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Only a Chemistry Nerd

Olver is the Champion of Western Massachusetts

Michael J. Ring

There’s an old Boston adage that civilization of the North American continent ends at Route 128. Of course that’s not true; I can personally attest that this hemisphere is civilized as far west as Worcester and as far south as Providence.

All kidding aside, Western Massachusetts is quite a different place physically, economically, and spiritually than the Bay State coast. The western environs of this state are much more rural, quiet, and reserved than the hustle, bustle, and in-your-face rudeness of big city Boston. And in the towns among the mountains and valleys west of Worcester, the inhabitants have always viewed their Eastern counterparts with more than a hint of distrust.

With this in mind, the donnybrook that exploded late last week between Representative John Olver PhD ’61 (yes, there is an MIT alumnus in Congress) (D-Amherst) and the dean of the Massachusetts delegation, Representative J. Joseph Moakley (D-South Boston) is not all that surprising. Olver, representing the sprawling, rural 1st District, was marching to his own drum and his own district’s need, something which the Eastern establishment just could not tolerate.

In a state famous, or perhaps infamous, for its colorful, outspoken politicians, Olver is of a different breed. He’s not the type of guy you’d run into at your local bar, nor is he hypnotized by the glow of the television camera. A chemist by trade, Olver served for two decades in the Massachusetts General Court before being elected to the United States House in a 1991 special election.

For some years now Olver has held a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, ground zero for pork-barrel politics. Of particular interest to Massachusetts interests is his role on the Transportation Subcommittee. With the Big Dig at its frenzied peak of construction, Eastern Massachusetts expects Olver to keep those federal dollars flowing.

But some feel he’s not getting the job done. Some observers think Olver’s cerebral personality is not suited to the backroom-dealing, quid-pro-quo atmosphere of Appropriations. And last week, the usually reserved and statesman-like Moakley told The Boston Herald regarding Olver’s seat on the Appropriations committee, “I’m not trying to nail him, but if I had my druthers, there are other people who could do a much better job for Massachusetts.” Moakley elaborated, “Some people are born salesmen; others are born librarians.” Or chemistry nerds, perhaps.

The facts are, however, that Massachusetts did well in the latest round of transportation funding. An omnibus House bill, guided and scrutinized by Olver, provided $591 million for Massachusetts’ transportation projects. While not as much as Massachusetts had received earlier in the decade, the amount is still a victory for the Bay State, and for Olver, considering the precipitous cuts planned by the congressional Republican leadership.

But Olver’s comments on passage of that bill are telling, perhaps eerily foreshadowing the friction that has now arisen. “As the Central Artery enters into the costly construction stage, we cannot allow the so-called ‘Big Dig’ to gobble up all of our federal highway funding. This bill contains funding specifically earmarked for projects in Western and Central Massachusetts,” said the congressman. Indeed, he even audaciously suggested “[Western Massachusetts’] roads, bridges, bike paths, and highways deserve fair and equitable treatment,” a statement sure to have rankled the Eastern establishment hungry for Big Dig money. But what benefit do people living 150 miles away from Boston get from the new expressway? And anyone who has ever traveled the windy, dangerous Route 2 across Massachusetts can understand Olver’s work in securing grants for this road.

Olver says his most important priority is “making certain [his] constituents in Western Massachusetts get their fair share.” And that is exactly what it should be. The Boston metropolitan area has well over half a dozen representatives catering to its needs and projects. But the people of Western Massachusetts’ First District, dispersed throughout farming communities and mill towns, have only Olver watching for their interests in the United States House. Olver was elected by the people of North Adams, not Newton. He is absolutely right in serving his district before the needs of those he does not represent.

Of course, transportation funding is but one issue facing Western Massachusetts. Olver has used his role on Appropriations to help his district in other ways as well. He has secured grants to aid the economically depressed mill cities dotting his district and has sought rural transit initiatives in Northern and Western Massachusetts. Using his role as ranking Democrat on the Military Construction subcommittee on Appropriates, Olver worked to protect his district’s Westover Air Force Base.

The people of Western Massachusetts need a strong advocate, and Olver is their man. The needs of the citizens of Western Massachusetts are different than their Eastern counterparts, and certainly no politician from Boston gives any pause to those needs. Moakley’s uncharacteristically petty attack will only exacerbate tensions between East and West and make it more difficult for the delegation to work together on problems that do affect the whole of Massachusetts.