Getting around the Barnstable Dukes Nantucket house district is a challenge. If you don’t live here, or even if you do, check out the map.
Barnstable Dukes Nantucket comprises Nantucket County (surprise!); the County of Dukes County (no kidding, that’s its official name; this is Martha’s Vineyard plus the string of islands southwest of Woods Hole, which do not contain many voters); and the sliver of Barnstable County that stretches up the west side of that peninsula with Woods Hole at the end of it. That sliver, including Woods Hole, is part, but not all, of Falmouth.
Yes, the three parts of the district look close together from the air, but if you’re on the ground you can’t help noticing that there are no roads between them. If you’re well-heeled or in a big hurry you can fly from one to another. Most of us take the boat.
Our new state representative, Dylan Fernandes, lives in Falmouth but is no stranger to the islands. In December, midway between the election and his swearing-in on January 4, he made a “listening tour” of the whole district. His two Vineyard stops were at the Chilmark library and the Oak Bluffs library. This past Saturday he came over to hold office hours at the West Tisbury library. (Have I said lately how indispensable the town libraries are to the community life of this island?)
I think of “office hours” as generally a one-to-one thing, especially where elected officials are concerned: individuals or small groups come to make a case, ask questions, present a problem, and generally make themselves known to the person who’s representing their interests. I didn’t have a case to make, a question to ask, or a problem to present, and since I worked on his campaign, I’d already met Dylan, but I figured I’d go anyway, to say hi and see what was up.
Several of us sat around the table in one of the library’s downstairs conference rooms with Dylan and Vineyard legislative liaison Kaylea Moore. (When the representative from Barnstable Dukes Nantucket doesn’t live on the Vineyard, which has been the case ever since the Vineyard lost its own representative when the state house of representatives was reduced in size from 240 to 160 in the late 1970s, he — so far it’s always been a he — generally hires a part-time legislative liaison who lives on the island and helps him keep in touch.) It was, in a word, educational. Here’s a sampling of what came up.
Nip bottles. Those one-shot hard-liquor bottles that are so visible in roadside trash because they make it easy to drink while driving and even easier to toss out the window when you’re done. Beer and soda containers are relatively rare because the 5¢ deposit required since the commonwealth passed its bottle bill in 1976 makes them worth hanging on to or worth picking up. The liquor industry, including retailers, is of course dead set against expanding the bottle bill to include nips or anything else. This discussion also touched on the risks one takes when one becomes identified with a cause on the Vineyard, or anywhere else.
See what I mean? Nip bottles weren’t on my political radar at all, even though I see some every day by the side of the road, but two key points came up in the brief discussion: (1) Powerful interests line up against even the most modest change if they think it threatens them; and (2) Sticking your neck out is risky in a small town or neighborhood where everyone’s got their eye on everyone else.
This came up again when the talk turned to affordable housing, a bedrock issue across the district. Making more affordable housing available takes money, lots of it. Attempts to raise the funds by creating a housing bank or by including housing in such existing agencies as the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank inevitably run into vociferous and well-funded opposition from the real estate industry. They’ve been blocking efforts on Nantucket even though the Nantucket proposal would only affect houses that go for more than $2 million.
Impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act or parts of it. The general feeling was that Massachusetts is relatively well positioned to deal with it because it hasn’t participated in the insurance exchanges that have been problematic in other states.
Ticks and tick-borne diseases. I already knew that proposals have been made to add a two-week shotgun deer season in January. Deer-hunting season runs from November 1 through December 31, but the part of it that keeps me out of the woods is the almost-two-week shotgun season that begins the Monday after Thanksgiving. I’ve been somewhat skeptical of plans to extend the hunting season in the name of curbing Lyme and other tick diseases because, well, because gun lobby, but at the same time — having had my first deer-car collision this past October I’m edging toward the notion that reducing the island’s deer herd isn’t a bad idea.
A particularly dangerous stretch of road in West Tisbury that has gone undealt-with for years (like about a decade), apparently because the state Department of Transportation can’t decide whether the brook crossing involved is a bridge or a culvert. Whatever it is was designed more than a century ago for horses and buggies. The traffic using it now is considerably wider and faster and more than it was then.
State money allocated to “the Cape and Islands” rarely reaches either one of the islands. The phrase rolls trippingly off the tongue, but take another look at that map. Cape-based groups have been known to include one or both islands in their proposals without even notifying their island counterparts that it’s happening. So if the grant comes through we don’t hear about that either.
Dylan mentioned that criminal justice reform is a priority in the coming legislative session. I’m currently copyediting a book that deals with the need for this, but I didn’t realize that Massachusetts has a three-strikes law. These laws limit the discretion of judges and juries dealing with repeat offenders and come down hardest on poor people and people of color.
The above represents a small fraction of the problems and priorities being dealt with every day in the Barnstable Dukes Nantucket district, which comprises about 40,000 people, and on the Vineyard, whose year-round population is less than 20,000. If life in a small jurisdiction comprises this many layers of this many issues, how can anyone assume that the nation’s challenges can be met with a magic wand?