NORTH ADAMS—Not quite a week after Beacon Hill’s great document dump—more formally, the bill-filing deadline—Pittsfield Senator Adam Hinds was discussing his agenda. But his January 24 roundtable with constituents in an old railroad building turned pub was hardly a lecture. Electeds were talking, but voters were, too.
That setup had helped the second-term senator earn constituents’ trust. Representing the westernmost swath of Western Mass, Hinds has deployed listening skills developed from years of international affairs and nonprofits work to absorb and address concerns. This term Hinds has rolled out a legislative agenda aimed at the unmet rural needs.
“When you represent 165,000 people, you’re inevitably going to have a broad spectrum of interest,” Hinds said. But, just as much as raising the minimum wage, the environment or criminal justice reform, Hinds says his rural agenda fits his preference for problem-solving politics.
Two years ago, he had a tough act to follow in Benjamin Downing, an advocate and evangelist for the commonwealth’s westernmost frontier. Only a term in with no prior elected experience, Hinds, 42, has gotten a firm grip on the politician thing.
Walked a Million Hills
The Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district includes all of Berkshire county and the western fringes of the other three counties. The size of Rhode Island and largely rural save Pittsfield and North Adams, the district is the furthest from Boston. Though it has few peers in the state.
“It’s tough when you don’t have population density,” former Worthington Rep Steve Kulik said of rural areas.
Eric Wilson, a North Adams advocate for the disabled, said people with disabilities face added pressure given low population density and fewer resources.
“We need the money here, we need training,” he said.
Martha Thurber chairs the Mohawk Regional School District Committee and represents the Hinds’s hometown, Buckland. She said he grew up near her and understand the region’s challenges.
People in Eastern Massachusetts “can’t conceive of places that don’t have Internet. He understands. He lived with this.”
Much of Hinds’s career, however, took him far from the snowy hills of Western Mass.
Made My Way Back Home
In an interview after the roundtable, Hinds, dressed in a sweater, jacket and all-weather boots, eagerly discussed his background, agenda and unexpectedly tumultuous first term. His first term had been a roller coaster. Personal milestones touched off his second term—he got engaged.
Politics is not wholly foreign to him. Shortly after graduating from Wesleyan, Hinds worked for then-Congressman John Olver and on John Kerry’s presidential campaign reporting to top adviser Susan Rice, years before she joined the Obama administration.
After 2004, Hinds got a masters from Tufts’s Fletcher School for Diplomacy and joined the UN. There he worked on bringing Kurds and the rest of Iraq together, the Middle East peace process in Israel, and the conflict in Syria.
By 2014, Hinds was ready to exit international affairs and trade towns like Erbil for Egremont. He took community outreach jobs in Pittsfield and North Adams. Only back two years, Downing was stepping down and Hinds caught the political blog himself.
As a candidate he did not initially emphasize his international work.
“People could respond that’s wonderful about Baghdad, but what are you going to do about my pothole,” Hinds explained.
But that mediating background proved helpful balancing the district’s competing demands.
Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who represents Pittsfield—and Hinds himself—in the House, acknowledged a divide between her city and the rest of Berkshire County. But Hinds has been a consistent advocate for city issues like pilot rail service to New York via Albany.
“I think he balances the needs of his biggest community, Pittsfield, with his rural towns” she said.
Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE, concurred.
“I love that he cares about the rural agenda,” VanSant said, pointing to problems like rural health disparities. She praised Hinds’s office for working with and employing from the whole spectrum of diversity in the Berkshires.
“That’s what a lot of politicians are missing. They are representing the people and they are not taking the time to listen,” she said.
Which Came As a Surprise
“We talk about it a lot as senators,” Hinds said of last session. “There is some reflection in the coming term.” Indeed, at their January 2 inauguration, senators liberally referencedthe freshly renovated chamber as a metaphor for renewal.
Still, Hinds, added, senators feel genuinely closer and better able to support each other.
“Group facilitators that say you don’t really bond as a group until you’ve gone through a crisis,” Hinds said half-jokingly.
“It’s certainly made what is a tough term all that much more difficult,” former Senator Downing said of the events in Hinds’s first term.
Downing first met Hinds shortly before the latter began work at the Pittsfield Community Connection. They stayed in touch as Hinds moved on to the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Altogether, it made for a very different resume than Downing had when he ran for Senate at 25 in 2006.
