GROVELAND — Harriett Stanley, waiting for her plate of meatloaf and french fries, looked out the window of the Groveland Diner at the Bates Bridge and thought back to the day 18 years ago when she stood on the restaurant’s steps and launched her first campaign for public office.
The view has changed a bit since the summer of 1994; back then, the diner was still called Sheehan’s Restaurant and the warm summer sun reflecting off the Merrimack River helped make the 81-year-old truss bridge look a little less dilapidated than it really was.
Today, a replacement bridge is rising from the water next to the aging structure, a point of considerable pride for the Democratic state legislator from West Newbury, but the view is foggier, and not just because of the cold wintry mix that coated the landscape one recent day.
“Everybody has a time, and I think you need to know when it is,” she said. “I’ve been bipartisan since the day I got there, and I haven’t changed, but there is no room in politics for someone who calls it down the middle. You have to be so extreme, and that’s why we can’t get anything done.”
On Jan. 2, Stanley, 62, will step down as state representative after 18 years on Beacon Hill. When she does, she will leave behind an ideologically divided house where power is consolidated within the leadership and legislators are discouraged from being independent thinkers.
“They’re expected to go along with what they’re told to do,” Stanley said. “But that’s not me. It never was me.”
Back when Stanley was first elected as 2nd Essex District representative, the political climate was much different. She arrived on Beacon Hill with 30 other freshmen, many of them Republicans, and despite the typical split between liberals and conservatives, the freshmen bonded and frequently voted together, becoming a powerful force on the Statehouse floor.
But now, Stanley is among the last of a dying breed of moderates in an increasingly polarized political jungle. Over the course of her career, the nature of political discourse began to change and people began to take sides. Before long, the middle ground virtually disappeared, and common sense disappeared along with it, she said.
“Politics has been said to be the art of compromise, but I would say it’s not an art, but a battle, and it’s a battle to be able to get things done,” Stanley said. “There are times now when we’d rather be ideologically pure than to say, ‘we’ve got to get this done.’”
Mastering the rules
Stanley spoke about the hierarchy that exists within the Statehouse and how in order to be an effective legislator, one has to learn the rules of the game quickly and play by those rules in order to get things done on their district’s behalf.
On Beacon Hill, the hierarchy is anything but subtle, Stanley said, and she found herself on every rung of the ladder at some point during her career.
At the height of her tenure, Stanley had an extravagant office on the third floor of the Statehouse, complete with mahogany bookshelves, a couch, a “fabulous” writing desk and even a chandelier. Her office was so big that guests would have to walk 30 or 40 feet from the door just to reach her desk.
The message was clear; if you had a third-floor office, you were powerful.
But as Stanley fell out of favor with her party’s leadership, she was bumped to a more mundane office on the second floor, and eventually she was banished all the way to the basement, where she remains to this day.
“I have the office that’s the farthest from the chamber,” she said. “We have fans going 24 hours a day because it’s either way too hot or way too cold. I can’t have any plants because there is no light.”
Stanley’s successor doesn’t figure to have it much better, at least not right off the bat. The basement is usually reserved for freshman members of the minority party, usually Republicans, and Lenny Mirra, a Republican from West Newbury who won the election to fill Stanley’s seat, will be the only freshman Republican in the House for this upcoming session.
Stanley said Mirra won’t even get her old office, because she did get one perk that other basement dwellers didn’t have.
“I had my own door,” she said. “Freshmen won’t get that.”
Stanley said she wouldn’t recommend the path she chose to everyone, and that even if there has to come a point in a legislative career when you have to tell the party leadership “no can do,” it would be best to play along if you can’t deal with the consequences.
“If you can’t take that, don’t go there,” she said. “I think you should play the game for as long as you can and you should do very well for your district.”
Stanley said she is proud of the things she was able to accomplish while in office, particularly getting the Bates Bridge replacement project funded and helping abolish Essex County as a government entity, which she said has saved the state more than $1 billion.
She also defended her position on earmarks, which she acknowledged can be controversial, but said she believed they are a good thing when there is money available.
“Over the 18 years, I’ve brought just over $100 million, and those are earmarked funds that would not have been here in any other way,” she said. “That’s about $2,500 for every person that lives here. I’m really proud of that.”
Stanley said the people of the 2nd Essex District were always her top priority, and she loved walking around the district, dropping into local shops and hearing from her constituents, who would always tell her exactly how they thought she was doing, good or bad.
Case in point: One time she was visiting a senior center in Methuen when an elderly lady stormed in and demanded to know who the lady doing the state budget was.
At the time, Stanley was heavily involved in the state budgeting process, so everyone pointed at her. The lady immediately walked over, got right in her face and shouted, “You’re killing me!”
The room immediately fell quiet, and everyone watched as the lady pulled out her purse and opened it up.
“This is how much medicine I take,” she said. “I need help paying for it and if you don’t give me a way to do it, you’re killing me!’”
You don’t get that kind of feedback from a line item on a spreadsheet, Stanley said. Even though Massachusetts had the best prescription drug program in the country at the time, she decided to fund the program in large part because of that encounter.
“That’s pretty high impact,” Stanley said.
However, there were plenty of times when Stanley had to stand her ground against the views of her constituents, too.
On one occasion, she was at the Groveland Diner holding office hours when a couple came in and explained that the husband had just lost his job and had to retire early, all of their kids were divorced, one of them had just gotten in trouble with the law, and because of all that, Stanley had to vote against gay marriage or their lives would be ruined.
“Life had not dealt them a series of good things, but gay marriage wasn’t one of them,” said Stanley, who has been a strong advocate of gay rights. “I sat right here listening to him for about an hour, and I said, ‘Well, I understand all of your problems, and if we can help you, we will, but I am voting for it.’”
Whether it was having a conversation like this during her district hours, a 6 a.m. phone call at home or a random encounter on the street, Stanley said she would really miss working with her constituents and trying her best to do right by them.
As for the things she won’t miss?
After a long pause, Stanley said, “I will not miss the pomp and circumstance,” adding that all of the formalities associated with the Legislature were cool at first, but became tiresome after a while.
“At one particular event, we were encouraged to stand up and give a standing ovation to our speaker, who’s now in jail. I won’t miss that,” she said.
The view ahead
Despite her eventual banishment to the Statehouse basement, Stanley said she feels her legacy is strong and that she will be leaving satisfied with her work.
“I won nine straight elections, what does that tell you,” she said. “I’ve probably gotten 400 to 500 cards and emails from people saying, ‘Good for you for calling them like you saw them.’ So I feel good.”
Once her term officially ends next week, Stanley said she plans on getting away someplace warm for a bit. She added that she won’t be globalizing her phone, saying she thinks it would be best if she falls off the grid for a while so Mirra can settle in on his own.
But until Jan. 2, Stanley said she would be there for her constituents, like they always have been for her.
“These guys took a chance on me in 1994,” Stanley said. “And I think I proved to be a good investment for them.”