Highlights from Joe’s “Virtual Town Hall”

With traditional campaign activities shelved due to social distancing, Joe Gravellese, Candidate for State Representative, turned to Facebook last week to host a “Virtual Town Hall,” answering questions online about his candidacy. By the end of the week, the video had over 1,400 views.

Some questions and answers from the Town Hall event are below. (Answers lightly edited for length and clarity.) The full video can be viewed here on Joe Gravellese’s Facebook page.

What specific steps do we need to take to improve transportation in our community?

“The first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem. We have a transportation crisis in Massachusetts, no matter what mode of transportation you take. If you get on the T, you deal with breakdowns and overcrowding. If you get on the commuter rail, the situation is even worse – the trains only run every couple of hours and are often delayed or canceled. And if you get in your car, you deal with the worst traffic congestion in the country.

How did we get here? For years, we’ve underfunded the T. We built up a multi-billion dollar backlog in repairs to the system, making it unsafe and unreliable, and failed to expand the system as the economy grew and evolved.

Meanwhile, as the T has gotten less reliable, it’s also gotten more expensive. Since 1991, bus fares are up 300%. Subway fares are up 220%. Commuter rail passes cost 246% more. We’re charging more money for worse service.

The end result? In 2017, the average Massachusetts resident drove over 9,000 miles per person. In 1981, that number was about 6,250. So people are driving more and further distances – possibly due to further commutes due to our housing issues, possibly due to Uber and Lyft, and possibly because the T has become unreliable and in some cases more expensive than driving. You see the impact of this on your daily commute.

So, we need to fix the T – because that impacts everyone, including people who drive, because every person on a bus or a train is a car off the road. We need to fix the backlog of repairs to the current system, but we also need to do a lot more than that.

We need to connect the Blue and Red lines on the MBTA. We also need to extend the blue line to Lynn or Salem. It’s long overdue, and would give residents here access to jobs in Cambridge, the Seaport, and up the North Shore.

We also need to transform the commuter rail into a reliable regional rail system that runs every 30 minutes. Right now, people from all over the North Shore drive to Wonderland every day to get on the T, adding to the traffic problem in Revere and Saugus. We need to give people options to get on the commuter rail further up the North Shore closer to where they live. 

When you lay out making investments like this a lot of people  say “we can’t afford it.” But in reality, we can’t afford the status quo. The transportation crisis threatens the future of our economy. The average resident of Greater Boston lost over $3,000 last year in lost productivity from sitting in traffic – not to mention the impact of wear and tear on vehicles from aging bridges and roads, plus the untold burden of stress and mental health challenges. We need a change.” 

What changes would you propose to zoning laws to address the cost of housing in Massachusetts?

“First, we need to understand that the housing problem is also a transportation problem. Every community that has access to the T – as we are seeing in Revere – is seeing prices go through the roof as all the people working in Boston are bidding on limited supply. If we had more communities with access to the T, it would take some of the development burden off a small number of cities right around Boston. 

Consider Germany. If you live in the Berlin area and are about 40 mins out of the city – think of a place like Natick, Beverly, or Foxboro – you have access to a train that runs every 10 minutes, seven days a week, to get to downtown Berlin. If we had something like that in Boston, there would be so many more communities with access to jobs and it would relieve the pressure on communities like ours. 

As for zoning – a lot of the housing that families like mine grew up in are basically illegal to build now in most cities. I grew up in a two-family house, in an in-law apartment with my grandparents. Lots of Italian immigrants around here grew up in 2- or 3-family homes, living with family, or in small, modest apartment buildings. You don’t see these built anymore – because you’re not allowed to build them in our zoning laws. In much of Revere, in-law apartments are either illegal, or require an expensive, bureaucratic process to make them legal. 

We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to find ways to work together and make progress. Governor Baker has proposed a good bill that would help make it a little bit easier for cities and towns to make these modest zoning changes. We need to make some progress on the housing issue and this is a good first step.”

What are the three biggest issues facing our district today?

“The first two, we already talked about – transportation and housing costs. The third is probably preparing for climate change. This is going to be an incredibly expensive problem for coastal communities to deal with, so we need to be upgrading our infrastructure and making sure our construction is sustainable now.

When I worked in Rep. Lori Ehrlich’s office I was part of the budget process, and I worked with her to fight to make Lynn and Nahant beaches safer and cleaner. I understand that process well, and that would help me fight to get state money to upgrade our seawalls and prepare our community.”

What are your core values, and how do they impact the way you lead?

“I believe in generational responsibility. Previous generations built the society we live in today, and it’s our responsibility to make it a better, fairer place for future generations

I also believe in progress, and the things we can accomplish by working together. I don’t believe in ideological purity – I think it’s important to work with people whenever you can to make progress and deliver results for people. That’s your job as an elected official. 

I also believe in transparency. It’s our job as public figures to be completely honest and transparent with people about how we vote and what we believe. People don’t have to agree with us on everything, but they should always know where we stand and why.

How do you feel about designating internet as a public utility and creating restrictions on price gouging? In many areas, Comcast has basically a monopoly. 

“Yes, this is definitely something we need to look in to. We should be looking in to municipal broadband – several towns in Massachusetts and around the country have done this, where the city sets up the internet network and people pay a fee to the city or town for internet service instead of a corporation like Comcast or RCN.