“What Adam started with that I didn’t start with is, quite frankly, some serious scar tissue,” Downing said. “When you’ve been trying to solve problems, invariably you’ve made somebody mad.”
In a statement, Senate President Karen Spilka praised Hinds as a “smart legislator and a good negotiator” and appreciated his global perspective. “Yet he knows that what matters most is the needs of his residents and his communities,” she said.
Indeed, that’s why she appointed him to a commission reviewing matters bedeviling rural areas: education and school transportation costs.
“As a member of the Senate Ways & Means Committee”—which Spilka chaired before becoming Senate President—”he worked with me and the rest of our colleagues to create a $1.5 million to start a rural aid program in the state budget,” she added.
Searched for Form and Land
School transportation was a perennial concern for Kulik, too. Along with employee healthcare, these costs strain towns with stagnant growth and acres of tax-exempt state-owned land.
“The commonwealth made a promise that it would pay the transportation costs if towns banded together,” Kulik said, referencing the formation of regional school district. Beacon Hill has never fully funded the budget line. But a recent budget line for rural educational sparsity aid and the brewing education funding debate has given Kulik hope.
“If it is true and education funding reform is going to be a key objective” this session, Kulik explained, “this is a great opportunity for people like Adam like [Rep] Natalie Blaisto try to finally address, in a comprehensive way, this perennial underfunding of regional school transportation.”
The cause got a lift when, in a 2017 audit, State Auditor Suzanne Bump rapped “antiquated” funding and processes for regional school district.
Hinds has also filed rural-oriented bills on climate change, jobs, and cultivating the recreation economy.
He’s filed no fewer than three arboreal bills. One looks to preserve old-growth forests as a buffer against human settlement. Another would review payments in-lieu-of taxes to localities that host state-owned forest. A third looks at measuring and monetizing the carbon trees could sequester, a potential boon to owners of woodland. It could be especially important given local skepticism of land-based windfarms.
“We do need to invest in renewables, but what we love about this region is its natural setting,” he said. Hinds does support offshore windfarms, however.
Hinds has signed onto Senator Eric Lesser’s proposal to pay people, such as Metro Boston telecommuters, to relocate to the 413.
Although the Pittsfield Democrat has his own rural jobs act. It would encourage business to bring jobs to small towns using a definition that includes 250 of the commonwealth’s 351 municipalities.
With billions in state tax breaks, heavily concentrated in the east, Hinds said, “Why can’t we create tax incentives to make sure investments are taking place in small smaller towns and smaller companies?”
Both ideas are not without controversy. Some believe the priority should be investments not subsidies. But these proposals recognize the sword of demographics—Boston’s growth versus the Massachusetts occident’s stagnancy—could slash the legislative delegation after the 2020 census.
Although, Others, like Rep Farley-Bouvier, note many employers can’t attract young workers.
“We have population decline here in Berkshire County. Employers are actually looking for more young people,” she said. “But what is it that young people need to come here and stay here?” Younger workers are looking for better transportation and urban housing.
Nonetheless, some of Hinds’s bills seem stunningly obvious. Another would establish an Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Department of Conservation & Recreation.
Outdoor sports like hiking, mountain biking, rafting and others, particularly in western Franklin County, are a growing segment of the economy.
“It’s developing itself as a real regional, if not national attraction for outdoor adventure sports,” Kulik said. But without state investment and promotion, outdoorsy folks may opt for Vermont or New Hampshire.
You’re Face to Face
Back in North Adams, Hinds was sanguine. He and his staff worried the weather would keep people away. Instead, the turnout exceeded expectations.
VanSant said he has had a good start, citing work on opioids and transportation. “He is available, and he cares about people and community.”
Kulik found the same thing during joint coffee hours they held during their brief overlap in office.
“He just connects with people. They know he likes his work. They can trust his work.” Recalling his retirement announcement last year, Kulik added. “one of my regrets about that was I didn’t get to work for Adam hinds for a longer period of time.”
Looking ahead, Hinds mused that few people had pointed out how his international negotiation background could apply in Boston—or the district. With Senate settling back into normality, it could become especially handy.
“I am incredibly interested in getting started with the committee work where I think that will be increasingly relevant,” he said.