On Eve of Freight Rail Day, Thoughts Turn to Access and a Senator of Great Heart

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Tomorrow, we’ll be helping to run the Massachusetts Railroad Association’s annual Freight Railroad Day on Beacon Hill.  The association is a long-time client of ours.

This is the day when we, accompanied by the professionals from the various member-railroads of the association, try to make as many visits as possible to legislators to tell them about the critical role that freight rail plays in the Massachusetts economy. 
These meetings usually go well.  Sometimes, however, signals get crossed, schedules get changed suddenly, and the person you’re hoping to see isn’t in when you get there.  This can get awkward.

Imagine a group of eight persons crowded into the foyer of a State House office suite. They tell the receptionist they’re there to see Mr. X, the policy director (or something) for Chairman X.  The receptionist dials Mr. X; the call goes immediately to voicemail.  The receptionist calls someone else, presumably the person in the cubicle next to Mr. X, and is informed that Mr. X is nowhere to be found.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” the receptionist announces.  “You can wait here if you’d like, or maybe come back later.  I’m sure he’ll return soon.”

That’s the situation I was in at Senate Ways & Means on the  afternoon of Freight Railroad Day on Beacon Hill, 2014 edition.
While the Massachusetts Railroad Association contingent lingered in the foyer, waiting on me, I guess, to suggest a brilliant fallback option (Hah!), Senator Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, the Senate chair of Ways & Means, opened the office door and started to make his way slowly through our group.  He smiled at everyone, said hello, and then stopped and said, “Can I help you?”

“Mr. Chairman,” I piped up, “we’re here from the freight railroads and were scheduled to see (X), but it turns out he’s not here now.  I probably messed up on the time.”
“Freight railroads, uh?” Brewer asked amiably.

“Yes, this is our annual Day on Beacon Hill,” I said.
Turning around, Brewer said, “Come on in.”

We followed him to the sunny conference room at the back of the Senate Ways & Means suite, which is one of the largest in the State House.  (It has to accommodate all of the Senate staffers who work on the state budget, as well as the chairman’s immediate staff.)
Brewer then proceeded to act as if there was nothing more he wanted to do at that time than to receive a briefing on the state of the railroad industry. 

He wanted to know the names of everyone in the group, the railroad each represented, the communities and regions served by each railroad, and the particular issues and priorities we were pressing in the spring of 2014.  He could not have been friendlier, more relaxed or more engaged.  In the warm glow of his personality, everyone talked freely. 
As the impromptu confab approached the 25-minute mark, I became concerned about overstaying our welcome. There was a brief pause and I jumped in.

“Mr. Chairman, I know you must have a lot to do today,” I said.
Leaning back in his chair, Brewer looked around the table and smiled easily, as if he were at a Sunday family dinner.  “I suppose I do,” he said.

Bernie Reagan of the Bay Colony Railroad said, “You were on the way out when we ran into you. You must have been headed somewhere?”
“I was going to the bathroom,” Brewer answered, laughing.  (If it was me, I would have said something like, “I was on my way to see the Senate President.”)

We laughed, too, nervously. We were infringing on the senator’s time and knew we should be on our way.
“Oh, that’s not good,” someone at the end of the table said.

We all shook the senator’s hand and thanked him heartily as we shuffled out of the conference room and down the long corridor to the outer door of the Ways & Means suite.
Brewer, who retired at the end of the 2013-14 legislative session, had no idea what we wanted to talk about when he encountered us that day.  We could have had some big, messy problem and been itching to drop it on some bigshot’s desk.  We could have been the advocates from hell. The whiners of the universe!

Brewer was one of the most powerful and admired public officials in the Commonwealth, immersed then in his work as the chief Senate budget writer.  (The Senate would introduce its version of the FY 2015 state budget within days.)  Everybody who wanted something in that budget wanted a piece of his time.

In a situation like that, almost every legislator I have ever known would have put up his mental shields and moved quickly through, and past, the gaggle of petitioners at his door.  “Hi, howareya, goodtoseeya, bye.”
That’s why I’ll always love Steve Brewer.





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