by Daniel Simonds ’17
Chants from the anti-Trump protest caromed off the walls of the Senate Minority Leader’s spacious Massachusetts State House office. This environment of dissonance served as a metaphor of the political climate State Senator Bruce Tarr (R) finds himself in as he heads a skeleton crew of a six-member (out of 40 seats) Republican caucus.
With much leverage set against him, Tarr has internalized a role as a bridge-builder, of sorts, between his conservative-leaning minority and the majority liberal-leaning agendas.
“I don’t start out by trying to figure out how we’re different. Because if I can figure out one place where we connect, then I can work from there to build the bridge to be able to move forward,” Tarr said.
Usually there is a common goal, the Gloucester-native said, he just has the task of figuring out where his ideas align with the majority party’s.
Regardless, Tarr said, “There’s very little that moves through this building that we don’t have an impact on.”
Bipartisan Success Story
Take the MBTA fallout of the winter of 2014. Boston’s entire public transportation system was shut down for two whole days, left commuter rail riders stranded during snow storms, and a myriad of other inconveniences for travelers.
Senator Tarr and the Republican caucus saw the necessity of establishing a Fiscal Management Control Board that has come to reform the MBTA, save government money, improve performance and invest in critical infrastructure, Tarr said. A conversation with the transportation committee chairman evolved into a compromise, which received a unanimous vote in the Senate, including the Senate President, Tarr said proudly.
The Realities of Bleeding Red in a Blue State House
Fast-forward to 2017 and any rose-colored political lens are stripped away. Currently, the state senator, who represents the 1st Essex and Middlesex district, is not receiving the same level of compromise from his democrat contemporaries on affordable housing. Tarr recently petitioned a bill responding to Chapter 40B, “the anti-snob zoning law,” he calls the 1969 measure, that expands the definition of affordable housing, recognizing the private sector’s efforts.
“If the free market can develop affordable housing, why shouldn’t it get credit for it? Why should the only affordable housing that counts be the one that comes with a subsidy? It’s a big problem,” Tarr said.
Tarr sees housing developers preying on healthy economies, as most do not have the Chapter 40B-required 10% government subsidized affordable housing. As a result, Tarr said, developers use the law and build units where they otherwise would not.
“This measure has ignited resentment within suburban communities ever since its inception,” Tarr said.
“People say, ‘Look we passed these zoning laws. This is our community. We want it to look like this,’” Tarr said.
In the context of Massachusetts’ higher education landscape, however, Tarr is more sympathetic to affordable housing, noting the economic boom recent graduates present to the local and state economies.
“We’re going to have all these really bright people come to Massachusetts take advantage of really great educational institutions, like Gordon, and then have no choice but to take all of that and leave and go somewhere else to build an economy somewhere else. So, we need to find better ways to have workforce housing, market-rate housing that’s affordable in my opinion,” Tarr said.
Contrary to his support of municipalities’ autonomy in retaining their zoning laws that discourage density and encourage free space, Tarr expressed urgency in finding a place for college graduates from the state’s many institutions to settle.
“And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of changing our zoning laws to allow for, maybe in some areas, to allow for, in some areas, more density than would otherwise be allowed,” Tarr said.
Working with “The Feds”
As ranking minority and chair of the Senate Health Care Committee, Tarr has also been challenged by the federal government’s handling of national mandates, from 2010’s Affordable Care Act to the most recently proposed American Health Care Act.
“I’ve got the most recent draft of what was put out by the House Republicans on my desk,” Tarr said.
Tarr, however, expressed confidence in Massachusetts “Romneycare,” a system that “worked very well within its four corners,” Tarr said.
The state senator of 22 years is just as uneasy with “Trumpcare” as he was with “Obamacare,” which was crafted across the aisle. It is challenging to prepare for how the federal government’s going to enact their healthcare policy, Tarr said, certainly evident in the recent House failure of the AHCA. What proves even more worrisome is the 40% share of the state’s expenses healthcare accumulates.
“Now if the Feds say, “Oh by the way, we’re going to limit what we can give you to help you with that” after we’ve had a program to encourage people to get into it, that could have a whipsawing effect on us,” Tarr said.
Currently, the state senator is wrapping up Commonwealth Conversations, characterized by its slogan: “Brings Beacon Hill Back to You”. Chaired by State Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg (D — Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester), State Senator Mike Rodrigues (D — First Bristol and Plymouth) — the tour’s founder, and Tarr, himself, the tour visits each of the nine regions within the state. Each visit begins with a survey of issues specific to the region, as led by the area senators, and concludes with a public forum in which every attendee is given two minutes to address the state senators.
“It reaffirms in my faith that people want to be engaged in the democracy,” Tarr said.
Experiencing political engagement firsthand, Tarr also said interest in government matters has carried over from the Presidential Election. Many of his constituents, conservatives, have remained active through letters, phone calls and emails.
“But you haven’t seen thousands of them marching in the streets. Because I think there’s a certain intimidation factor there,” Tarr said.
Although, the state senator displayed uneasiness with the more radical form of political engagement that was taking place outside his third floor State House window, he remains a vocal supporter of citizen participation in the legislative process. This is evidenced by a January bill he sponsored that called for “Establishing committee for reviewing and reporting on citizen engagement and participation in legislative process.”
“Our democracy depends on people being involved and not just people that are elected,” Tarr said.