State Rep. Kulik reflects on his time in office, the race for his seat

"I’ve been able to make sure Franklin and Hampshire counties’ interests are protected," Rep. Steve Kulik (D-Worthington) said.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik waves as he walks in the 71st annual Fourth of July parade in Chesterfield last week. The longtime representative from the 1st Franklin District takes some time to reflect on his political career. GAZETTE PHOTO/Jerrey Roberts

As he’s worked on negotiating his last state budget, Rep. Stephen Kulik has had his mind on other things, like checking out the seven-way primary race to fill his job after December and serving as grand marshal in last weekend’s 250th anniversary parade in his adopted hometown, Worthington.

Kulik, who turns 68 next month, is part of the six-member conference committee that brokered a resolution between Senate and House versions of the spending plan.

As vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, he’s played this key role for eight budget cycles, in addition to working on the chamber’s versions of bond bills and other key funding packages.

“It’a an amazing privilege to do this work, and very humbling,” says the legislator who since February’s retirement announcement has been having deja vu moments like the recent Franklin County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast, where he found himself senior legislator at the dais. (Former state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, in the audience, drew a standing ovation, though.)

“One of first things I did as a candidate, I went to that chamber breakfast to start meeting people,” he recalls. “I’m feeling a mix of wistfulness and some real satisfaction about the relationships with people I’ve built over the years and the work I’ve done collaboratively.”

Watching multiple Democrats stump for his 1st Franklin District seat, which covers 19 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties as well as the town of Chester in Hampden County, also harkens back to his own four-way primary in 1993. Back then he was an 11-year Worthington selectman seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Jonathan “Jay” Healy of Charlemont, who was leaving the seat to become state agriculture commissioner after 22 years.

Kulik had been familiar with Beacon Hill, both as a Massachusetts Municipal Association board member and, in 1993, as president, and also in his job as a consultant to the president and chancellor of University of Massachusetts.

“When Jay left, I thought, ‘I think I could do that, and I could do it well,’” recalls Kulik, who’d had a good working relationship as a selectman with then-Republican Healy. “But it was kind of a daunting decision to make, because I came from a very small Hampshire County town, and most of the population in the 1st Franklin District was in Franklin County. In some ways, I was as surprised as anybody when I won the primary.”

Kulik is surprised by how many candidates jumped into the race this year for his seat, compared to the three in the primary race to replace retiring Democratic state Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley (along with a Republican primary candidate), the two Democratic contenders running to unseat independent state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst and two Democrats running to replace the late state Rep. Peter Kocot of Northampton in the 1st Hampshire District.

As he watches hopefuls debate many of the same issues he has wrestled with in office, like Healy before him, Kulik observes, “I may weigh in. … Some people are truly not as well prepared; they don’t have the experience I think it takes to do the job. As I read articles and go to their websites and watch some of the forums online, a lot them agree with each other on policy issues, so voters really have to make a determination on experience, and their understanding of the job, and how to articulate the district’s concerns in a legislative arena.”

He adds, “It’s complicated to be able to push the priorities of the district and use your own priorities and your own judgment, and also reflect the interests and will of the voters in a 160-member body where there are so many divergent and parochial interests and geographical priorities.”

He hadn’t planned initially to endorse anyone and says he believes voters will be able to sort it all out.

“I’m asked about it every day in the district. … Someone will say, ‘There are so many people running. … Who do you like?’ They’re confused because everyone’s pretty much in agreement on the major issues.”

Same issues, some gains

Many of the issues being debated echo those of 25 years ago, yet Kulik says there have been gains.

“Regional school transportation, for instance, goes back 50 or 60 years, and we’ve had ups and downs with conditions in the economy and the state budget. It’s usually one of those things that’s more expendable when things need to be cut,” because it’s not a priority for most legislators.

And when Kulik has suggested fundamentally revamping the formula for what was originally promised to be 100 reimbursed, he’s gotten blow-back from urban legislators who want additional transportation money for their schools as well.

“The overarching thing I’ve been able do over 25 years with my urban and suburban colleagues is to get them to understand about rural Mass. and small towns as having unique needs — education, transportation, human service delivery. It costs more to deliver services over long distances, and you don’t have the critical mass of clients for home care, for certain antipoverty programs. And health care delivery is more challenging, more expensive,” Kulik said. “With colleagues and advocates, I’ve made some progress over the years. But they’re things Jay talked about when he was in office and things I’ve talked about and worked on. And things that whoever succeeds me is going to be working on.”

