Republican state Rep. Kate D. Campanale, who represents Worcester’s 17th District (encompassing all of Leicester and “all the way to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Main South”), met for an extended interview with Sun correspondent BJ Hill recently at the Leicester Senior Center. This is their third sit-down since her election in 2014.
Find out how she really feels about Moses Dixon, which of her colleagues she’d like to have a beer with, her thoughts on transgender rights, sanctuary cities, Rep. Brian Dempsey’s sudden House departure, and what it’s like being a Republican in Massachusetts in the era of Trump.
[Editor’s note: Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.]
BJH: In November 2016 you won your first re-election campaign. What was that like, going back into the community and again trying to win support after your first election in 2014?
KC: It was a different campaign since you’re running as an incumbent and you have a record to run on. You’re a little more known. Going door-knocking, people remembered me from the previous two years. And you’re able to talk a little bit more about things that you’ve accomplished versus things you want to do. I’d say it’s a little more comfortable campaigning.
What are three differences campaigning in Leicester versus campaigning in your area in Worcester?
Honestly, BJ, I wouldn’t say there are many differences. It’s still the same strategy as far as you’re going to someone’s door, you’re meeting them, you’re introducing yourself for the first or second time, and you’re talking about pretty much the same issues. And you know, every person has [unique] priorities, but in general, I would say that the campaigning part is the same. Maybe one difference would be I’m a little more known [in Leicester] because I grew up here. Other than that, the campaign strategy really is the same, you know, meeting people is the same, whether it’s an event here at the [Leicester] Senior Center or one at University Park. I kind of handle them the same way.
You mentioned priorities. What did you notice were different priorities between folks in Worcester and folks here in Leicester?
It really depends who you talk to. Here at the Senior Center, their priorities are [living] on a fixed income and how they’re affording their medications and their groceries on such a small Social Security check. Or their healthcare issues. Off the top of my head I’m remembering someone off of Airport Drive whose house had been broken into twice within a few months. I’m [hearing about] more public safety issues in Worcester. Then I’m talking to a mother, [whose kids] are in a school’s special education [program]. So, it depends on the person I’m talking to what their priorities are.
Overall, then, what do you think were the biggest priorities that you heard when you were going door to door?
The biggest? I would say always number one is the economy. Everyone wants to make sure they have a good job and their taxes are lower, and they’re seeing where their tax money is being spent. I would say the second is education. People want good schools for their kids and their grandkids. Also, funding for schools, so wrap that all into education. And public safety is always an issue. I would say those are the top three.
You went up against Democratic candidate Moses Dixon. Looking back, what would you say were some of the positive points of his campaign, or as a candidate himself?
Good question. I was so focused on my own campaign that it’s hard to think about that when you’re running on your own record. Um, he was a hard worker, you know? He was out there knocking on doors and meeting people and [trying to be] part of the community and I think he did mean that sincerely.
Amongst candidates and politicians, once you win an election, do you ever go back and think about your old opponents, or is it like in professional sports: You win some, you lose some, and you just move on and don’t think about it again?
Right. You’re bringing up a really good point (laughs). You do think about it [until] Election Night is over and that’s it. The next day you go and pick up your signs and you’re moving on. Luckily for me, I was fortunate enough to win so it’s just a continuation of the job. But you’re always looking back, what worked, what didn’t work, what can you do better this term that maybe you didn’t realize last year. So you look back and make notes.
The last time we spoke, you were on the House Ways and Means Committee. Is that a position that you still hold?
Yes, it is.
Can you explain in a couple of sentences why that’s an esteemed position?
Sure, the House Ways and Means, and the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, are two of the most important because we set the budget. Every agency and group that receives state money comes before us and we hear about what they’re doing with the money, why their programs are doing well, and why they need more money. Basically, every bill with a dollar amount goes through Ways and Means. It’s a learning experience for me. I always have a heads-up about what bills are coming up for a vote throughout the year. That’s an advantage.
On House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey’s sudden resignation:
This is a job where if you’re fortunate, you have the ability to leave on your own terms, if unfortunate, the decision to leave is not up to you. Chairman Dempsey chose to take a new opportunity on his own terms and I wish him the best.
What other committees are you serving on?
