November 28, 2011
BOSTON — State Sen. Jamie Eldridge is a hard man to ignore.
You can follow the Acton Democrat on Twitter, friend him on Facebook or read his blog, “The Dridge Report.” Avoid the Internet, and you’ll still find his columns and letters to the editor in local newspapers or hear his impassioned speeches on the Senate floor.
Behind it all is his communication director Melissa Threadgill, making sure his voice is heard.
But Threadgill sometimes wishes it was her voice.
“There are times when I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I could be up there speaking! I would do this or say this,” she says.
It’s a wish that often becomes reality on Beacon Hill. Threadgill says it’s possible she might run for office in the future. If so, she’d be in good company: almost 20 percent of Massachusetts state lawmakers say they began their careers as legislative aides.
For now, though, Threadgill wants to keep the focus on Eldridge, not on the work she does reviewing legislation, brainstorming and filing amendments, helping the senator prepare for debate, arranging press conferences and sending media releases.
“At the end of the day, I can work so many hours, but Jamie is always working more hours than I am,” she says. “We try to encourage him to take a little more time off. We try to say, ‘Maybe Sundays, you should take Sundays off,’ but he’s always putting events on his calendar. He likes to get out there and see people.”
Getting out there and seeing people is the part of politics Threadgill shies away from, preferring the behind-the-scenes work. Even in conversation she pushes Eldridge to center stage: ask her about her typical work day and somehow she’ll seamlessly transition that answer into a description of Eldridge’s social media prowess.
Lawmakers who got their start working as legislative aides remember high stress and low pay — but a valuable introduction to state politics.
“It taught me how to create change where we can,” says Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut. “It taught me how to look at things differently in terms of seeing the bigger picture, in that we are a commonwealth and not just one small community.”
It was while working for Rep. John Cox that Garry says she learned there’s more to being a legislator than showing up for votes. Like Threadgill, Garry saw the chance to meet constituents and gain knowledge of different policy areas.
For Garry and other former aides, this experience was a stepping stone.
“It was really difficult to be making $22,000 a year and living in different apartments, and living in my parents’ house, and all these different things you’ve got to do to be in the environment you want to be,” Rep. Jim Arciero, D-Westford, recalls of the years he worked as an aide after graduating from college.
“If you want to work for a position in government — or in any walk of life — that you think is going to somehow give you an opportunity to chase your dreams, then by all means do it, and eat tuna fish cans and Ramen noodles.” The dreams Threadgill is chasing aren’t of power or status or wealth.
They’re dreams she fostered as a politics student at Oberlin College, where the school motto is, “Think one person can make a difference? So do we.” It’s a maxim Threadgill maintains as a personal philosophy six years after graduating.
“I come from a very do-goodery school,” she says. “It’s just, ‘how can we make this world a better place? I’ve lived in Massachusetts for almost seven years now, how can we make Massachusetts better?'”
Crafting a brighter future for Massachusetts wasn’t the original plan for Threadgill, a native of upstate New York. She expected her political aspirations to bring her to Washington, D.C. — “because that’s what you think when you’re in politics and you’re 22″ — but a friend from Oberlin suggested Boston.
She moved to Boston in 2005 and started working on campaigns before becoming the communication director of the gay rights advocacy group MassEquality. She met Eldridge, then a state representative, through the organization and joined his staff when he was elected to the Senate in 2009.
For Threadgill, whose sentences are often delivered through a broad smile and punctuated with a cheerful laugh, the switch from grassroots advocacy to the formality of the Statehouse was a tough adjustment.
“We deal with very serious subjects here, and I think we try to treat people and their concerns and their problems very seriously,” she says. “Maybe sometimes we could probably lighten up a little bit, particularly on the bureaucratic speech.”
Threadgill says one of her longterm goals is to make government more accessible and the political process easier to understand. She’s stripping away what she calls “legislative gobbledygook” so constituents can see why she and the senator believe casinos will hurt the state, or that public records laws need updating.
“For me, communications is just a way to get at that,” she says. “I think as a whole the more informed the public is the better. If we can do a good job of explaining the good work that we’re doing up here, I think it’s better for democracy.”