Dan Wolf, the first year: Working to translate a promise

Senator Dan Wolf. — File photo by Susan Safford

“Firsts” don’t come along as easily and often as we get older, but this being my first year of my first term in elected office, 2011 was full of them.

By far, our biggest challenge continues to be our economy. Even though Massachusetts enjoys a relatively low unemployment rate, far too many of us remain unemployed or underemployed. And, in the face of rising costs in health care, housing, energy, food and education, our middle class and working families have not seen real wage growth in more than a generation. This, and the growing disparity of wealth in our Commonwealth has put great stress on our American Dream, a dream founded in personal responsibility, basic fairness and decency, and opportunity for those who are willing to work hard to build a better life for themselves and for future generations.

As we remain focused on economic recovery and growth, we must do so in ways that are consistent with our values and in line with a vision of our future – a future that we must invest in, rather than borrow from.

Representing the Vineyard at the State House has been a profound privilege. I often say that the Cape and Islands must be the most intriguing district, not just in Massachusetts, but the nation. Our communities are defined by an amazing environment, remarkable personalities, cultural depth, and intellectual acumen. No place embodies these more than the Vineyard.

I’ve come to think of the Island as a kind of bonsai at the edge of this huge continent, small enough to envision and embrace, yet full of all the complexity and variety that defines much bigger places. I sense many share that feeling. Perhaps that’s why we choose to live here, and why, despite all our economic and environmental challenges, this remains one of the world’s great places.

I very much believe that our public and private resources must work together to shape our future. Indeed, that’s why I continue to balance a business career with my role as your state Senator. I also see how solutions often need to be discovered and implemented at the local level. Already, the Vineyard serves as a beacon, illuminating successes that others might seek to emulate.

So how does this translate into specifics at the State House? Here are three key areas in which I’ve been working and will continue to next year.

Health care and wellness

The beautiful new hospital and all of the talented health professionals on the Island can only do so much in the face of a health care system that is overwhelmed by complexity and cost. The provision of health care needs to be separated from employment. Let me say it again. Where we work, if we work, should have nothing to do with whether we receive decent health care. And providing health insurance has become perhaps the single biggest burden on small business growth and entrepreneurship. I believe the time is coming when our nation, joining most in the world, will have a universal system for health care. I believe Massachusetts can lead in that direction, and I’m committed to working to accomplish that.

But good health has many more elements than how we’re covered when we get sick. It is crucial that we move away from an agribusiness food system that promotes obesity, diabetes, and premature development by injecting huge quantities of corn syrup, hormones, and antibiotics into our diets. The “grow local” food movement, with the Vineyard as a shining example, is a great hope. Community supported agriculture, tax incentives and other supports to farm, fish, and shellfish, are issues I’m proud to champion.

Energy and the environment

We have the opportunity and responsibility, to make the Vineyard electricity independent. The Cape & Vineyard Electric Cooperative is one example of an entity that can help to achieve this goal. Fascinating solar projects already are being planned, including proposals to create a solar farm at the airport, or even place installations along cleared power lines that lace our forests. We need a public, transparent process to explore these and many other options, including offshore wind – provided our community has a strong hand in defining where and what benefits accrue to us. We need to remove caps on “net metering” to be sure local energy projects can move forward, and we need to build and renovate in “green” ways to reduce our consumption and create jobs. But most of all, we need a clear mandate. Twenty years from now, the Vineyard should make as much electricity as it uses.

Financial services and the economy

With strong local banks, the Vineyard again sets an example for how a community can control its fate and assets in healthier ways. Bad, predatory loans almost always are written from afar, by people without roots or responsibility. Good local banks invest in and elevate our communities, re-circulating wealth locally, rather than exporting it.

So the greater challenge now is to fight the trend that is making it harder and harder for working people to remain on Island. Because our real estate market is driven by off-Island incomes, housing prices spiral up much faster and higher than the local economy can support. There are ways to fight this, with smart zoning and creative financing. But most of all, we need to have an honest conversation about how we raise revenue, including fairer methods of assessing property and income taxes. Here is the opportunity to fund affordable housing, create a better social balance, and keep hope alive for young working families.

Every one of these issues and many more have specific pieces of legislation associated with them. As my understanding of the state Senate grows, I see how and why bills work through the process – or don’t. It’s a fascinating education, one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced. I’m looking forward to year two and getting better at translating the big picture into nuts-and-bolts progress.

But I don’t want to lose track of why I ran in the first place. I stepped into the public arena to move discussion past today’s challenges and toward tomorrow’s opportunities. I went to Beacon Hill, not to wrangle over next month’s budget – though that’s important – but to help shape and influence where we will be 30 years from now.

So, I offer thanks to so many people from across the Island; to those who have worked with me, supported, encouraged, and criticized me during this first year. Martha’s Vineyard has inspired me and helped me to imagine – imagine what we can achieve, and how we can move there together.