Internet is a public good. It’s as essential nowadays as water coming out of the tap. I believe in market competition, but that competition isn’t real for a market like cable or internet where there are impossible barriers to entry – so a company like Comcast gets basically a regulated monopoly and pushes others out.

I appreciated that Mayor Arrigo made getting RCN into Revere a priority, but we need to do more to increase affordable access to the internet.”

What are your thoughts on community solar?

“I’m committed to 100% clean, renewable energy – and that means ramping up our investment in wind and solar. So yes, we should support more community solar initiatives and remove the cap on solar net metering in the state.” 

With rent prices increasing, what are your thoughts on a “Tenants Bill of Rights” or a cap on increases in rent? 

“Tenant protections are important, especially as our communities get more expensive. I have a record of fighting to make sure tenants know their rights and have access to resources.

When I worked in the Mayor’s office, I built a partnership with Housing Families, a non-profit that provides legal services to those vulnerable to homelessness or facing other housing challenges. We helped people get free legal assistance and learn how to access housing resources. 

We need to look into additional protections. I like the idea of a “right of first refusal,” where current tenants in a building can have an opportunity to purchase that property if it goes up for sale. We also need to expand the rental voucher program to help vulnerable families.

As far as rent control goes, there’s really no evidence that it works. San Francisco and New York have rent control but they still have a housing crisis just like we do. Most of the evidence suggests that rent control creates a small number of winners and many losers, by increasing the cost of the rest of the housing stock.

I think we have other tools that would work better to expand affordable housing. We need to look more at linkage fees to make sure new development in our area includes money that. We need to invest in repairing and improving conditions in our public housing, and also see more housing for veterans and seniors to protect the most vulnerable. These would be better options for protecting struggling families.”

What makes you better than your opponents than this seat?

“I’m not here to compare myself to anyone – I’m here to run my own race, based on who I am and my record. 

As of right now, my one opponent in this race is a fantastic public servant and has been a very good city councilor. You’ll never see me running a negative campaign. 

My goal is to tell you about my experience and my beliefs, my opponents can do the same, and then we can let the voters decide. That’s what democracy is all about.” 

What are your thoughts on criminal justice reform?

“The Legislature just passed a significant criminal justice reform bill last year and we should take some time to review its impacts, but two things I believe in for sure – we need to try to find alternatives to cash bail, as it’s unjust for someone to be in jail or not based on how much money they have to pay; and in an age where Gronk can go on TV and sell CBD and people are making big money selling marijuana, nobody should be in prison for past mariuana offenses. 

There are a lot of areas where we can debate or find compromise but I think those are two things we should all be able to agree on.” 

How do you feel about ranked choice voting in Massachusetts?

“Ranked choice voting is a great idea. It’s not up to me, it’s up to the voters – it’s on the ballot as a question this year.

Ranked Choice Voting would allow you to rank candidates 1-2-3-4 etc. instead of just voting for one, meaning no more “wasted votes” or “spoiler candidates” if you have a lot of candidates in a race. This would help third party and non-traditional candidates have a better chance and make elections fairer. I will be voting in favor of this.”

When you talk about preparing students for the jobs of the future, what do you mean by that?

“The economy in Greater Boston is transforming and a new generation of good working class jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree are available, including advanced manufacturing, robotics, and jobs in the wind and solar energy industries. But we’re not doing enough to prepare our kids to be able to compete for these jobs.

Right now if you’re a student in this area who wants to go to the vocational school, you face a waiting list. This is crazy. We need to eliminate the waiting list to go to vocational schools by either building new ones or adding some capacity for vocational education at the new Revere High School. The voke is a great pathway to good jobs that will always be there, no matter what happens in the economy.

I also believe we need free community college for all in Massachusetts. This either gives our students an opportunity to get an associates degree or some job training, or then transfer in to a four year college.”

What was your motivation for running for State Representative?

“I care deeply about my community, and I have great pride in being from here. I care about the future of my neighbors. I think I have the right experience and values to fight for the people who live in Revere, Chelsea and Saugus.” 

How do you feel about the second amendment?

“The courts have ruled over and over again that the second amendment protects individuals’ rights to own a gun- but it also protects governments’ ability to enact commonsense regulations to keep the community safe.

This is one area where Massachusetts does a very good job. We have the lowest rate of gun violence in the entire country, but we do still have plenty of people who are allowed to responsibly own guns for recreation, for sport, or whatever reason. 

Gun control measures here in Massachusetts have worked – the next step is pushing the federal government to follow the wishes of 80%+ of the American people and enact some sensible measures at the national level.” 

Which committees would you ask to serve on in the legislature?

“Definitely transportation or housing, and the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Recovery.

Working in Mayor Arrigo’s office, one of my top priorities was fighting for the opening of the Substance Use Disorder Initiatives office. Since that office opened, thousands of residents have gotten the help and support they need, and overdose deaths are down in the city. But we still have a lot of work to do. There are lots of evidence-based strategies to help people struggling with addiction, but there is still so much stigma that we need to break through to get more communities to embrace this work.”

What support can Massachusetts provide for childcare for working families?

“This is definitely an issue we need to talk about more — childcare is one of the biggest expenses facing working families. I believe in universal pre-K, but the challenge goes even beyond that, with childcare for the earliest years. We need to look at a number of different options – responsibly licensing and permitting more childcare providers, exploring things we can do with the tax code, and also looking at where we can create or expand public programs.”

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