The retirement of our state representative, Sarah Peake, after nine terms on Beacon Hill marks a generational change that may affect the Outer Cape in unexpected ways. It raises an eternal political question: is it better to be represented by an insider who accumulates political power within an undemocratic system or by an outsider who denounces that system and therefore remains powerless?
Rep. Peake decided early on that she would take the insider path. She rose to become second assistant majority leader in the House, which means that she is one of a handful of legislators who decide almost everything. No bill passes or even comes to a vote without approval from the Speaker of the House and his team — including Peake.
“There is no legislative body in America as opaque as the Massachusetts legislature,” Paul Craney of the nonpartisan Mass. Fiscal Alliance said in an interview a couple of years ago. “They have gotten away with passing billion-dollar budgets without a vote, passing new taxes without a vote, making some of their votes not available to the public.”
Sarah Peake is an integral part of this system. She denounces its critics and loyally springs to its defense whenever asked. That’s the bad news. But there’s also good news.
First, although Peake helps run a deeply conservative system, she has used her power to promote progressive causes like gun control and abortion rights. Second, and more important, she brings home the bacon.
Although no figures are available, it’s all but certain that more state money has flowed to the Outer Cape during Peake’s 17 years on Beacon Hill than during the tenures of any of her predecessors. If she concludes that an organization in any of the seven towns she represents needs and deserves state money, the money will be forthcoming. It’s her reward for serving the system.
Thanks largely to Peake, cultural organizations from the Fine Arts Work Center to the Harwich Junior Theatre can rely on infusions of cash from Beacon Hill. She helped shape the Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund, which pays for local sewer projects. When the state doled out three-quarters of a million dollars for ecological restoration projects in 2020, the biggest chunk went to the Herring River project in Wellfleet. That is the benefit of electing a legislator who’s part of the ruling clique.
What sort of legislator should replace Rep. Peake? One choice would be someone like her who embraces a system that is undemocratic and by some standards profoundly corrupt but who uses power to bring streams of money to our communities. The alternative would be a bomb-tossing outsider who demands democracy and denounces the Speaker and his closed system. That might be the moral position, but the money spigot would be turned off. If such a legislator were to ask for another Herring River grant, not a penny would be forthcoming.
It’s too early for candidates to emerge, but our district is full of under-the-radar talent. Few would have predicted that Truro’s Julian Cyr, who had been known mainly for organizing Nauset High School students to save the school choir, would win election to the state Senate at age 30 and go on to become a much-admired local leader. There should be no lack of candidates to fill Peake’s seat.
Whoever runs, however, will have to make a decision that politicians all over the world make. Do you embrace an entrenched undemocratic system and bring benefits to your district? Or do you fight to change the system even though that might mean less money for worthy local projects? A powerful case could be made for either option. Candidates should confront this dilemma directly. Voters should listen carefully to what they say and then make what is always a difficult choice.
Stephen Kinzer, a Truro Central School graduate and former New York Times foreign correspondent, is a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown University.