Cyr faces challenge from Lauzon

They answer questions on key issues on Cape and Islands.

Incumbent Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, right, will face off with Republican candidate and political newcomer Christopher Lauzon of Barnstable, in representing Cape Cod and Islands.

In the state election on Nov. 8, incumbent Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, who was first elected in 2016, will be challenged by Republican candidate and political newcomer Christopher Lauzon of Barnstable in representing Cape Cod and Islands. 

The Cape and Islands district encompasses nearly 185,000 residents in 19 towns; out of the 40 Massachusetts Senate seats, 37 are held by elected Democrats. Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard residents have not elected a Republican to the Senate since Henri Rauschenbach’s 1998 win.

Here’s how the two candidates responded to questions posed by The Times:

What do you see as the most pressing issues residents of Martha’s Vineyard face currently?

Cyr: Housing: Too many young people on Martha’s Vineyard cannot stay and make a life here because of the unaffordable costs of housing, and older adults deserve to be able to stay in the island community they’ve helped build. And when you’re doing business on an Island, employers need a local workforce to power healthcare, schools, public safety, hospitality, and services for vulnerable residents. Housing is my No. 1 priority. I’m laser-focused on incentivizing the development of housing available to residents across the income spectrum, including: expansion of by-right zoning for accessory dwelling units and multiuse districts; allowing tax-free savings accounts for first-time homebuyers; and building infrastructure to connect new housing to sewers, regional transportation, and walkable villages … I’m encouraged by the overwhelming support for the Housing Bank in all six towns this spring, and urge Islanders to keep pushing for change at town meeting. 

Behavioral health: Like many Islanders, the twin epidemics of opioids and mental health have touched me personally. As Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery, I have championed policies that save lives and increased funding for recovery services to help those living with addiction and their families. I authored major mental health access legislation to strengthen insurance coverage for those in need of mental health care and provide speedy access to inpatient treatment for those in crisis. The landmark bill was signed into law in August by Governor Baker — it’s the strongest mental health parity law in the country. Included in the new law is a provision that requires the state to bolster contracts to mental health providers in geographically isolated communities like Martha’s Vineyard … 

Climate crisis: Martha’s Vineyard is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate and environmental degradation. I am a champion of clean energy and efforts to reform our electric grid through expansion of renewable energy. I helped pass laws that put Massachusetts on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and build new solar and offshore wind projects — meeting our future energy needs while staving off the worst effects of climate change. Currently, our electricity prices are unaffordable because of our dependence on fossil fuels. Wind and solar will save money and stabilize prices for consumers. I am also a leader on investing in coastal resiliency measures to secure our region against inevitable impacts of the climate crisis. I’ve secured millions of dollars to restore estuaries, repair and harden our coastal infrastructure, and expand storm water and drainage to prepare us for worsening storms and flooding. 

Water quality: To protect water quality for future generations, Islanders face a multimillion-dollar price tag to clean up nitrogen pollution in our estuaries, lagoons, and great ponds. I drafted and passed legislation to establish the Cape Cod & Islands Water Protection Fund to provide tens of millions in state relief for wastewater projects across the region … Forever chemicals are polluting our drinking water, and pose a threat to our health. I led an interagency task force that put forward a roadmap to phase out PFAS and ban its sale in Massachusetts, and secured $250,000 to fund a firefighting foam takeback program to protect the health of our firefighters. I am also working to keep Holtec from dumping radioactive water in Cape Cod Bay.

Lauzon: The issues facing the Vineyard are similar to those facing Cape Cod, only exacerbated by the inherent isolation brought on by being an Island community. Housing, wastewater, infrastructure improvements, and energy costs are all substantial challenges for the towns of Martha’s Vineyard. These are the primary drivers of affordability in all communities, and the continued rising cost of living for the residents of Martha’s Vineyard is tied to these issues. This has only been made worse in the post-pandemic era of rapidly worsening inflation, with food, fuel, and utilities rising faster than the average resident can keep up. The people of Martha’s Vineyard need an advocate who will work on the state and local level to deliver relief on these concerns, whether it be through the securing of state and federal grants, a common-sense, all-of-the-above approach to sustainable, affordable, and practical energy sources, or a levelheaded recognition that we need a balanced approach to housing and conservation, with increased density in areas where it makes sense and does not take away from the natural beauty of the Vineyard that so many residents and visitors cherish. 

