Rep. John Olver (D)
Massachusetts 1st District
The stony hills and green mountains of western Massachusetts, where more trees dot the landscape today than when Henry David Thoreau was writing in the 1840s and where stone fencing once bounded one working farm from another, look a lot like they did 300 years ago. This was the frontier in the 17th century, where Puritan preachers founded towns in the wilderness, farmed the rocky soil, and preached against declension. This was also the site of the Indian uprising known as King Philip’s War in 1676, and the Indian raid, supported by the French in Quebec, at Deerfield in 1704. This was Yankee New England’s western frontier for nearly 200 years. In the 19th century, the area was the home of writers and artists: Emily Dickinson lived quietly in Amherst, Edith Wharton grandly on her estate in Lenox. Herman Melville struck up a friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne after purchasing a farm near Hawthorne’s Pittsfield home, not far from where the Boston Symphony plays at the Tanglewood Festival each summer. Mill towns were here as well, jammed into valleys or along the wide Connecticut River. As the 20th century progressed, and trees grew on stony land once farmed, western Massachusetts came to look less settled. The exceptions were areas near giant factories like General Electric’s now-closed electric transformer plant in Pittsfield and the Crane paper factory in Dalton, which since 1879 has been the only company to print money for the U.S. Treasury. Armed guards protect the facility’s secret plating process, which is the benchmark for producing currency and preventing counterfeiting. The region’s rolling hills and charming New England towns support a thriving tourist trade, featuring attractions such as Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow, the only dance institution to be named a National Historic Landmark. There are year-round, weekend, and vacation homes throughout the Berkshires. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who has a weekend home here, encouraged expansion of Internet access to many of these small towns. Truck farmers promote their sometimes-quirky products, including hard cider and pickles. But the area’s iconic local fairs have fallen on hard times in recent years.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Western Massachusetts has changed politically. For many years, it was a heartland of the Republican Party—flinty, thrifty, and chilly, just like the area’s most famous politician, Calvin Coolidge. But the area now contains some of the most liberal parts of the United States. Stockbridge attracted liberal artist Norman Rockwell, and Alice’s Restaurant in Great Barrington was immortalized by radical Arlo Guthrie in his antiwar song of the same name. The concentration of colleges and universities in the Pioneer Valley brought together a critical mass of liberal scholars and an even more leftist graduate student proletariat; the University of Massachusetts in Amherst is the largest of these. Although the area’s few remaining mills have shut down, the university continues to expand on former farmland. The results of the liberal trend showed up in election returns: Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama carried Amherst 87%-10% over Republican John McCain in 2008. Western Massachusetts also voted heavily for Democrat Shannon O’Brien for governor in 2002, even as she lost the rest of Massachusetts to Republican Mitt Romney.
The 1st Congressional District is the state’s largest congressional district geographically. It covers most of western Massachusetts—all of Berkshire and Franklin counties and their small towns; most of Hampshire County; Holyoke and West Springfield on the Connecticut River; and the more-working-class areas of northern Worcester County—and extends east to Pepperell in Middlesex County, about 40 miles from Boston. It borders four states and covers about 40% of the land area of Massachusetts. Over time, the solidly Democratic voting base has shifted from low-income mill workers in places like Holyoke and Pittsfield to liberal and radical academics in the college towns.
Rep. John Olver (D)
Elected: June 1991, 9th full term.
Born: Sept. 3, 1936, Honesdale, PA .
Education: Rensselaer Polytechnic Inst., B.S. 1955, Tufts U., M.A. 1956, M.I.T., Ph.D. 1961.
Religion: no religious affiliation.
Family: Married (Rose); 1 child.
Elected office: MA House of Reps., 1968–72; MA Senate, 1972–91.
Professional Career: Chemistry prof., U. of MA, Amherst, 1961–69.
The congressman from the 1st District is John Olver, a Democrat who won a June 1991 special election after the death of longtime Republican Rep. Silvio Conte. Olver was educated at Tufts University and MIT, arriving at the University of Massachusetts as a chemistry professor in 1961, at age 25. His wife, Rose, is a professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at Amherst College. In 1968, he began a 22-year career in the Legislature. In the special election to replace Conte, his Pioneer Valley base helped him win 31% in the fragmented Democratic primary. In the general, he faced Steven Pierce, former state House Republican leader and Gov. William Weld’s conservative opponent in the 1990 primary. With Massachusetts liberalism in disrepute after Gov. Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential campaign, the contest was close. Weld made certain to schedule it after students’ summer vacation began, when the area had emptied out of liberal voters. Olver nevertheless pulled off a close 50%-48% win, becoming the first Democrat to hold the seat since the Spanish-American War.
|John Olver (D)||215,696||(73%)||($857,631)|
|Nathan Bech (R)||80,067||(27%)||($157,611)|
|John Olver (D)||33,513||(79%)|
|Robert Feuer (D)||8,765||(21%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (76%), 2004 (100%), 2002 (68%), 2000 (68%), 1998 (72%), 1996 (53%), 1994 (100%), 1992 (52%), 1991 (50%)
Olver has one of the most liberal voting records in the House. He has voted against international trade deals, and he favors conversion to a Canadian-style single-payer health care system. He chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, where he has sought to expand Amtrak train service and subsidies in the Northeast Corridor. In 2007, he increased funding for housing vouchers, public transit, and community development block grants. He was an early critic of President George W. Bush’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Alphonso Jackson, for “political favoritism” and called for Jackson’s resignation 18 months before he finally quit in March 2008. Olver has also advocated increased federal support for bicycling, for recreation and transportation. His work to fund local projects drew criticism in the 110th Congress (2007-08) from congressional watchdog groups opposed to excessive earmarks, the special-projects funding that lawmakers insert into spending bills. Earmarks that he funded in 2007 included $6 million for the commuter train line from Fitchburg to Boston, $1 million for fiber-optics development along Interstate 91, and $265,000 for an arts center annex at the Amherst Cinema. Some Massachusetts Democrats have complained that as the state’s only Appropriations member, he hasn’t done much for the Boston area. He warned against expectations of an “easy pot of money.”
Outside of his Appropriations work, Olver helped to organize the House bipartisan Climate Change Caucus and sponsored legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions. In January 2008, the House passed his bill to add hiking trails in his district. On the housing mortgage bailout bills in 2008, he worked with Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts to increase aid for owners of foreclosed properties. Although he had earlier co-sponsored a resolution calling for an impeachment investigation of President Bush and Vice President Cheney—a popular idea in this district—he voted in 2007 against a resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat from Ohio, to impeach Cheney, calling it a “totally destructive” move that would divide Democrats. Olver, who does not seem to be a politician by nature, dislikes fundraising. He prefers to rock climb, a solitary endeavor. In a state delegation filled with natural-born politicos, Olver is notably shy and ambivalent about the media limelight. An exception was his April 2006 arrest with four other House Democrats; all were handcuffed and briefly jailed for protesting the violence in Darfur at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.
Olver has had only one close contest for re-election. In 1996, he beat Republican Jane Swift, then a state representative and later governor, 53%-47%. Obama’s presidential campaign manager, David Plouffe, ran Olver’s first re-election campaign. In 2008, Stockbridge lawyer Robert Feuer challenged Olver in the primary for his inaction on impeaching Bush; Olver won 79%-21%. With Massachusetts likely to lose a seat in 2010’s reapportionment, Olver has acknowledged that his rambling district is an obvious target for Boston-area pols. The longer he holds the seat, the less likely a successor can stake a claim. In 2005, Olver was hospitalized with a brain infection, but he has recovered.