Jo Comerford on the Role of State Government

Massachusetts State Senator Jo Comerford, who represents parts of Hampshire, Hamden and Franklin Counties, was the speaker at the annual Birthday Lunch of the League of Women Voters of Amherst, which this year is celebrating the centennial of the 19th amendment that finally gave women the right to vote in all elections, as well as the centennial of the founding of the League of Women Voters in February 2020.

Senator Comerford kindly provided us with the notes for her inspiring address. (Any typos or misrepresentations below are the responsibility of the webmaster, not of Senator Comerford!)

"Thank you to the Amherst League for your kind invitation to join you in marking 100 years of women’s suffrage and 80 years of the League’s tireless and necessary work in our region.

I looked back on your history — aptly titled 80 years of action — and I marveled at the countless ways the Amherst League has not only been a driving force for positive social change, but has led the way forward. You've catalyzed thought. Been at the tip of the wave of people power on stunningly diverse set of issues — all the while holding our region to the promise and power of our democratic nation.

I've long said that there’s nothing more powerful than an informed, engaged, and active electorate on the move for justice.

Government can and should work in the best interest of everyone.

It can and it should, but it won’t unless people make it work.

And the way we make government work — as you well know — is through our votes. Suffrage. Organizing.

The most powerful tools we have to transform our circumstances. Bend Dr. King’s long moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Before I was elected, as some of you know, I lived my life largely as an advocate. Pounding on people — well, people like me now — government officials charged with their community’s well being. Demanding that they work in the best interest of all people, not just a wealthy few.

All that time, the League’s sheer people power and moral high ground was universally evident.

And here we are today. Celebrating the Amherst League of Women Voters’ 80th birthday and 100 years since women first won the right to vote.

And while one hundred years of women’s suffrage should make us take to the streets dancing, I also know that we gathered today are aware of the many historic and contemporary complexities and all manner of biting inequities.

We know that women of color and poor women fought for years after 1920 — battling poll taxes, literacy tests, and brutal racism. We know that Native American voters were made to sever their tribal ties before voting.

And we know that across the nation, current and formerly incarcerated people face massive disenfranchisement. And waves of immigrants faced and continue to endure crushing barriers.

We know that — even in Massachusetts — there’s so more we can do beyond Automatic Voter Registration to ensure the full power of voting rights for all.

  • The Commonwealth could say YES to:
  • Same day voter registration
  • Ranked choice voting
  • Universal prisoner suffrage
  • Voting rights for younger community members
  • Election Day as a holiday

What's more — today — rather than retrenching in a single issue — even one as essential as voting rights — we see the necessary power and justice in fighting for intersecting issues all at once.

Intersecting issues. All at once. That sounds like the work of the Legislature.

I've always wanted to serve at the state level because I believe it does two things very well.

I call the first “keeping the lights of democracy burning.”

This is a profoundly difficult time for our nation -- as you well know. Some days it feel like everything we hold dear is under attack. That forward momentum on critical social issues has come to a crashing standstill.

It's up to states like Massachuetts to keep the lights burning. To kindle hope and push for positive social change.

So even as we fight to advance cutting edge suffrage legislation, we must also, for example, enact the boldest possible climate legislation.

As our federal government shamefully retreats from the Paris Accord, we must go forward. We must pass cutting edge prescription drug cost control legislation. We must stand up to big tobacco. And more.

And as much as we can and should play offense, this time also demands that the Legislature also embodies a sort of linebacker of defense — this is the second thing state government can do very well.

For example our actions can signal clearly that here in the Commonwealth women will always have the right to choose because we’re defending that right with everything we have. Here in the Commonwealth, we will advance immigrant rights and protections and never yield to xenophobic baiting. Here in the Commonwealth, Trump may strip away funding for heating aid for our elders, but that aid will not ebb, because the people of Massachusetts will make up the difference.

And so much more.

Playing offense and defense. Tackling myriad complex issues. All at once. These are not new ideas to the League of Women Voters whose work has long embodied the very best and tenacious advocacy on behalf of your community.

It is the honor of a lifetime to join you as your Senator. To reach out past the Legislature and lock arms. Join forces with you now and in the days ahead."

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