Death Robs House of 'One of the Good Ones,' Northampton's Peter Kocot

Monday, February 26, 2018

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in the Pioneer Valley town of Northampton will be overflowing with legislators and other elected officials tomorrow morning when the funeral Mass for Peter Kocot is held there.  A member of the Massachusetts House since April of 2002, Kocot died this past Thursday, Feb. 22, at the age of 61

He represented a district, the 1st Hampshire, which includes his hometown, Northampton, and the communities of Hatfield, Southampton, Westhampton and Montgomery. Before getting elected to the House, Kocot was employed for many years on the staff of the man who preceded him, former House Majority Leader William Nagle. 

Kocot, an Ivy Leaguer, was at the pinnacle of his legislative career, literally the top of his game, when stricken with an illness that proved fatal in short order.  Only four months ago, he had been appointed by Speaker Robert DeLeo House chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.  This committee has perhaps the most daunting task in Massachusetts government: devising new laws and new parts of existing laws to slow down the relentless growth in the cost of health care.

That Kocot was loved and admired by his House colleagues, that he was indeed a legislator’s legislator, is evident in the tributes to him that poured forth as soon as word got around the State House that he had passed away.
“Chairman Kocot,” said Speaker DeLeo, “was one of the most kind, decent, and selfless individuals that I have had the pleasure to know.  I am devastated by his loss…Peter was the consummate gentleman: gracious with his time, energy and intellect.  As a former staffer and, most recently, chair of one of the most challenging committees, Peter’s work was marked by his respect for the House and love for the people who work here.  He was a passionate advocate for his district and constituents…We relished hearing Peter’s stories from his district, including his fishing trips and his appreciation for its natural resources.”

Jim Eisenberg, who served as DeLeo’s chief of staff for 11 years before joining us at Preti Strategies in January, said, “Chairman Kocot was one of the good ones.  He had no trace of the ego or bluster that powerful politicians often portray.  He treated everyone with a gentle kindness and genuine respect regardless of their rank.  I can’t think of a member or staffer who disliked him – and though he was soft-spoken, he always spoke with authority.  I am deeply grateful to have worked with him on major pieces of state policy, such as the 2009 Ethics Reform bill and, more recently, health care cost containment.  The House has lost one of its best.  We all feel an intense sense of grief and sadness at his passing.”
Everybody on Beacon Hill respected Kocot, said South Hadley Representative John Scibak, House chair of the Joint Committee on Education, “because he never rushed into decisions, he thought them through.”

Steve Kulik of Worthington, vice chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, observed that Kocot “led through information, knowledge, and soliciting other ideas,” adding, “That’s just a powerful way to do your business as a legislator.”
Another Western Massachusetts legislator, Joe Wagner of Chicopee, House chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said Kocot was “the definition of what a public servant should be.”

Even government watchdogs admired Kocot!  The State Ethics Commission issued a formal statement to pronounce that, "...we are deeply saddened by the passing of Representative Peter V. Kocot.  In his years of public service, Representative Kocot was a champion for transparency and accountability in government and a strong advocate for the mission of the State Ethics Commission.  His friendliness, helpfulness, and commitment to good government will be greatly missed."  I never saw anything like that before from the Ethics Commission.

The last time I saw Peter Kocot was on Oct. 18, 2017, in a meeting in his office on the second floor of the State House.  He had just succeeded Jeff Sanchez of Boston at the helm of Health Care Financing, Sanchez having been named chair of House Ways & Means.
We were scheduled for a half-hour discussion with him and several members of the Health Care Financing staff regarding the state’s Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit, which provides incentives to small businesses to offer their employees wellness and fitness programs.  The group I was with was advocating for an extension of the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit.

Chairman Kocot arrived at the meeting after everyone else. He came into the room in a hurry, as if he had been delayed en route at the last minute.  He had about him a slight air of impatience.
Now Peter Kocot was easily the largest man in the legislature.  He stood about six foot nine and was built like a lumberjack.  (He played varsity football at Brown University in Providence.) He physically dominated any gathering he was in. But he did not seek to dominate with his personality, intellect or ego.

To me, he always seemed intent on finding out what was on your mind, and what was making you tick.  When you spoke, he concentrated on you so keenly that you could not help but feel some qualms about the power of your thoughts and words to persuade him.
On that day in October, fortunately, the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit was a subject that more aroused his interest than his skepticism. He asked for more information on some of the points in our presentation and wondered aloud about what might be the best approach -- the best legislative vehicle to employ -- should he and his colleagues come to see the tax credit as something worth keeping.

The discussion was nearing its end when he asked of no one in particular, “Has anyone ever thought about giving credits directly to individuals to get them to work out and take better care of themselves?”  
We on our side all smiled.  We were not expecting that.  A wellness tax credit for individuals was too novel, too audacious, to get off the ground now, or maybe ever, in Massachusetts. Yet we would be the last to discourage any movement toward such a thing.  One member of our group said something like, “That would be a long discussion -- and we’d love to have it.” 

Chairman Kocot laughed in agreement. It was a full and an honest laugh.  We pushed our chairs back, rose slowly from our seats and began saying our good-byes.  Some business cards were pulled from folders and coat pockets and exchanged.  The chairman exited in as big a hurry as he had entered.
In the weeks that followed, our side developed and refined the answers to the chairman’s questions.  We also had meetings and phone discussions with other legislators, legislative staff, and members of the Governor Baker administration on the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit. 

At the time of his death, we had a request in to see him again.  Ours was just one issue that will be affected by his passing.  There were hundreds of others on his plate, some quite momentous.  Peter Kocot’s death is a major blow to our Commonwealth.






























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