An Apparent Strong Point: Olver Didn't Come from a Typical Political Mold

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be an effective member of the United States House of Representatives, but it might not hurt to be a chemist, if the example of John W. Olver can be taken to heart.

Before entering politics in his early-thirties, Olver earned his bachelor's degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his master's at Tufts and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Harvard grads serve gratefully as janitors. He was teaching in college when he ran successfully for a Pioneer Valley seat in the Massachusetts House in 1968.

In 1973, Olver moved up to the Massachusetts Senate, and, in the spring of 1991, he won a special election to complete the term of the late Republican Congressman Silvio O. Conte.

I haven't checked the record, but I think it's safe to say that Olver, who will be retiring when his current term expires in January, 2013, is the only Chemistry Ph.D. in the Congress. Men and women with that skill set don't often go into politics, and, if they do, they don't make it their life's work, as Olver has.

He's a very interesting man: cerebral and rather shy in a field filled with extroverts who have scaled the heights mainly on gut instinct. He's quiet in a town, Washington, D.C., where brashness rules, yet he's had more than an average share of "ruling," much more.

It has been said to the point of cliche that, in our nation's capital, there are show horses and there are workhorses. Without question, Olver's a workhorse. He's always gotten the job done, always delivered the goods to his district, by virtue of his smart, steady, unremitting toil.

Until Republicans captured the House in the 2010 elections, Olver was chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation of the House Appropriations Committee, meaning he carried enormous weight for years on every federal dollar spent on highway, airport and rail projects. He remains the highest-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and still has considerable influence in those areas.

Olver is a policy guy to his bones. He lives and breathes the big thoughts. As stated in his press packet, Olver's "top policy priorities include providing new transportation options and maintaining our transportation infrastructure, keeping affordable and energy-efficient housing available, protecting the environment, increasing worker rights and benefits, expanding access to affordable health care and improving education and job training."

Throughout his time in office, and stretching back to his days in the Massachusetts House and Senate, Olver has neatly balanced his policy concerns with the quotidian items that matter most to his constituents, many of whom hail from the small towns and hidden hamlets of the Berkshires.

To give you an idea of how closely Olver has identified himself with the average folks in his district, listen to how they're reacting "out west" to the news that he's retiring and that much of his old territory will be absorbed, as a result, into another Congressman's district due to the mandated shrinking and realignment of Massachusetts seats -- Jim McGovern's (Worcester), perhaps, or Richie Neal's (Springfield).

"It (realignment) would squash the voices of all of the smaller cities along the 1st Massachusetts's corridor," Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto told The Berkshire Eagle last week. "Good God, Worcester? What connection does Pittsfield, Massachusetts, have to Worcester?"

The Eagle also quoted North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright as saying, "I don't want to use the word devastating, but it (realignment) just doesn't feel good. Throwing us in with a district that large and a constituency so tightly populated as in those metropolitan areas, personally, I think it's kind of scary what could end up happening to the representation of Berkshire County."

State Senator Benjamin B. Downing of Pittsfield had the final word in that article. "...the priorities of small towns and cities have been the priorities of John Olver for the past 20 years in Congress, and we're the better for it," he said.

It's a fortunate man that can end his career at age 75 and have the people who know him best truly wish he wasn't leaving and worry seriously about what will happen when he's gone.

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