Remarks upon taking the oath of office

Today I was sworn in as state senator in the Senate Chamber. The Senate President presided and the Governor administered the oath of office. After the ceremony, I was permitted to make some brief remarks.

The rough text of those remarks appears below:

Thank you Governor, Madame President, Constitutional Officers, Members of the Governor’s Council, Colleagues, distinguished guests, family and friends.

I really appreciate you all being here.

Madame President, I very much appreciate the gracious and generous welcome that you and your staff and my new colleagues have given me and I’m very much looking forward to working with all of you.

Now sworn, I am the lowest creature on the totem pole in this chamber and I am a little embarrassed to be the center of attention. And I know we have a lot of work to do together.

But I’m going to ask your indulgence to let me talk a little about my family and friends.

Sometimes, I get asked: What kind of name is Brownsberger? The answer is: It’s an American name. We all have American names and that’s the point.

But in my case there is a little more to say — there is no other place that our family thinks of as home.

My people came over on different boats from different places through the 17th and 18th centuries and, by the middle of the 19th century, both sides of the family had fought their way to Ohio.

My parents grew up with people who grew up knowing people who had taken the union side in the civil war. The stories of those days — when we struggled to figure out whether we would live up to the ideals of our Declaration of Independence — still had a lot of emotional valence.

  • The men who wore blue
  • The patriotic women who defied confederate marauders
  • Abolitionist ministers

My father’s great Uncle Wesley was a Union scout who was captured and survived imprisonment at Andersonville in Georgia, where half of the prisoners died of malnutrition, exposure or disease. He survived to become a County Sheriff and a minor Ohio politician. He lived long enough to be a politician with a German surname who was militantly anti-German during the run up to World War I.

My mother’s family ran a station on the Underground Railroad and the family included several preachers who served as battlefield chaplains in the Union Army.

By the turn of the century, people on my father’s side had made it out the Oregon Trail to the west coast.

My father’s mother, Claire Nordyke, grew up in a farm in Napa Valley but became the first woman to take the medical boards in California. She and her husband, Sydney, also a physician, served their Seventh Day Adventist faith as medical missionaries in India, where my father was born.

He followed in their footsteps, as a physician, helping people one at a time. After serving in post-war Korea, he trained in psychiatry. He was the kind of psychiatrist who gave his home phone number to all of his patients. I remember a lot of evenings seeing my father sitting next to the radiator in the kitchen with the wall phone pressed to his ear. By example, he taught me to care for people — to listen patiently, to try to understand each person’s truth and need, to take people one at a time.

My mother’s father was a minor person of letters who authored a pocket version of Webster’s Dictionary that sold well for several decades.

My mother is also a person of letters. She translated the works of several distinguished modern Russian authors. Among them were some Soviet dissidents and the struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union was part of the conversation in our house in the 70s and 80s.

She also taught me to be involved in the community. I remember that my first political effort was handing out leaflets for Dolores Mitchell’s campaigns for School Committee in Watertown. I believe that there were three of them. She is now the universally respected director of the Group Insurance Commission.

My mother’s sister Mary was a mathematician, not a common path for a woman in the 50s and 60s. She blended mathematics with letters working as a software documentation specialist.  Her husband, John Wirkkala, was a staff person in this very body.  John and Mary are retired now in New Hampshire and are active in politics there — local politics and Democratic presidential politics.

My Aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s youngest sister, was a leader in the nuclear freeze movement and ran a Congressional campaign for George Bachrach, who held the Second Suffolk and Middlesex state senate seat many years before me. She now runs the Nashua River Watershed Association, living in Lunenburg. Her husband, Michael Imerso, is a writer and historian of the Italian-American community that he grew up in in Newark.

My marriage is the closest thing you will find in this time and place to an arranged marriage.   Carolyn’s father was also a psychiatrist and he was best man in my parents’ wedding.  It worked out well. We have three daughters. My eldest, Rae, is a civil engineer in San Francisco. My middle daughter, Carly, is in college and the one that is most interested in politics and policy, particularly in public health. My youngest daughter, Louise, aspires to run her own theater company someday and is working hard to learn all aspects of that business.

Carolyn is a high school teacher. She gets up early, spends the day on her feet, comes home, grades papers for a few hours, goes to bed and then gets up and does it again the next day. The weekends aren’t much different.

She isn’t usually hands-on in my campaigns, but she tolerates and supports my politics. And she’s a good sounding board who keeps me down to earth.

Louise is the only one home with us. We live in a two-family house off Trapelo Road in Belmont — my folks are downstairs and we are upstairs. It’s a nice arrangement.

My first job out of college was for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. In one of those small world twists, Mike Widmer, now the President of MTF, is my almost next door neighbor. It has been a great privilege to collaborate with him in service to the town of Belmont. He was chair of our finance committee while I was chair of the Board of Selectmen and we did a lot together to put the town on a firmer financial footing. He now serves as moderator for the Town Meeting. His wife, Jeanne, has helped me think about message in all of my campaigns.

After law school, I spent 8 years on Wall Street, mostly building software. Those years taught me a lot about how business organizations have to keep changing and improving to survive. Our duty in the public sector is to keep changing and improving in the same way.

