State Representative Jason Lewis announced his candidacy for Katherine Clark's empty State Senate seat in November, hoping to get out there and get people aware of his intentions to be a State Senator and to make sure that people in the district knew who he is and where he stands. Rep. Lewis took some time to talk to Stoneham Patch about this issues that focus on the town and where they are in terms of progress and obtainability.
SP: I ask this to anyone running for office these days: Politicians are pretty unpopular in the public eye. Why put yourself out there in such a scrutinized field?
Rep. Lewis: Well, the reason I ran for office five years ago and why I’m running now is because I believe that civic engagement and public service is very important. We’ve got a lot of serious challenges in our own communities, at the state level and the federal, and I think we need to step forward and work on those issues. That’s what I’ve been focused on since I was first elected to the State House of Representatives in 2008.
I’ve worked a lot on local projects that are important to the community. Things like our schools, public transportation, flood mitigation and then on a state level, I’ve been able to work on school funding, healthcare issues, environmental issues. Those are the things that have driven me since the beginning and issues like those are the reason I decided to run for Senate.
I find that though there is some cynicism about politics today, when people actually get to know their elected officials, which is more possible when you serve in the state government then there is a much greater sense of mutual respect than when you’re further away from your district, like in Washington.
SP: Does that play into your early announcement as a candidate?
Re. Lewis: There’s no question that there is a lot of work to do in the district. The Senate district is four times larger than the House district I cover now. So that means that there are thousands of families I need to reach out and need to get to know and introduce myself and show them what I’ve accomplished in the private sector, the State Senate and let them know what my goals are for my hopes are as a candidate for State Senator. So that’s a lot of doors to knock on. It’s a lot of events to hold for the next three months. Once I decided to run, which was in late November, I wanted to get started as soon as possible because of how much work there is to do.
SP: I had seen you and Katherine Clark when she was the Senator at a Selectmen’s Meeting in Stoneham when they were discussing the Green Space. This has been an ongoing issue for about as far back as memory can take us. What’s stalling this project and what are the next steps?
Rep. Lewis: So that is one of those local projects that is important, basically, my whole district. It goes from one end of Winchester to one end of Stoneham. It’s one of the projects I am most proud of. We have been able to make significant progress here. This project started in the early 1990’s. The land used to be part of a railroad line that was abandoned.
SP: Was it part of the T?
Rep. Lewis: Yeah, it was actually part of the old B&M railroad. It was a spur that ran off the Maine to Lowell Line and hadn’t been used in years. So all across the country and in Massachusetts, there has been a big effort to turn those old railways into green space and bike paths. So that’s where the idea came from. But, as is true for most of these projects, they are very difficult to bring them in fruition because there’s issue of land control and land use. There are also issues of getting the right approvals along the route, whether that’s because of landowners or something else.
For example, in Winchester it took a couple of years just to get the approval for the route to go past the Muraco Elementary School. So there were concerns of traffic flow and safety issues with the kids and all of that had to be factored into how the route could go past the school. And it took us a long time working with the school committee. And that’s just one example of how difficult this project is. But, that said, in the last few years, what we’ve been able to accomplish, we’ve moved the design to 75 percent complete and there’s a short timeframe until it’s complete. We’ve also been able to secure funding for the path.
We were approved $5 million for the project through state and federal funding, which means the money won’t come from the residents of Winchester and Stoneham. We worked for a long time to make the case that this project needed to be funded. And it’s competing with the rebuilding of Route 93/128 interchange and Crosby’s Corner and other green ways and bikeways. There are all these projects looking for approval. So we were able to get approval for the TIP program, which is the Transportation Improvement Program, which is the way all money in Massachusetts in allocated. So that means that money will be available for the Fall of next year and the design will be completed and construction will be able to start.
SP: So there is a timetable here?
Re. Lewis: The $5 million will be available in the Fiscal Year ’15, which starts on October 1, 2014. So that’s Fall of next year, then the bidding process would start and we would expect construction to begin in Spring of next year.
SP: So there is a finish line?
Rep. Lewis: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how long construction will last, but within the next two to three years, the project will be a reality after 25 years.
SP: What else would you say are pressing issues in Stoneham?
Rep. Lewis: Specifically, a priority of mine has been local aid and school funding, which is primarily Chapter 70 funding and trying to make sure we continue to get Stoneham where it should be with Chapter 70. But we have a ways to go to get Stoneham to its’ target level. We’ve made great progress there, but still have a ways to go. Also, a project that we need to complete that is going very well is the new Stoneham Middle School. That’s being built in partnership with the state. They are paying roughly 2/3 of the cost the Massachusetts School Building Authority. That’s going to be a wonderful new facility. There will be one fewer elementary school, which means there will be better use of capacity and that’ll allow the school district to save money in operating costs and they can take that money and invest in teachers and technology. So that is a very positive impact on the school systems. So that’s very important that we say supportive of our school system.
I’m also hopeful that we will see some positive economic development on the Langwood Common. Which is the area by Spot Pond. It has been under litigation for a number of years, but we are trying to come up with a proposal to create some commercial space and housing that I think is reasonably seized and would be beneficial to economic growth in Stoneham.
One project that is being proposed that I am not in support of as it is currently written is the redevelopment of Weiss Farm.
SP: That was going to be my next question.
Rep. Lewis: I’m very concerned with that. I have submitted a letter to Mass Housing expressing my concerns with the plan that the developer brought forward. That site has major issues with flooding and environmental conservation issues, also big concerns traffic and safety on Franklin Street. I would like to work with the Board of Selectmen and residents and hopefully the developer will come to the table. I would like to see them really sit down and work out a plan with the town for a development that is appropriately sized and scaled for that property. I don’t think anyone is saying there shouldn’t be anything built there or there isn’t a need for more affordable housing. But it needs to be the right size for the location.
The other project I’m proud to have had a part of was the Stone Zoo. When I was first elected, Stone Zoo was facing a budget crisis when their budget was slashed. I worked with then State Senator Richard Tisei first to stabilize funding for Zoo New England, which includes the Stone Zoo and the Franklin Park Zoo. The first legislation I ever filed was to help Zoo New England raise more money and become more self-sufficient through corporate sponsorship and private fundraising. And they have really bounced back from that budget crisis. Their membership is up. Fund raising is up. They have new exhibits. And that’s a big driver in the local economy. So that’s one project I’m proud to have been a part of.
The other project I am proud to have worked on is the Hall Memorial Pool down by Friendly’s. So that’s a pool that is owned and operated by the State and the DCR. And unfortunately, that pool has seen pretty low attendance, so the DCR wanted to close it. So I worked along side then-Senator Katherine Clark and we worked to facilitate a first of it’s kind partnership with the DCR and The Stoneham Boys and Girls Club. So they will take over the management of the pool starting next summer. They’ve got a great plan to add events like swimming lessons, birthday parties, cookouts, programs for seniors and it will be a much better utilized community asset.