A new breed of advocacy
These advocates are driven by data rather than ideology
THIS ISSUE HIGHLIGHTS a new breed of advocacy that appears to be emerging here in Massachusetts, an advocacy driven more by data than ideology.
Our Conversation introduces you to Marc Ebuña, Ari Ofsevit, and Andy Monat. You’ve probably never heard of these three relatively young men from a group called TransitMatters. They aren’t quoted regularly by reporters and they rarely meet with state policymakers. But they are starting to have a real impact on the MBTA, pushing a pilot project to introduce late-night service, convincing officials to throw out the completed design for a commuter rail stop in Newton, and questioning the time and expense involved with the way the transit agency shuts down service at night.
Our other “advocate” is Paul Schimek, the author of a feature article that suggests democracy isn’t working well in Massachusetts. He analyzes voting results over the last two decades and concludes that too many officials are getting into office by winning over just a minority of voters in crowded primaries. Because most legislative districts are so lopsided in favor of one party (usually Democrats), these primary winners tend to easily win the general election and then remain in office as long as they want because of the power of incumbency.
I’m used to advocates who represent a constituency and push for policies and appropriations on Beacon Hill that benefit that constituency. Schimek, Monat, Ofsevit, and Ebuña are advocates, but they advocate using data and logic. The most amazing thing is that they advocate in their spare time.
At some point I came to the realization that these guys were actually having an impact on the T and I wanted to learn more about them. Ebuña, at 30, says he tries to live his life in a way that mirrors his advocacy. “I live in a new building built by three nonprofit developers that’s right next to a T station,” he says. “It’s sort of this romantic lifestyle that I live that I wish other people could have.”
Ofsevit, 33, lives life in the fast lane, usually on a bicycle. He’s also a big runner, and you might remember him as the guy who ran the Boston Marathon in 2016 and collapsed about 100 yards from the finish line. Two fellow runners came along and helped/carried him across the finish line. He was rushed, delirious, to Tufts Medical Center and plunged into an ice bath to lower his dangerously high temperature. (He fully recovered, and says he plans to run the marathon again next year.)
Monat, 40, grew up in Indianapolis and came to Boston after going to school in Houston and working in Austin. Public transit is relatively new to him, but he’s made up for lost time. He also illustrates with a quaint story how TransitMatters advocacy is different. A state rep recently invited him to the State House to discuss the redesign of the Auburndale commuter rail stop in Newton, and Monat discovered he didn’t know where to go in. He had never been to the State House before.Schimek, 52, submitted to us what I would call a white paper on the subject of elections in Massachusetts. It was full of data suggesting that democracy was out of whack in elections for seats in the Legislature. We worked with him to get the white paper down to a manageable size, but at all times we tried to let his data speak for itself.
“I would say that I am motivated by a faith in the democratic project, and a faith that the crisis in American democracy (on many levels) stems not from too much democracy but too little,” says Schimek in an email.