Senate president is optimistic about political climate

Ethan Forman/Staff photoState Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, left, stands with Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and Salem State University President John Keenan, a former Salem state representative, after a meeting of the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development on Friday.

PEABODY —  State Senate President Karen Spilka says she’s a glass-half-full kind of person when it comes to the political climate in Washington.

That’s especially true, the Ashland Democrat said, when it comes to issues such as the Trump administration’s thwarting of climate change policies and stalled infrastructure initiatives.

“Where to start,” she said when asked to weigh in on the political climate. “Do you have all day?”

Still, she said, “I generally do look at this as an opportunity. When there is a challenge or a problem, it always, always creates opportunities — positive opportunities — for change, for growth or whatever. And in fact, when there is the most challenges, that’s when very often the most opportunities arise as well for change.”

With control of Congress changing from Republican to Democratic hands next year, opportunities may open up for Massachusetts, Spilka said.

Spilka was at Salem State University Friday morning to speak to the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development, a group of business people, political officials and educators.

She was introduced by state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, vice chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, who worked closely with Spilka when she chaired the committee before becoming Senate president this summer.

 “We worked so closely together on the budget, I would say we were Velcro-ed together probably many, many weeks back in the spring,” Lovely said.

In her talk, Spilka highlighted two crises — climate change and the opioid epidemic — facing the commonwealth.

She cited a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report issued on Thursday that said the opioid epidemic is costing Bay State businesses $2.5 billion annually.

“That’s a huge cost to our families, our communities and our economy,” Spilka said.

While there has been legislation passed to address the opioid epidemic, she said, the real concern is the unmet mental health needs of those who become addicted.

“We have to erase the stigma,” she said.

As for climate change, she said that’s a particular concern for the North Shore.

Spilka noted that in this session the Senate passed an act to advance clean energy and an environmental bond bill that authorizes up to $2.4 billion to improve climate change resiliency and adaptation. “Hopefully, all of you are applying for that and taking advantage of that,” she said.

Beverly Mayor Michael Cahill told Spilka his city is looking at all of its municipal operations and it is trying to “quickly and drastically cut our reliance on fossil fuels,” and “trying to host every last panel of solar we can. We just want to be a part of generating clean renewables.”

On transportation

Spilka said transportation is also a pressing quality-of-life issue for many commuters. 

“I admit I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “Transportation is complex and there are different needs across the state.”

Finding a revenue source for transportation fixes is a problem, due in part to cutbacks by the federal government.

“If the Millionaire’s Tax had passed, that would have provided some funding for our needs,” she said, referring to a proposed ballot question that was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. It would have added a surcharge on incomes of $1 million and more to help pay for transportation initiatives.

Spilka said she has convened an initial meeting with transportation groups on finding solutions, not wanting to wait until January when the new legislative session begins.

Getting to know Spilka

Spilka’s talk also served as kind of a “get-to-know me” session for North Shore political and business leaders.

In July, she was voted Senate president to replace Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester, who had succeeded former Senate President Stan Rosenberg. Rosenberg had stepped aside as president in December amid an ethics investigation into sexual assault allegations against his husband.

Spilka, an upstate New York native and admitted Red Sox fan, started her career as a social worker counseling special needs kids and families. She went to law school at Northeastern University and went to work as a labor lawyer. She then became an arbitrator/mediator specializing in unemployment law and crisis intervention.

She later got involved in Ashland as a way to get to know her new community, and in the late 1990s, she won a seat on the School Committee. She became interested in the inequities in the state’s special education funding formula and founded a statewide coalition to try to address this problem. She became a state representative in 2001, and has served as a state senator since 2005.

“I consider myself an improbable legislator,” Spilka said. “... I never thought of doing this, let alone ever being Senate president. It still surprises me, to be honest with you.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

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