I’m on [the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs], which is a new committee for me. I’m looking forward to it, especially since Leicester has one of the highest aging populations in the state.
You were on another committee last term, right?
I was on Healthcare Financing least year. So, this is a new challenge, new things to learn.
So how does that work? Did you voluntarily step down from Healthcare Financing? Or did the party ask you to change?
I asked to stay on Ways and Means, but I was interested in learning something else. Elder Affairs is a growing issue and I think there’s a lot I can learn.
I remember you said that you had a really good relationship with Rep. Donald Berthiaume, R-Spencer. Are you two still close? Or have you found someone else who is more aligned with the committees that you sit on?
I’m still close with Rep. Berthiaume, and also some of the others in Worcester County. I find that you build relationships when you’re in session. I mean, even though there’s 160 of us, we don’t see our colleagues every day as we normally would in an office. We’re not in the building at the same time, or we’re at different events. So, I would say Donny Berthiaume, and Rep. Todd Smola (R-Warren), he’s been a great mentor on Ways and Means.
If you were to get a beer with any representative on a Friday night, and not talk about politics, who would it be?
Good question. There was – I’ll go back and answer your question — but there was one night I was out — I think we were at British Beer Company — and someone I’ve seen a few times came over, and we had a half-hour conversation that had absolutely nothing to do with politics. And afterwards, it was like, “Wow! That felt good!” That was refreshing to have someone come up to you and not bring up any politics whatsoever.
Hmm … to grab a beer and not talk politics? I guess I’ve gone out with Rep. Berthiaume, but politics always comes up, it’s inevitable (laughs). I’d say John Mahoney (D-Worcester), he seems to have a great sense of humor. … And if you do go out with colleagues, it always comes back to work. Always (laughs).
Cool! So are you ready to start talking about the hard stuff?
Good! It’s been a tumultuous year for certain Republicans, at least on the federal level.
I know Massachusetts Republicans are in a different place than Republicans from the rest of the country. But it’s all the same party. If you were to answer the question, “Why be a Republican now, today, under the Donald Trump administration,” what would your answer be?
I had so many questions during the campaign: “Are you supporting Trump?” It all comes back to the same thing, and I sincerely mean this when I say I represent my district. I think I’ve proven that over the past couple years. I hope that’s one of the reasons I got re-elected is that I vote for my district and my constituents. I don’t want to be defined by Donald Trump, or supporting Donald Trump, or being a Donald Trump Republican. I’m Kate Campanale, and I’m a Republican, and this is what I’ve done, and this is how I’ve represented my district. It’s made it difficult for people to see beyond the “R” when all they’re getting is the national news. And that can be a little troubling for some Republicans, especially in Mass.
If it’s troubling for some Republicans here, has the Massachusetts Republican Party distributed guidelines, or talking points — for example, this is how you address issues, as state-level Republicans versus national-level Republicans?
Actually, No. Because there are some in the caucus who are big supporters of Donald Trump, and there are others who want to stay far away. So no, we’ve never been issued any guidelines. I think we’re all pretty independent.
Speaking of independence, have there been votes in the last two years when you’ve gone against the party line?
Oh, plenty of times (laughs). Yes. If you look at the voting record from my first term, I’m actually the most bipartisan legislator. I’m proud of that record. There were a lot of issues specific to Worcester, a lot of overrides I voted to sustain instead of going along with the governor. During my first term, I’d learned how important these programs are to Worcester and the community. I think it shows that I’m independent and I vote for my district.
Let’s talk about gun laws here in Mass. Where do you stand on gun ownership and gun regulations?
Sure. I’ve been working very closely with the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL) on legislation (H. 736) which would provide victims of domestic abuse with information on methods [e.g., obtaining a firearms license] to defend themselves. Which isn’t a law right now, surprisingly.
I’m a Second Amendment supporter. We — I say ‘we’ as fellow Republicans, or gun owners — wanted to withhold some money from the attorney general’s [Maura Healey’s] office until she answered questions that we had on her recent changes in regulations [regarding automatic weapons]. I get a lot of emails on that and I think we need more clarification.
Do you come from a gun-owning family?
No, I don’t. And I’m not a gun owner myself.
Have you joined the NRA?
No, I’m not a member of the NRA.
