Since entering politics, Massachusetts Representative Jim Cantwell (D-MA-115) has focused on environmental issues. His district—which encompasses Scituate and Marshfield, Mass.—struggles consistently with the effects of coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and inadequate infrastructure to protect from storms. Earlier this year, Cantwell was invited to participate in the UN Climate Conference in Germany, representing Massachusetts to each of the participating countries.
Here’s how one state legislator can make a unique impact on a global issue—like the environment—at the local, state, and federal level.
Before he even took office in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Cantwell got his first taste of politics as a high school student when he joined a grassroots campaign to improve the water quality in Marshfield after reports that pipes near his home were lined with lead, contaminating the water. This experience taught him that anyone can have an impact if they are willing to speak up.
“Every time I get a chance to tell young folks I tell them you’ve gotta tune in,” Cantwell said. “I want people to see how easy it is to affect issues.”
As a result, Cantwell has sought to get local students involved in his campaigns and visit local classrooms to educate students about the work he and his colleagues are doing in the state house..
In working to get policies passed at the state level, Cantwell learned how to expand his niche interests to fit a wider landscape of legislators and make an impact on communities across the state.
Early in my career one of the first things I got passed was a fund to repair sea walls. But I tried and in my first term we failed,” Cantwell said. “There just weren’t enough coastal legislators who were interested in coastal infrastructure.”
However, after talking to other legislators from non-coastal communities, Cantwell learned that many representatives struggled with proper maintenance of dams in their communities, so they teamed up and eventually secured $100 million for seawall and dam repairs.
Cantwell, like many other state officials, sees states as a “laboratory for democracy” where policies can be tested or seen in a more concrete way on a smaller sample of the population. This occurred in Cantwell’s district when changes in FEMA zoning laws were expected to have a major impact on Cantwell’s constituents. If passed, new zoning rules would have significantly raised flood insurance rates, but Cantwell was able to bring this concrete example to Washington and prevent the negative implications of the changes.
“People’s home values would have plummeted some 90 percent if the rates were as high as they were being proposed, a lot of people would have walked away and stopped paying their mortgages and created a financial crisis,” Cantwell said. “I flew down to Washington several times and met with the congressional delegation, and they made a tremendous change in the law that put a cap on the increases people could see. It’s just a great success story of how our little towns helped change federal law.”
Because of his track record on environmental issues, Cantwell was invited along with two colleagues to represent Massachusetts at the UN Climate Conference, speaking on a panel with government officials from Malawi, Fiji, and Quebec about dealing with climate change. With the Trump administration choosing not to comply with the regulations set by the Paris Climate Accord, Cantwell and fellow state legislators represented the theme of “We Are Still In” and the willingness of states to maintain the faith of the international agreement. .
“The part that was really humbling and uplifting was people coming to us to say we’re so glad that you are here and you are indicating that your country is not going to retrench, you still are committed.” Cantwell said. “What they’ve seen over and over was that we’re still in.”
The effect your state legislator can have does not end at the borders of the district or state that he or she represents. If your organization has an issue it cares about with implications at various levels of government, building a relationship with a legislative champion at the state level can be fruitful beyond single-state impact.
“I just have example after example of success stories if you work really hard and help build a coalition, it might take time, but people can see demonstrable benefits from being involved in the government,” Cantwell said. “You can absolutely impact public policy and you can do it in some pretty effective ways.”