At NorthEndWaterfront.com, we share a coincident tenure with that of State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, having founded this site during the campaign of the 2009 Special Election when he won the 3rd Suffolk District seat vacated by former Speaker Sal DiMasi. The district includes the Boston neighborhoods of the North End, Waterfront, Downtown, Chinatown and the South End.
Much has changed for Michlewitz in the past ten years. On the personal level, he has recently turned 40 years old and left behind his “most stylish” bachelor status to marry fellow North Ender, Maria Puopolo Michlewitz. But much has also stayed the same as he continues to reside in the same neighborhood where he grew up as one of the few Jewish kids, surrounded by the culture of a predominantly Italian community at the time. In our interview, Michlewitz mentions the North End frequently telling story after story of how the neighborhood frames his thinking on issues and his dedication to public service.
The progressive Democrat continues to be popular in the district having faced no significant opposition since that first election a decade ago. He has steadily moved up the State House ranks, sponsoring some of the Commonwealth’s most influential legislation, such as regulating the technology industry giants in ride sharing (Uber / Lyft) and more recently the first statewide regulation and taxation of short term rentals (Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO) in the country.
The Ways and Means Committee is responsible for writing the $43 billion state budget and puts a mark on nearly every piece of legislation in the House. The chair seat is often seen as a stepping stone toward House Speaker. Current Speaker DeLeo of Winthrop has been in the role for ten years, the longest in state history. With this latest appointment, DeLeo also reaffirms his support for Michlewitz.
Just after the Ways and Means Committee Chair announcement, we sat down with Rep. Michlewitz in his new office at the State House to get a read on his priorities and thoughts on where the state legislature is heading.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: What does your new appointment mean for your direct constituents in the North End, South End, Downtown Boston and throughout the 3rd Suffolk District?
Rep. Michlewitz: First and foremost, it gives our district a front seat at the table of the budget process. In the Airbnb issue, for example, that was certainly important to the district given the problems we are having with it taking away housing stock and driving up rents. However, in the Financial Services Committee, we had to build consensus through the entire House and then with the Senate. Building consensus can take some twists and turns, and that is likely to be the case with my current legislative priorities.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: From a big picture perspective, what do you want to accomplish as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee?
Rep. Michlewitz: I want to work to keep the State economy strong and moving in a positive direction as it has been over the past few years. There are certainly challenges coming out of Washington D.C. and how that trickles down to the states becomes a concern.
NEWF: Why has the state not hit its budget targets in the past couple of months?
Michlewitz: My understanding is that the sales tax is coming in fine, but income taxes have been a bit down. Capital gains taxes have not been hitting benchmarks which could because of fewer real estate sales, as we’ve seen in the North End and downtown Boston. People are listing homes, but they’re not moving as quickly which could be related to news out of Washington. In the past two months, the combined shortfall is over $400 million. But, we had been over our projections in previous months so it ebbs and flows. It is certainly something to keep an eye on. The job of this committee is to produce a budget that is balanced and continues to foster growth in the economy.
NEWF: Having led the ride share (Uber/Lyft) and short-term rentals (Airbnb) bills through the House, did you set out to become the face of technology regulation and overseeing the “gig economy” in the Commonwealth?
Michlewitz: Airbnb-related issues were the first to impact my district, especially in the North End and Chinatown. I actually filed legislation on short-term rentals first, before the Uber/Lyft bill which fell into my committee. On the ride share regulation, the public safety issues were very troubling to me, especially drivers with sex offender records and suspended licenses. We saw it more with Uber than Lyft, but these companies were not doing proper background checks. We made some compromises, such as with fingerprinting, but at the end of the day I am proud of that bill. There will always be problems, but we are not hearing the horror stories anymore and we have seen a drastic reduction in assault incidents. That legislation took hundreds of Uber drivers off the road that should not have been there in the first place.
NEWF: Do you have any new technology-related initiatives?
Michlewitz: I have recently filed to regulate peer-to-peer car sharingentities, such as Turo and GetAround, where people rent their cars directly to others by listing on an app or website. In addition to safety and insurance, the proposed legislation would add a $1/day fee toward funding the MBTA. The bill would also seek to eliminate the $10/day car rental fee that Boston and Cambridge residents pay toward the Convention Center. Now that the center is built, there is no need for that.
NEWF: Has coming up through the House as a younger legislator helped your understanding of how technology companies should be regulated?
Michlewitz: Perhaps being part of a younger generation has helped, although I technically am not part of the millennial generation. Though I definitely see how that generation’s politics is shaped by how they relate to technology having growing up with computers and social media their entire life.
NEWF: With your new statewide role, how will that change your accessibility and transparency?
Michlewitz: Transparency has always been important in the legislature. On the district level, I hold Saturday coffee hours and I can personally attest that my cell phone number is very accessible by my constituents.
