By Patrick Lovett
Boston University Statehouse Program
WESTERN MASS — For years, they sat next to each other, attended the same events, and when it came time to retire, they did that together too. After announcing they weren’t running on consecutive days, Rep. Steve Kulik, D-Worthington, and Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, held their retirement parties one night apart.
The two are close friends — and more importantly, the last in a string of veteran western Massachusetts representatives to leave office, taking a legacy of regional advocacy and a combined 41 years of experience with them on their way out.
“The impressions they left have been unambiguously positive,” said Matt Szafranski, Editor-in-Chief of Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight. “They were dedicated to the issues people in their districts cared very deeply about … these areas that are very much activist communities felt like they had a voice.”
Former Rep. Ellen Story worked closely with the pair during her 24 years in the House representing Amherst. She described them similarly — smart, hard workers, fighting not only for western Massachusetts, but their respective communities.
With their retirements, five veteran western Massachusetts legislators, including Story, have left office in the past three years with a combined 107 years in office. Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, passed away on Feb. 22; Story retired in 2016; Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, stepped down in May amid controversy. Now, come Jan. 2, five new legislators will be inaugurated into office.
Since announcing their retirements, Kulik and Scibak said many constituents have voiced concern over the lost experience. Over time, recently retired legislators were able to build relationships and high levels of leadership that afforded western Massachusetts a loud voice on Beacon Hill, according to Szafranski.
“These were people that had been there for such a point that they were pretty much guaranteed positions on important committees,” said Szafranski. When they retired, Kulik was vice chair on the Ways and Means Committee, Scibak was House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Higher Education. From these roles, they could affect significant changes to local funding and institutions.
“What I’ve told people is that I’m very confident in the reps coming in,” said Kulik. “Some influence may be gone for a while, but it’ll be back.”
Both Kulik and Scibak came to western Massachusetts as outsiders and grew their political careers laying roots in their local communities.
Kulik moved to Worthington in 1977. Coming from Boston, he and his wife were searching for a rural area to build a life in.
“I started going to town meetings and observing how incredible local governments are,” said Kulik. “It was open, inclusionary, everyone was involved.”
Kulik started on the planning board and soon became a selectman, and served for almost 11 years. At that time, Kulik also became involved with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which took him to Beacon Hill as a statewide advocate on local issues. After becoming president of the association, he ran to become a rep in 1993.
“I thought, ‘Why not try?’” he said. “I’ve been there 25 years now, elected 13 times.”
A Rhode Island native, Scibak arrived in South Hadley in 1981 with experience in the health care industry. He cut his teeth on the Solid Waste Committee and ran for the selectboard in 1989. He lost by 300 votes and ran again a few years later, winning, something he continued for more than a decade.
In 2002, Rep. Nancy Flavin decided not to run for reelection to her House seat. Largely motivated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Scibak decided to run.
“What 9/11 really did for me was demonstrate how fragile life was,” Scibak said. “I didn’t want to live wondering, ‘What if?’”
Despite their shared advocacy for western Massachusetts, the men often focused on different causes.
Kulik was largely concerned with rural issues like agriculture and infrastructure. Some of his proudest accomplishments in office were gaining tax credits for dairy farmers and increasing the reach of broadband in the area.
Szafranski said one of the more important things Kulik consistently accomplished was securing state funding for local school transportation.
“Rural transportation was huge for Kulik. There are kids traveling dozens of miles to school and it’s a very expensive thing to maintain. They’ve never gotten as much as they’d like, but without what he’s been able to get, these towns would be virtually bankrupt.”
“There is nobody who is looked at with more respect,” Scibak said of Kulik. “He always did things quietly and effectively, and represented his district well.”
Scibak gained a reputation as an advocate for people suffering from personal health or social issues. Living with hearing loss personally, he sponsored a bill that mandates insurance coverage for children with hearing loss. He also sponsored a bill that extended dental care access in the state.
“John has been a champion for people with health and social challenges,” Kulik said. “He really cares about people and has done whatever he could to cut through bureaucracy that prevents that.”
Szafranski emphasized the importance of Scibak’s role in higher education.
“A lot of people in his district work at or attend the local universities,” he said. “It really helped the district to have someone that the chancellor of UMass could bring into his office and request action on certain issues.”
Kulik and Scibak have tips for the incoming representatives: be accessible, read bills carefully, bring asparagus.
The last point isn’t quite as literal.
“Every year I would get some South Hadley asparagus and distribute it,” Scibak said. “It’s some of the best in the world. … Because of it, I would get to talk to people I might not otherwise have the chance to talk to.”
Following the primary, the lawmakers said they have reached out to the representatives taking their seat, Scibak said.
Recently-elected Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland said she’s utilized Kulik and Scibak for institutional knowledge and models for representation.
“They were incredibly accessible, always showed up,” said Blais. “They each emphasized how much they loved this job which was definitely evident in everything they did.”
Blais said all of the new reps know they have big shoes to fill.
“We’ve talked about it with each other,” said Blais. “We’re not going to be as influential right out of the gates, but we’re trying to work together.”
Kulik and Scibak said they’ve communicated the need to work as team to the new reps. The message appears to have been received.
“Someone made the comment recently, asking if we’re going to purchase a VW bus because we’ve been seen together so often,” said Blais. That someone turned out to be Szafranski.
Judging by all the social media I’ve seen lately in which they are all together, I can only conclude @BlaisForMA, @MindyForMA, @SabadosaMA, Dan Carey & @Jo_Comerford have rented an old VW Microbus & are on tour in the Upper Valley. #mapoli
— Matt Szafranski (@MSzafranski413) November 20, 2018
Kulik actually held two retirement parties: one in Greenfield with a couple hundred attendees and the other about half that size in his hometown Worthington.
“I really just wanted to use it as an opportunity to thank my most basic supporters. There have been ups and downs through the years and I just felt like I needed to share my gratitude for having the opportunity to do it,” he said. “To put myself before the voters and get reelected a dozen times … it’s special.”
Scibak said he’s happy he’s leaving in the same year as Scibak and the late Peter Kocot. Sometimes called the ‘Three Polish Amigos,’ the cohort and their families grew close over the years. It was best that the three of them go out together, he said.
In their retirement, Kulik and Scibak will be moving apart. Scibak will soon leave to live in Sarasota, FL, while Kulik plans to stay put. They both look forward to driving less without the mandatory cross-state commute, but have different ideas for how they’ll spend their time.
Kulik said he may finally pick up the guitar he bought years ago and learn how to play. Scibak will explore his passion for photography. Separately, both mentioned utilizing some of their experience — joining a local board or teaching.
They’ll stay in close contact, both said.