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OK, so you abstained from voting on the transgender bathroom bill. What’s your stance on that?
I wasn’t present for the vote. I was on a service trip [to the Dominican Republic]. But I would have voted no. And I did vote no on the conference committee bill. That’s public and I’ve been vocal about that.
And what was your reasoning?
Mostly it’s a public safety issue. That’s the number one reason. I think it becomes a slippery slope when you’re letting people define, you know, it’s not very clear. I think there’s a lot of vagueness. It was a bad bill.
So, you’re not shutting the door to revisiting this in the future? You just want something more concrete?
Let’s talk immigration. Historically, Worcester has been a city of immigrants, especially in your district. How do you feel about the current administration’s proposed travel ban on people from certain countries?
I think there’s a lot of misconceptions and — I don’t want to say miscommunication — a lot of false information being put out there. If you look at Trump’s executive order, it keeps two of President Obama’s executive orders relating to the Dreamers and making children low [deportation] priorities. I think there’s … again, a lot of misinformation being put out. There’s also a big difference between “immigrants” and “undocumented citizens” and “illegal immigrants.” We should be careful about what term we use and what we mean. I think there’s a lot being spun around.
Does your office receive a lot of calls from people who have been affected by this?
We’ve received a lot of phone calls about voting no on sanctuary cities. There [are] a lot of emails out there and you find out that they’re not from constituents; [the senders] live in different parts [of the country], but they hear things on the radio and then they end up sending it to every representative. But personally no, I have not received many calls about it. Which is surprising, with my district made up the way it is.
Have you received any calls [for help with immigration issues]? I ask because, speaking from personal experience, those are the stories that really tug your heartstrings. Stories of families split apart, the father goes to work one day, for example, and doesn’t come home [because he was stopped for a minor infraction and then] arrested because his paperwork wasn’t in order. Do you remember any calls in the last two years similar to that?
No. I will say that personal stories have always changed my mind about different things. You go in thinking you’re opposed to or supporting something, and then you talk to [a constituent] and you hear their story. But I haven’t heard any story that has been that dramatic.
So if it did come down to a vote, what is your take on sanctuary cities, and keeping federal immigration officers out of the community?
As the bill is written today, I would vote against becoming a sanctuary city or a state.
There’s a lot of change going on in Worcester. But one area that seems static is Webster Square. Do you know of any big projects in that area?
Last July they had a charrette. Then a couple of months ago they [city of Worcester and the Webster Square Business Association] had a follow-up about what they had found since [July], and some studies they’re looking at. They narrowed it down to that area between Park Ave. and Main Street, where the Stearns Tavern was, Bank of America, Advanced Auto Parts, and Zoots. They’re comparing that with other similarly designed intersections in other parts of the country. It was kind of neat comparing, “Well, this is how this city developed this intersection, but this is how this city developed this. … What businesses do you think will work well here?” So, they’re strategizing.
Any other achievements that you’d like to mention?
I’m looking forward to this session. I feel a little more comfortable, this being my third year. I’ve had one bill already that has come out of committee favorably, so that’s showing some good signs. Also, the bill I’m working on with GOAL on protective orders seems to be getting some traction.
What was the first bill that you mentioned?
It’s a corporate tax bill (H.1482). Right now, the Department of Revenue estimates a corporation’s yearly taxes in one [invoice]. It’s just an estimate. So [my] bill would take the estimate and break it into quarterly payments. It’s a little more accurate and a little [easier], especially for smaller corporations who may be struggling. They won’t have to make [a single large payment].
Can’t companies already pay their taxes quarterly?
[They] need a certain waiver for that. So [my bill] fixes a small problem. We’ll see how far it goes. The first bill was voted favorably out of [the Revenue Committee].
The last time we spoke, you had an idea to make a tax incentive for companies to repay employees’ student loans.
Correct, that (H.1480) is still my top legislative priority this year. I think there’s a really good appetite for it, at least in the business community. And obviously for people with student loans! (laughs) Now will there be an appetite for it in the Legislature? That’s who we’ll have to convince.
How is Coes Pond looking?