NEWF: What surprises might we see in the upcoming budget?
Michlewitz: Well, if I told you they wouldn’t be surprises! But, I do want to reiterate to my constituents that my district will still be my #1 priority. No matter what position I have held in the House, it has always been that way. Our neighborhood issue with short-term rentals set the stage for state regulation and there may be similar opportunities in the future. It will always be challenging to build statewide consensus, but I intend to keep the district at the forefront of my mind. I have always lived in the North End and have no plans to leave anytime soon.
NEWF: Looking at your home neighborhood, how would you characterize the North End today?
Michlewitz: I think the North End community is stronger today than it was ten years ago. I am not saying that is just me, but working together, we have made great strides. We have changed the trend of public property becoming private. When I was first elected, one of the tougher issues was confronting Mayor Menino about saving the North End Branch Library from closing. As a neighborhood, we came together and joined with other communities so that no libraries were closed. *Advertisement*
Next, was the city printing plant on North Street. We turned the closing of that plant into a positive by helping save the North Bennet Street School from leaving the city while also expanding the Eliot School in the former NBSS space. That has turned into a complete success especially once the city also bought the property for 585 Commercial Street to be a new school building.
In the latest city administration, I am proud of working with Mayor Walsh as the city invests in the neighborhood through a renovated North Square, Prado (Paul Revere Mall) and a significant amount of money to renovate Puopolo and Langone Parks on the waterfront.
Another recent success was saving the nursing home on Fulton Street where we again came together. We had to pull out all the tools in the toolbox for that one. In that case, I will give the Boston Planning & Redevelopment Authority (BPDA) some credit for standing with us on that.
I am concerned about the North Washington Street Bridge reconstruction and how it will impact the neighborhood. It is a project that has to be done but it will cause pain. We fought back against the “no left turn” on Commercial Street. I will continue to work with MassDot and those in the community to mitigate these types of issues during construction.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: Traffic and transportation are front page concerns in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth. You have introduced a new bill to increase fines, particularly around blocking the box, looking to raise the current fine of $150 up to $500, and add insurance points to the driver’s record. How else would you like the budget to address the transportation and MBTA issues?
Rep. Michlewitz: The House has its transportation committee and my district counterpart in the Senate, Joe Boncore, is Chair of Transportation there. I know they are going to grapple with these issues. From a budget perspective, it is obviously at the top of the list. But, we have to build consensus at the end of the day. For instance, in 2013 we did the gas tax and passed, what I believe to be, a substantial increase. It was not easy. There was hope to go higher, but we had to look at it from not just a Boston perspective. We tried to give the consumers a direct say at the ballot box but that was soundly defeated by the voters the following year. We don’t want to take anything off the table, but I have to keep in mind how this consensus would work.
NEWF: One of your first major bills to be passed related to the Greenway Conservancy, steward to the ribbon of parks that runs through your district on property owned by the State coming out of the Central Artery project. How do you reflect on that now?
Michlewitz: That was a battle where the Conservancy was not seeing things for the benefit of the local community. I remember you coming up here years ago and expressing these concerns. I never thought giving the Greenway to DCR or Boston Parks was going to result in the parks we deserved after living through the Big Dig. So, we had to change the structure of the Conservancy board to bring on locals and figure out a long-term financing plan. Getting the City to the table by using some of the Winthrop Garage proceeds was key. The legislation we put through was not a pure fix, but we had to call out the Conservancy at the time to be more transparent and work with the neighborhoods.
NEWF: Why is re-precincting a priority for you?
Michlewitz: This is something that has impacted my district more than most. The City of Boston has been exempt from re-precincting since 1921. Development over the last century has drastically changed the populations in certain precincts, making the numbers uneven. For example, the North End has four precincts with Precinct 3-1 on the waterfront being the largest at nearly the size of the other three combined. This creates longer lines and voter inequity that could be solved through re-precincting.
NEWF: How is the legislature working to increase its own diversity to reflect that in the population?
Michlewitz: The re-districting process in 2011 created the most minority-majority districts in the history of the legislature. For instance, we created the first Lawrence seat to reflect population growth but also diversity. There will be an opportunity for more of that coming up in the 2021 redistricting. We also have a large number of women elected in recent cycles. The Speaker showed that 48% of House leadership posts are women, greater than the underlying percentage of woman in the chamber. When I look at who I endorse, this is something I also strive to support.
NEWF: When we interviewed you at the start of your first full term,
you talked about your passion for the job. How do you stay passionate
for public service and the job as representative as you were ten years
Michlewitz: I would say I am more passionate now then when I first started because I have some state and neighborhood accomplishments under my belt. I pinch myself that the people of this district continue to re-elect me. It’s humbling and it is something I hope to do as long as I am effective.
NEWF: Thank you, Rep. Michlewitz, for speaking with NorthEndWaterfront.com.