Barely a week had gone by when newly elected state Senator Julian Cyr got on the ferry in Woods Hole to visit his Island constituents. The Truro native had made the trip many times over the years to visit friends, as an official with the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH), and most recently as the Democratic candidate for the Massachusetts state senate.
Mr. Cyr won handily in November, with 60 percent of the vote. His defeated Republican competitor, Anthony Schiavi, got 43 percent in the Cape and Islands district. Mr. Cyr more than tripled Mr. Schiavi in Dukes County, 67 percent to 22 percent, although it was a squeaker in Gosnold, where he won by two votes, 33-31.
His agenda on Jan. 12 would include attending a meeting with Island Grown Initiative about bringing the Summer Food Service Program to the Island, a visit to newly elected register of deeds Paulo D’Oliveira, a tour of the Dukes County Courthouse, meetings at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a meeting of the LGBT Youth Commission, and finally a meeting with the All-Island Selectmen’s Association.
But first, Senator Cyr made the short walk from the Steamship Authority terminal to The Times office in Vineyard Haven, where he shared insights from the campaign trail, his game plan for the upcoming legislative session, and the story of what motivated him to take it all on.
“It’s rare that a seat in the Massachusetts house or senate opens up; it usually only happens when someone dies or becomes indicted,” Mr. Cyr joked. “When Senator Wolf decided not to run for re-election, I started getting calls from folks saying, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of running,’ and I’d say ‘That’s great, we need more young people from this region in politics.’ Then after I got off the phone with a friend, I said, ‘Wait a minute. Why not me? I’ve been working in state government, extensively with the state legislature, and I understand the mechanics of the job. Maybe I should do this.’ Then the train left the station.”
Mr. Cyr said his experience organizing grassroots campaigns on the Cape and Islands for the re-election campaigns of Gov. Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama helped him forge key relationships and bolster his blue-state credibility. His tenure at DPH taught him the nuts and bolts of legislating on Beacon Hill.
“I loved working at [DPH] and being part of the mission of that agency,” he said. “I understand how you file bills and draft statutes because I did that. I understand how you collaborate because I was the guy who Dan Wolf or Tim Madden called when they had a public health problem.”
His collective experience also helped him quickly mobilize his campaign.
“That’s what’s exciting about politics,” he said. “I don’t think a year ago people would have thought that this region would be represented by a 31-year-old guy from Wellfleet and a 26-year-old guy from Woods Hole.” Mr. Cyr’s reference was to freshman state representative Dylan Fernandes, who also made his elective-office debut by winning the November election.
What did Senator Cyr learn the campaign trail? The brand-new senator, who usually exudes a Joe Biden–like ebullience, took a measured tone.
“I felt a sense of insecurity among people when I was on the campaign trail,” he said. “The conditions that existed when they moved here in the ’70s or ’80s, or even the ’90s, have dramatically changed. When my parents first started out, you could make a good life, often in an unconventional way, in hospitality trades or fishing, and you didn’t need a fancy degree.”
Mr. Cyr’s parents owned Adrian’s Restaurant in Truro for 28 years: “That has profoundly changed, largely driven by housing costs. Increasingly for young folks, even if they just want to work for the summer in O.B., they have to rely on family members to help with housing.”
Housing the foundation
Mr. Cyr discussed a range of actions he intends get busy with on Beacon Hill, from the problem-plagued Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant to better access to dental care for his constituents. But the housing crisis, which exists well beyond the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, dominated the hourlong conversation.
“If we don’t get the housing-affordability piece right, our local economies will suffer, we’re going to struggle to get wastewater right, and we’re going to struggle to support our schools — it affects everything,” he said. “Affordability is the No. 1 issue I heard on the campaign.”
Mr. Cyr believes the current state policies regarding affordable housing leave a big gap between those who qualify for “affordable housing” under the Department of Housing and Urban Development criteria — 80 percent of area median income or less — and people like him, and many in younger generations, who can’t afford to buy but make too much to qualify for affordable housing benefits.
“The current state housing programs are not a fit for our needs,” he said. “The term ‘affordable housing’ is really problematic. Affordable housing is part of the solution. But we need to change how we talk about affordability. We have to look at state definitions and regulations, and add some flexibility that reflects the realities of our district. It’s not right to say Island communities and Cape Cod communities have to play within the same rules as communities that are really not like us. It doesn’t work. Seasonal communities have very different economies.”
Mr. Cyr said the pervasive shortage of year-round rentals — the vacancy rate for year-round rental properties in Barnstable County is less than 1 percent — is exacerbated by the entrenched “allergy to development,” also known as the NIMBY factor, which played out at Truro town meeting this year.
“The state had given us three parcels of land to build 17 affordable rental units. We have no rental housing in this town of 2,000 people. This is a big gift, and folks at town meeting were resisting. I said, ‘Do you want people like me here or not? I’m a state senator from this region, and there’s no way I can afford to buy property in my hometown.’”
But the new senator is resolutely optimistic. “The challenges our region faces, whether it’s our affordability, our aging population, our environmental challenges, are solvable from a policy perspective,” he said. He cited zoning reform, which can be done on the local level, as a crucial piece of the puzzle.
“On the Cape, we designed zoning in the postwar era, three-quarter-acre lots in a very suburban style,” he said. “But look at the communities built by the earlier settlers; you have dense little communities. You have Edgartown, Vineyard Haven, you have Provincetown and Chatham. You didn’t look to build a house way off on a bluff somewhere, because you’d be dead. As we look to build the housing we need, we should be looking at our existing [density]. That helps make betterments and wastewater projects more scalable. Sewering suburban communities does not add up.”
Mr. Cyr authored a bill designed to make home ownership, a pipe dream for many of his constituents, more attainable. Since this interview, he has filed “An Act authorizing the establishment of first-time home buyer savings accounts” and 26 other bills for the upcoming legislative session.
“The rents you pay here are equivalent to what a lot of mortgages cost,” he said. “The barrier for people to buy is that they can never get ahead to save enough money for the down payment. This bill creates a first-time homeowners savings account program. It’s been done in Virginia and Wyoming. It allows individuals to save money toward a down payment, and it is tax-free. I’m hoping we can enable employers to match their employees’ contributions, also tax-free. Let’s give incentive to people who are already here.”
Mr. Cyr represents half of a youth movement that Cape and Islands voters — the oldest constituency in the state — chose for themselves in November. The combined ages of Mr. Cyr, who just turned 31, and Mr. Fernandes, 26, are three years younger than Governor Charlie Baker, a youthful 60. Mr. Cyr hopes this will inspire more young people to step into the political arena.
“We need more younger folks participating in local government,” he said. “By younger, I mean under 55. We need you on the board of selectmen, the planning board, the board of health. Local governments play a very important role in Massachusetts.”
Mr. Cyr also encouraged Islanders to join Cape and Islands Stronger Together, a grassroots organization that has quickly gained momentum, as evidenced by the group’s Facebook page.
“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but I’m excited for what’s possible in my generation,” he said. “This is a group who loves this place, who cares about this place and who share the same values that brought people here in the ’70s. We have a briny, funky cultural heritage on the Cape and Islands. Those of us who were born into it have a role here in continuing that.”
Senator Cyr and Representative Fernandes will attend the We Stand Together MV event this Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, 130 Center Street, Vineyard Haven, beginning at 12:30 pm.
Mr. Cyr can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 617-722-1570.