It’s looking really good. The project over there is [the relocation of] Stearns Tavern. I’m not sure if you’ve driven by lately but they have all the playground equipment up there, and that’s going to be a multigenerational accessible playground. It can be used for five-years-olds and people with disabilities. They’re going to have swings that you can put a wheelchair in next to the regular swings, so kids with disabilities can swing alongside their friends or their brothers or their sisters. I think Stearns Tavern going in there is going to be a huge asset to the development of that whole area. There’s a great restaurant over there on Mill Street. They can open that up and put some outdoor seating. Once everything gets in, there are plans for where the old Big D used to be. So … I think you’ll see a lot of good things happening in that area. It takes time, but we’re seeing progress every year.
OK, one more hard question and one more easy question.
Tell me about the opioid epidemic. I think at this point everyone in Mass. has been affected by it, either a friend, or a relative, or a co-worker. Have you been affected, and what are the legislators working on to help solve it?
Sure, last year we passed this bill which I think has had some positive effects. Yet, I was just talking to a Worcester firefighter and he said it’s gotten worse for him, [the drug-related calls] he’s seeing over the past seven months. So that’s disappointing to hear. Are we going backwards when we put all these efforts into making changes? And you know, regardless, I think we still have a lot of work to do. And we know it’s not just Massachusetts. But what can we do? The Legislature, sure, we passed this bill, but you have to be careful, too, about what you put forward as a quick fix and the consequences that it could have. Now we’re getting calls from people who aren’t addicted who can’t get their prescription filled. But I’d rather see that than have more overdoses or deaths.
What do you think needs to happen?
I know [Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.] is working hard on this. I’m not speaking for him, but it seems to be his number one priority. He’s going around and doing different forums to educate the public. I think most people are aware there’s an epidemic going on, so it’s getting [them] to these forums, [teaching them] there are resources available, and directing people to the right resources. How do you know when someone needs help? And if they need help, do you know where to send them? Do you know how to help them? I’m not sure that’s something we can regulate; it’s more of a public awareness effort.
When you hear about people going to the emergency room for a broken leg, but they’re taking so long [to be seen] because [the ER staff is] dealing with [overdoses] … the problem stems in so many different directions. I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t.
How was your trip to the Dominican Republic [in May 2016]?
I loved it. It was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to go back. It was a great experience on so many levels. Down there, if a child has a physical or mental disability, they can’t go to the normal school. They’re all in this one special school. That’s where I was working. I was working with kids of all ages, from four- or five-year-olds to late teenagers. There was this boy, maybe seven or eight years old, he was so bright, but [because] he just had a limp arm, they wouldn’t let him go to the normal school. So he’s stuck in this special school. But they’re not teaching him because they’re teaching everyone the same thing on the same level, though everyone has different learning abilities. We had this app I used — I still have it on my phone — an app to learn colors and shapes. Just to see him get so excited to get to read!
They have, I can’t even describe it to you, they call it their library. I walked in, it’s all these encyclopedias from the 1960’s! The books were in Spanish, but it wasn’t even worth looking through them because they didn’t relate to the kids.
Part of it comes down to this stigma [of disabilities] there, too. Part of [what I did there] was try to build community awareness for the school. I was walking around to stores and churches and asking if it was OK to put up fliers. It got people talking because they’re, like, “Oh I know someone who has a daughter who has autism” —-they may not know what autism is, they just know that she has a disability so they don’t send her to [classes]. They’ll say, “There’s a school for that?” Because parents are so embarrassed that their kid has a disability they won’t even take them out of the house.
That in itself was very sad to see. And I worked a little bit in the hospital, too — I could talk about this forever …
Do you have plans to go back?
I don’t have plans but I’d love to go back, just to get an update. After coming back and reflecting on it, I have a new appreciation for the [constituents] in my district who come from other countries, [especially students] at South High. You see these kids who are first-generation [Americans], they come here, and they take advantage of every opportunity they’re given, and then you see them getting full rides to Harvard or UMass and it’s incredible to see.
I just got back from a week in Cuba. And it was crazy how difficult the government makes it to do anything.
Was that a work trip?
No, that was a vacation. It was a very challenging trip. The government there controls even the soda. You go to a restaurant and you could get a soda for $2.50, or get the national beer for a dollar. I spent a day and half in Havana and [spent the remainder] traveling around the country. But I was calling the airline towards the end to ask if they had any earlier flights home (laughs).