I came back to Boston as an Assistant Attorney General under Scott Harshbarger. I developed an interest in drug policy and sentencing policy. Phil Heymann at Harvard Law School, Mark Moore at the Kennedy School and David Rosenbloom at Boston University gave me a series of great opportunities to contribute to the national conversation about poverty and substance abuse as a teacher, researcher, and consultant. They are great people. Phil’s wife Ann has been a great worker in my campaigns as has Mark’s wife, Martha, with whom I sing in the choir at church. David’s wife, Alice Richmond, was the first woman to try murder cases in Suffolk County.

Ultimately, I got to the point where I felt I really wanted to talk with people with addictions, not about them, and I began working in drug courts. That experience changed a lot of my thinking. I also found that standing next to people in trouble at their time of the greatest need was deeply rewarding. I focused on a criminal defense practice for five years until being elected as State Representative.

Going back, I started in politics as a local activist on school issues. We had a little group of parents trying to assure school quality. Jeanne Mooney organized that group.

One of the School Committee members who came to talk to our group said to us: If you people really want to do anything, one of you needs to run for the Board of Selectmen, because “they are the problem.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that I got a call from Anne Paulsen inviting me to consider running for Selectman in 1998. She was the leader of the progressives in Belmont. At that time, she was state representative but she had served nine years on the school committee and had been the first woman to serve on Belmont’s Board of Selectman. That was actually a tough role to step into. Her aide then was Barbara Miranda. She and Barbara guided me in my first tentative steps as a candidate. Barbara also served as my aide when I got to the House and she now will serve as my chief of staff. I think you will all find that she is a wonderful person to work with. Anne broadened my perspective beyond education issues to consider the needs of the whole town and she and her husband Fred and I continue to work closely on environmental issues.

Jeanne Mooney, who brought that parents’ group together, ran my first campaign in 1998. She also ran what was probably my toughest campaign in 2001. Throughout that campaign I was in denial about worsening symptoms from what turned out to be a near-fatal brain tumor, diagnosed weeks after the end of the campaign and removed in successful emergency surgery. That was a tough time that Jean helped me get through.

Paul Solomon is a dear friend. He changed my life in 2002 by getting himself elected to the Board of Selectman and making me chair. Together we were able to streamline town operations, to clarify Belmont’s long term financial situation, and to make necessary investments for the future. Elizabeth Grob ran his watershed campaign. In 2006, she ran my first campaign for State Representative.

Gretchen McClain got me reelected in 2004 — a tough year in which I was running on the same ballot as a tax increase which I supported.

Kate Foster did a great job for me in this Senate campaign. It was a field campaign and she’s a field person. She comes with a whole team — her sister, Kris, and her parents, Marty Foster and Pat Connolly. I am grateful to all of them for their great efforts in the sprint we had over the past few months.

The gallery and the floor are filled with people who have been very helpful to me and my campaigns, some for years and some who have come to me recently as I have expanded into new territory. I hope to be able to continue to meet their expectations as an advocate for transparency, fiscal responsibility, environmental responsibility and social inclusion through education.

It has been a privilege to represent Cambridge and I’ve made a lot of friends there. Pat Casola has long been the tenant leader in the Fresh Pond Apartments. City Councilors Minka vanBeuzekom and Leland Cheung are here.

I am now delighted to represent Watertown and Boston — Mel and Tina Poindexter know a lot about what is going on and have been helping me get oriented. Councilor Susan Falkoff from Watertown is an old family friend.

I want to recognize some of my House colleagues who are here: Lori Ehrlich has somehow turned up at every table I’ve sat down in the House of Representatives. We just share a lot of interests. It’s been great working with her and I look forward continuing to work with her.

Byron Rushing and Gloria Fox have been seatmates on the House Floor. I appreciate their leadership on the three-strikes issue and very much look forward to working with them to serve the Boston neighborhoods that we share.

Marty Walz has been a close collaborator with me on the issue of online learning technology and is doing a lot to help me get to know the issues in Back Bay.

Kevin Honan, who has previously been recognized in this chamber as one of the best-liked people in the building, is liked not only because he is a very nice guy but because he has a very crisp understanding of a great many issues and is very willing to help when asked. I’m also very much looking forward to working with him.

There are other colleagues here who I am not seeing, please forgive me.

So, to my friends and family here, thank you for everything. To my colleagues, thank you for your patience and I’m looking forward to working with you.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

6 replies on “Remarks upon taking the oath of office”

  1. Thanks Will for sharing this. I did not know so much about your personal life and family and it is nice to see you recognizing friends. You certainly have me as a friend in Cambridge and we have been through much. Hope you’ll come to the concert Feb. 4. We have an award for you. Ellen

  2. Heartfelt congratulations. I knew a little about your background, but had to wait until your inauguration to learn the full richness of your background. Your constituents, of which I gladly am now one, will be well-served!


  3. I love the stories of your family.

    And thanks so much Will for all the thoughtful work you have done for so many.

    I am so proud that Cambridge could help boost you to the State Senate.

    Hope to see you at a farmer’s market sometime this summer.

    Sarah, North Cambridge.

  4. Congatulations Will. Fascinating stories about your backgroud and family. I look forward to work with you as our State Senator.

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