Although Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod are similar in many ways, in your opinion, what sets the Vineyard apart? 

Cyr: While I was on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this week, a longtime Island leader reminded me of the Vineyard’s “terminal uniqueness,” a phrase coined by the late Mary Wakeman to describe the art of getting things done in this special place. Certainly the structure of the Island’s government is unique: Six towns, plus a county government, and a federally recognized tribe, all on one island is distinctive. With so many stakeholders, reaching consensus takes time and requires strong relationships up- and down-Island. Martha’s Vineyard is also dependent on certain state statutes that govern institutions that are instrumental to life on the Island, the Steamship Authority and the Land Bank among them. Yet Martha’s Vineyard has much in common with its siblings — as someone who has spent most all of my life on the Outer Cape, the ethos of those who live on the Island year-round resembles the artists, queers, and misfits who live at the tip of Cape Cod. While it may take an hour and 40 minutes to drive from Truro to the ferry terminal in Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard feels a lot like home. 

Lauzon: So this ties in with the previous question: The Vineyard is different from the Cape due to its Island nature, and it is different from Nantucket largely because of six separate towns on the Vineyard with separate needs, as opposed to all of Nantucket having a single jurisdiction. The people of Martha’s Vineyard have also contributed to a unique community: from the bustling downtown in Vineyard Haven to the bucolic, almost countryside feeling in the central part of the Island. People from all over the world come to Martha’s Vineyard to enjoy its natural beauty and solitude. But this also lends itself to the problems that the Vineyard faces regarding cost of living. This is why it is so important to take a balanced approach to the issues that face Vineyarders each and every day, to deliver meaningful, tangible results that improve the lives of everyone in the community. 

Some would believe the worsening housing crisis, although acute throughout the state and the country, has had a uniquely detrimental effect on both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, due to the Islands’ geographic location. Do you find this to be true? Are you in support of the home-petitioned housing bank transfer fee?

Cyr: Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and now the Outer Cape — where I live — face an acute housing crisis. Once established, a housing bank will provide a much-needed revenue stream to build new housing and preserve existing year-round housing stock, but it won’t be enough. Island towns need to reform zoning to allow for greater density in existing villages. Municipalities should also invest in wastewater infrastructure to clean up lagoons, estuaries, and great ponds impaired by nitrogen from septic systems and cesspools. Expanded wastewater infrastructure would also enable greater density in the year-round housing that a housing bank will build. Martha’s Vineyard towns have the option of joining the Cape Cod & Islands Water Protection Fund [see above], which would provide millions of dollars in subsidy to reduce the cost to taxpayers of sewer and water quality projects. 

Lauzon: The housing crisis that our entire region feels in an acute manner is undeniably worse on the islands. As a practical reality, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have less available land for development and less infrastructure to handle increases in traffic and population. The people of the Vineyard have made it clear they are in support of a transfer fee on high-priced home sales to help fund a proposed housing bank to develop more workforce housing across the Island. As a general rule I am opposed to increases in taxes, certainly with regard to increases on the state level. However, I am a staunch advocate for more control on the local level, and less state interference in local affairs. In this instance, I support allowing local communities to impose these transfer fees if they so choose, and I look forward to speaking with community members in each town on the Vineyard regarding this issue and the establishment of the housing bank. I will be an advocate on Beacon Hill alongside Representative Fernandes to get this passed in the legislature.  

Seeing that the planned offshore wind farm Vineyard Wind 1 is not expected to provide energy to Vineyard residents, what potential relief could the state bring for the Island’s energy needs, and associated escalating costs?

