At NorthEndWaterfront.com, we share a coincident tenure with that of State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, having founded this site during the campaign of the 2009 Special Election when he won the 3rd Suffolk District seat vacated by former Speaker Sal DiMasi. The district includes the Boston neighborhoods of the North End, Waterfront, Downtown, Chinatown and the South End.
Much has changed for Michlewitz in the past ten years. On the personal level, he has recently turned 40 years old and left behind his “most stylish” bachelor status to marry fellow North Ender, Maria Puopolo Michlewitz. But much has also stayed the same as he continues to reside in the same neighborhood where he grew up as one of the few Jewish kids, surrounded by the culture of a predominantly Italian community at the time. In our interview, Michlewitz mentions the North End frequently telling story after story of how the neighborhood frames his thinking on issues and his dedication to public service.
The progressive Democrat continues to be popular in the district having faced no significant opposition since that first election a decade ago. He has steadily moved up the State House ranks, sponsoring some of the Commonwealth’s most influential legislation, such as regulating the technology industry giants in ride sharing (Uber / Lyft) and more recently the first statewide regulation and taxation of short term rentals (Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO) in the country.
The Ways and Means Committee is responsible for writing the $43 billion state budget and puts a mark on nearly every piece of legislation in the House. The chair seat is often seen as a stepping stone toward House Speaker. Current Speaker DeLeo of Winthrop has been in the role for ten years, the longest in state history. With this latest appointment, DeLeo also reaffirms his support for Michlewitz.
Just after the Ways and Means Committee Chair announcement, we sat down with Rep. Michlewitz in his new office at the State House to get a read on his priorities and thoughts on where the state legislature is heading.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: What does your new appointment mean for your direct constituents in the North End, South End, Downtown Boston and throughout the 3rd Suffolk District?
Rep. Michlewitz: First and foremost, it gives our district a front seat at the table of the budget process. In the Airbnb issue, for example, that was certainly important to the district given the problems we are having with it taking away housing stock and driving up rents. However, in the Financial Services Committee, we had to build consensus through the entire House and then with the Senate. Building consensus can take some twists and turns, and that is likely to be the case with my current legislative priorities.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: From a big picture perspective, what do you want to accomplish as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee?
Rep. Michlewitz: I want to work to keep the State economy strong and moving in a positive direction as it has been over the past few years. There are certainly challenges coming out of Washington D.C. and how that trickles down to the states becomes a concern.
NEWF: Why has the state not hit its budget targets in the past couple of months?
Michlewitz: My understanding is that the sales tax is coming in fine, but income taxes have been a bit down. Capital gains taxes have not been hitting benchmarks which could because of fewer real estate sales, as we’ve seen in the North End and downtown Boston. People are listing homes, but they’re not moving as quickly which could be related to news out of Washington. In the past two months, the combined shortfall is over $400 million. But, we had been over our projections in previous months so it ebbs and flows. It is certainly something to keep an eye on. The job of this committee is to produce a budget that is balanced and continues to foster growth in the economy.
NEWF: Having led the ride share (Uber/Lyft) and short-term rentals (Airbnb) bills through the House, did you set out to become the face of technology regulation and overseeing the “gig economy” in the Commonwealth?
Michlewitz: Airbnb-related issues were the first to impact my district, especially in the North End and Chinatown. I actually filed legislation on short-term rentals first, before the Uber/Lyft bill which fell into my committee. On the ride share regulation, the public safety issues were very troubling to me, especially drivers with sex offender records and suspended licenses. We saw it more with Uber than Lyft, but these companies were not doing proper background checks. We made some compromises, such as with fingerprinting, but at the end of the day I am proud of that bill. There will always be problems, but we are not hearing the horror stories anymore and we have seen a drastic reduction in assault incidents. That legislation took hundreds of Uber drivers off the road that should not have been there in the first place.
NEWF: Do you have any new technology-related initiatives?
Michlewitz: I have recently filed to regulate peer-to-peer car sharing entities, such as Turo and GetAround, where people rent their cars directly to others by listing on an app or website. In addition to safety and insurance, the proposed legislation would add a $1/day fee toward funding the MBTA. The bill would also seek to eliminate the $10/day car rental fee that Boston and Cambridge residents pay toward the Convention Center. Now that the center is built, there is no need for that.
NEWF: Has coming up through the House as a younger legislator helped your understanding of how technology companies should be regulated?
Michlewitz: Perhaps being part of a younger generation has helped, although I technically am not part of the millennial generation. Though I definitely see how that generation’s politics is shaped by how they relate to technology having growing up with computers and social media their entire life.
NEWF: With your new statewide role, how will that change your accessibility and transparency?
Michlewitz: Transparency has always been important in the legislature. On the district level, I hold Saturday coffee hours and I can personally attest that my cell phone number is very accessible by my constituents.
NEWF: What surprises might we see in the upcoming budget?
Michlewitz: Well, if I told you they wouldn’t be surprises! But, I do want to reiterate to my constituents that my district will still be my #1 priority. No matter what position I have held in the House, it has always been that way. Our neighborhood issue with short-term rentals set the stage for state regulation and there may be similar opportunities in the future. It will always be challenging to build statewide consensus, but I intend to keep the district at the forefront of my mind. I have always lived in the North End and have no plans to leave anytime soon.