as opposed to the other candidates?

I think being the progressive choice means that I bring a unique combination of real-life experience coupled with legislative writing, drafting, and advocacy. I'm not supported by any special interest groups. I don't owe any political favors, so I will be an independent voice for the will of the people in the legislature. I've also got years of pragmatic consensus-building experience, working on legislative issues and meeting with advocacy groups, and drafting and whatnot. I feel like a progressive democrat is somebody who has fewer ties to the political establishment and who's a consensus builder and who has a unique ability to look at social problems in the course of life and try to figure out how to solve them if it requires a legislative issue or to be involved in unlawful rule-making and to try to stop that, like the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the previous governor's administration.

For me, and for the people I've spoken to in the community, a progressive is somebody whose politics looks forward, who's young, fresh, new, and who tries to realize solutions. And to keep these solutions moving forward, and try to build consensus. So that for me puts the progress in progressive. Also, advocacy on behalf of those who are most at risk for injustice.
Q: You said that you wanted to seek out solutions. What are the most important problems in this district that require solutions?
Well, I think that we're looking at serious environmental problems in the world today and in this district, and I think the solution would be real clean energy solutions like the wind project, which is a real clean energy solution. Once that's built there's little maintenance, no pollution, and long-term effects.
Q: Do you support Cape Wind?
I support Cape Wind, and I think that it's a real clean energy solution, unlike some other alternative energy solutions that may use solar energy, may have short term panel or chemicals in them have, in the long term, it's uncertain how other forms of energy will affect the environment, and I think that Cape Wind is a real clean energy solution, and I like it, and I think that the question is where.
Q: Do you see any opportunities for wind or solar energy in your district?
I do, because off the coast of Charlestown there is. Massachusetts is one of only two states that have an alternative wind project, and it's a wind turbine that will be developed off the shore of Charlestown, and that's right in the district. So I'm excited that we'll have the opportunity to do that, to develop it, and I think that Massachusetts can be a leader in product services and technology worldwide, and something like that will bring interest and investment into Massachusetts, and the technology sector has a great tax base for growing the economy, so I support the governor's interest in investing a billion dollars in technology.

I think that partnerships with technology companies are not something that requires legislative rulemaking, but requires outreach to companies and incentives for companies to come to Massachusetts. I think we're on the verge of an era in politics where we have the opportunity for the government to reflect our shared values and I think that developing technology is around the corner in terms of the future.
Q: What would you do to encourage technology companies to come to Massachusetts in general and in particular, to locate in your district?
If possible, I think that tax incentives can be provided, and I think that building relationships with companies that might be considering moving here. Part of it is tax incentives, which is a state issue. Part of it is reaching out and building relationships with companies and bringing them to Massachusetts and introducing them to people in the community and talking about our intellectual capital base and facilitating those relationships to deepen interest in development in Massachusetts.
Q: Do you have experience doing that sort of thing?
I've spent years reaching out to different communities and trying to build relationships in communities. I worked at the US Embassy, at the training program in 1994 which was developing relationships between US companies and French distributors so that we could help the United States businesses export technology to Europe -- trade shows and making introductions and advocating on behalf of US companies. I've also written articles on export licensing controls to help keep United States businesses from exporting technology by hiring foreign national workers and keep jobs in the United States, and educate the companies about the HR requirements and licensing controls that exist, and as they're amended, so it's something I've been interested in for a long period of time. Also, I think that I could be quite useful in that area in the district.
Q: You mentioned tax incentives, and the governor has proposed closing corporate loopholes. But he's also proposed lowering corporate tax rates in exchange for that, so it would be revenue-neutral. What do you think about that?
I think we need incentives for companies to come to Massachusetts and to create jobs. I think that some of the exemptions, like the telephone company exemption, are arcane, outdated, and the quality of service we're getting in Massachusetts from broadband providers is very low compared to the cost to the state and cost to end users. I think we need to close those loopholes. Now, in terms of getting companies to come to the state and create jobs and help grow our economy, we need to have incentives for those companies to come here.
Q: One group of companies that has wanted to come here for a long time is out-of-state auto insurance companies. Now the issue of auto insurance reform is being revisited. Do you have any thoughts about those reforms?
I think that more companies would provide more competition, in terms of the rates.
Q: So you would be in favor of letting companies set their rates with fewer restrictions than we currently have?
No, because that would mean an increase in rates. I think we could let more companies come in and sell more affordable insurance and compete for services in the community. I think people in the community are feeling overwhelmed with the cost of insurance and rising prices, so I think bringing in more competition in that area. I don't think that we need to lift price restrictions because I think that will let companies charge more and buy each other out. When we're looking at insurance reform we need to be mindful of the end user and people in our communities that are struggling with the cost of insurance.
Q: Of course, the big cost of insurance that people are concerned about is not auto insurance, but health insurance.
We need to fully fund our health care system.
Q: Do you think our state's new health care law is working?
I think it's a good place to start. It needs additional analysis, additional legislation. I think that one of the problems with the way the health care system is set up now is that we have one remaining public health care system in Massachusetts and that's Cambridge Health Alliance. It's in financial jeopardy -- the state owes it $150M and the MassHealth pool is not fully funded, so I support fully funding it.

I think the state has made strides in raising the requirement of poverty up to 300% of the poverty level, because it includes additional families. A family of 4 needs to make $60K a year to participate in the MassHealth program, which I think is good because it will cover more people, but it needs to be funded so that the public hospitals don't bear the burden of absorbing those costs. That puts the whole system in jeopardy and I would be in favor of protecting the system and creating access to health care and preventative care so that people don't end up in the emergency room. I think that we should have immunization programs from children and seniors more readily available.