Cyr: Martha’s Vineyard is leading the way with the first industrial-scale offshore wind projects in the country. When Vineyard Wind I comes online in 2023, the Cape and Islands will become a net exporter of clean, renewable energy. While the intricacies of energy markets mean that Vineyarders’ electric bills won’t technically purchase power from this first project, electricity from Vineyard Wind I and subsequent offshore wind projects will flow into Island homes and businesses on day one. I’ve worked hand-in-glove with Vineyard Power, the Cape Light Compact, and Representative Dylan Fernandes to advance community empowerment legislation — now law — that gives towns the ability to vote at town meeting to invest in renewable energy projects. On-Island energy storage is also key, and recently passed climate laws require the installation of a large-scale battery by the utility on Martha’s Vineyard …
Lauzon: Escalating energy costs affect us all in New England, and Martha’s Vineyard is unfortunately already burdened with some of the highest energy costs in the region. I have concerns regarding Vineyard Wind 1 delivering on all of its promises, due to practical and economic problems we have seen with previous wind projects in the region and across the country. I believe we need an all-of-the-above approach to energy: We all want to see clean and renewable energy providing all of us with affordable and reliable power, but the technology is simply not yet adequate to abandon traditional forms of energy. Clean natural gas is critical to providing energy to New England, and I was disappointed when Attorney General Maura Healey blocked additional pipelines into Massachusetts that would have provided jobs and brought down costs for the entire region, and I believe it is reckless and short-sighted when anyone, including sitting politicians like the incumbent State Senator Julian Cyr, advocate for the elimination of these energy sources and set arbitrary deadlines to accomplish that goal … 

1 of 3 Island residents are age 65 and up, exceeding the national average of 1 of 5. What kind of initiatives, if any, do you see putting forth or supporting when it comes to the increasing senior population?

Cyr: The Cape and Islands Senate District has the oldest population in the commonwealth, and I’ve prioritized the needs of older adults since I was first elected. I serve as vice chair of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs, and have sponsored legislation to expand the services home health aides can provide, bolster funding to skilled nursing facilities, and represent the Senate on a statewide Alzheimer’s Commission. I’m a champion of the Green House model, put forward by Navigator Homes and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, to build a new skilled nursing facility, and have been a partner from the outset in advancing the project.

Lauzon: Our senior citizens are in a vulnerable position with escalating costs of living across the commonwealth, and once again this is felt most acutely in communities like the towns of Martha’s Vineyard, where the cost of living is already higher than average. As part of my platform, I have advocated for a doubling of the Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit, an increase in the threshold for no income tax status, temporarily suspending gas and utility taxes, and reviewing and eliminating additional burdensome taxes and fees that affect low-income individuals most of all … I look forward to working with Island Elderly Housing and local towns on Martha’s Vineyard to expand their services with additional units where it makes the most sense for the community, which will be of benefit to all low-income seniors on the Island. 

What are some of the takeaways (feelings, lessons learned, etc.) regarding the recent — and unexpected — arrival of nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants on Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14, and their subsequent transport to Joint Base Cape Cod?

Cyr: Islanders rallied to show support for the new arrivals with the utmost compassion and respect. Food, water, shelter, health and dental care, and even toys for the children were marshaled swiftly. I am in awe of the people of Martha’s Vineyard who moved heaven and earth to care for these unexpected arrivals with dignity and humanity. Although the national attention on these events felt all-consuming, we can’t ignore the broader immigration trends that exist on Martha’s Vineyard and across the commonwealth. The island’s 24 percent population increase in the 2020 Census was driven in large part by immigrants now making a life in Dukes County. One in four students in Vineyard schools speak a language other than English at home. And we are seeing new arrivals in Massachusetts every day. Going forward, I hope we can use this experience and the kindness at the heart of our response to light the fire that will motivate us to more fully welcome the immigrants who are already our neighbors. 

Do you believe you would have handled the situation differently? If so, how?

Lauzon: I commend the people of Martha’s Vineyard for coming together to deal with the unexpected arrival of illegal immigrants in their community. This situation is the result of years of failure on the federal level to deal in a comprehensive way with our immigration policy, which has led to a worsening crisis on the Southern border. To make it clear: Governor DeSantis did send these individuals to the Vineyard as a political stunt. But I believe politics is being played on all sides: The response from Senator Cyr and Representative Fernandes was political in nature. The bottom line of this unfortunate situation is that these individuals do not belong in the United States, and should have been deported. We have a legal process to enter our country, and the federal government’s failure to enforce our laws has led to these types of political stunts. Additionally, the response included placing these migrants ahead of citizens of the district regarding access to state benefits, healthcare, food, transportation, and housing. I disagree with this approach wholeheartedly. For example, there have been proposals to temporarily house our homeless, including homeless veterans, on Joint Base Cape Cod. Those proposals were practically dismissed out of hand. Yet illegal immigrants who do not belong in our community were immediately housed there. That is wrong, and I would not have advocated for the housing of illegal immigrants whose identities could not be verified on a secure military installation, as incumbent Senator Cyr did.