He’s thrilled at seeing “sparsity aid” starting to be taken seriously on Beacon Hill, and said he’s been working to get the concept — first broached by Mohawk Trail school Superintendent Michael Buoniconti and incorporated into the Senate budget through advocacy by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield — included in the budget as well.

“It’s all of a continuous piece of that argument that things out here cost more,” Kulik says. “It’s a matter of scale. Sparsity aid is a nice opening-the-door-a-crack. Ultimately, there has to be change in the Chapter 70 distribution formula, which can only be done when there’s significantly more money to invest in education.”

Pointing to the need for a constitutional amendment to allow a graduated income tax, Kulik says, “I just think we need to figure out a new revenue source to pay for that because people want it and resent that they have to do it out of their local town budgets, relying on a regressive tax.”

Rather than simply looking to expand tax on internet sales or added revenue from casinos or marijuana sales, Kulik emphasizes, “What we need in the state is a more progressive tax policy. I believe our tax system has contributed to income inequality in our state. It’s a national problem, but it could be improved in Massachusetts if people who earn more pay more.”

Ways and Means

Kulik describes his experience on Ways and Means — where he never expected to be appointed — as “phenomenal. It puts me at the table not just for the budget with all the spending priorities and policy issues in that. Every major bill goes through Ways and Means, so I have an opportunity to have input: capital spending bills, any bills, whether on transportation, the environment or capital spending like the courthouse bond bill — I’ve been able to make sure Franklin and Hampshire counties’ interests are protected.”

Yet deep-rooted budget pressures force decisions that prove frustrating.

“The budget is a reflection of our need and values, and we’re a state that tries to take care of people. We pride ourselves on being progressive. When we don’t have money to spend more on education or health care, that is difficult to swallow. I really think we’re going to need more revenue in the commonwealth,” especially since the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled against allowing a so-called “millionaire’s tax” question on this fall’s ballot.

“I have a constituency that’s by nature pretty frugal and practical; you can see it in the way town meetings make decisions and spend money,” Kulik says. “They’re not spenders. But they also want good roads, good schools, they want opportunities for their kids, they want jobs closer to home. We’ve made some progress over the years,” especially with broadband finally becoming available after a drawn-out but concerted effort.

“There are a lot of frustrations with the job because you can’t just snap your fingers and get things done,” he admits. “You always want to collaborate, but you’re always in competition for a finite amount of resources and finite attention to a problem. Part of the job is to be a cheerleader, an advocate for your district, but to do it in a way that doesn’t burn bridges with people you have to work with and make collective decisions.”

That includes working with House leaders as the Ways and Means vice chairman tries “to effectively articulate what’s important” in the 1st Franklin District.

“It’s a fine line,” Kulik explains. “You want to be on Ways and Means, but you have to be mindful that sometimes that may conflict with things you want to do for your constituency, in the way you want to do it. It’s both instinct and learning how to balance that.”

An omnibus energy bill like the more liberal Senate unanimously passed last month is a perfect example, says Kulik. Before boosting renewable energy and environmental legislation in the House, he began his career working on the Hilltown Energy Project, then running Hampshire County’s Energy Office and later promoting renewable energy and conservation at the state Energy Office.

“I’d vote for that Senate bill if it came up in the House tomorrow. It’s not going to come out of the House the way it looked in the Senate, but I’m going to keep pushing, because I’m going to use my position to push what I think is important,” he says.

Kulik, whose sprawling 19-town district covers 511 square miles across three counties, says he won’t miss the “pretty grueling” commute between Worthington and Boston — a 35-minute drive to the Mass Pike in Westfield and then at least two hours more — but he will miss daily interactions around the district. (Kulik’s mother lives in Newton, 10 miles from the Statehouse, so he’s able to stay over one night or two, rather than having to make the drive every day. Still, “It’s a lot of time on the road. I’m not going to miss that.”)

He’s concerned that the district, arguably the most sprawling in Massachusetts, will become even larger, making it even harder for constituents to feel a connection to their state rep.

“From the 30,000-foot level, I’m proudest of being part of raising greater awareness of rural and small-town issues that I didn’t see was there at the same level when I went into the Legislature,” Kulik says. “I think there’s more respect from people from other areas of small towns, and less misunderstanding.”

When all’s said and done, Kulik says, “We’ve been able to move the needle a little bit on a lot of these issues.”


Written by Richie Davis, Daily Hampshire Gazette