Part of the problem with the way the law is written now is that companies are penalized $295 for not providing health care to their employees, and $295 sounds like an incentive because the cost of providing health care for employees when you have more than 11 would presumably be higher than $295. It's written so that companies who opt out pay a penalty, and I think that large companies should pay into a pool so that companies that are right on the cusp of being required to cover their employees and are struggling have a pool to draw from so they don't end up closing and so the state doesn't lose jobs.
Q: Does that conflict with what we were talking about earlier -- trying to provide incentives for companies to come here, if we're increasing their costs?
No, that's going to be a cost, but in the larger balance of equity maybe people would locate here and get set up and get access to state resources to set up their business here, so I'm not sure they should get exemptions for health care. They could get exemptions for setup, other tax exemptions. We have to balance out our interest in creating jobs and providing incentives for companies to come here with workers' rights. That would be a question I would focus on as a state senator.

I don't have all the answers. There are going to be new issues that come up all the time. I feel that it's important for a state senator to be able to get communities involved and create dialogue around the issues, and that's a skill that I provide, bringing consensus and building relationships so that people can work together to find solutions. To me, progressive is a nice liberal label, but to me it means getting to the end result.
Q: It seems like a difficult job getting communities together in this district particularly because it's so spread out -- going from Brighton all the way up to Saugus. In fact, I found out the district is in the Massachusetts Common Cause's Gerrymander Hall of Shame because of its shape. Would you support legislation to move redistricting out of the hands of the legislature?
A: I would support the appointment of a council for redistricting. I would also, if elected, create a council of advisors across the district on health care, education, technology, art, human rights...
Q: What would those advisors do?
They would meet and talk about what's going on in their district. There are seven cities and they can learn from each other. Saugus is struggling with their budget, and they have a diverse body of new residents and Everett has taken great time and effort to count and keep accurate records of the new residents that are moving in and what the language needs are, and what special needs are. Because of that, Everett got $4M back this year for some of their education programs, for some of their ESL and special needs work that they need to do. If Saugus reached out to its community that it could benefit in a similar way.

Creating a council of people who share their experiences about what's going in other areas of the district could be enlightening and beneficial for residents and help build a sense of community in a district that's ethnically and economically diverse. I'm very excited about the prospect of working with the challenges that such a spread-out district presents.

Chelsea needs to be brought into transportation planning in a way that's equitable and would help create an infrastructure. I support the Urban Ring project, I think it should be underground and should be done right the first time, it should go to all of the communities and serve them all equally, and that will help develop the economies of all the communities.
Q: You also support the North-South Station rail link. In light of the Big Dig and all the problems we've had with the large public works projects, do you think there's an appetite for more of that in Massachusetts?
I think that the federal government and the state and local governments are struggling right now because the federal money is being drained off the states so I don't think it's a realistic project in the short term. I think it would be optimal, and public works projects create jobs, they create tax revenue, they create economy, they keep people working, they keep people in their homes, so I'm not opposed to public works projects.

We got a lot of federal money that would not have come to Massachusetts, for the Big Dig, that we otherwise wouldn't have gotten. I certainly think that public works projects could be better managed than the Big Dig was. A public works project doesn't have to be poorly run and poorly managed. There was a time in this country when public works projects got us out of the Depression and created some of our greatest assets, the Hoover Dam, etc., so I don't think that public works projects are necessarily the big evil. I think [apathy] and lack of interest in our youth are the big evil out there.
Q: Do you support lifting the state bond cap to pay for infrastructure repairs?
Absolutely. We have an urgent need to repair our roads and bridges, and I think that building infrastructure helps to grow the economy and improve the transportation system. The Tobin Bridge is falling down and residents are worried about crossing the Longfellow. We desperately need to look for revenue to keep our infrastructure. We need to continue to invest in maintaining the infrastructure and not wait until projects are desperately in need of repair because the cost is greatly increased by prolonging investment.

The previous governor's administration talked ad nauseum about maintaining our bridges and our roads, and we're still in the same position that we were, four years later. We need somebody in there who is not divisive, who's going to continue to build relationships and work to build consensus to move things forward.
Q: Earlier you said the great evil was apathy among youth. What can be done about that?
Well, in Everett, they need a Boys and Girls Club, and a place for kids to go recreate with supervision. We need on demand treatment facilities for substance abuse. We need CORI reform and job training and development programs, so that youth are occupied during the summer. In Chelsea, Central Latino recently got $200M slashed from its budget, line-itemed by the governor's office. Those are funds that keep kids involved in community projects, give them something to do, and build a sense of community responsibility and belonging to a community like Chelsea that has a huge problem with gang violence. Slashing those funds -- in summer, we're going to have more kids on the street with working and struggling parents and less to do. We need to have workforce training and development programs, we need to have youth centers and keep kids involved.
Q: What would you like to see the schools themselves do, if anything?
I'd like to see longer school days and stipend incentives for teachers -- merit pay -- to stay after school and get kids involved in science and technology. There's a great program statewide, the Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair, that's a great opportunity for kids from communities to get involved in something that will help them go to college.
Q: Do you also support raising the cap on charter schools?
I think until we can find funding charter schools without draining public school resources, we should have a moratorium on expanding the charter school system. I've met parents who are very happy who have children in both. Some children don't function well in the public school environment, so I think the charter schools we have are a good alternative, but I don't think that we should be draining resources off our public education system. I'm product of the public education system, my children are in the public school system, and I think that we need to continue to invest in our future and invest in our children.
Q: Lastly, what's your stance on Marshmallow Fluff?
We did a study on my campaign team, with the fluffernutters, and we took a poll, and we all agree that we like fluffernutters and that we value the jobs that the Fluff company creates in the district. Everyone agreed that we should also look at school lunches and make sure that school lunches provide our children with the nutrients they need to succeed.
Q: How can people get involved in your campaign?
They can email us at, or visit our website at