Legislative careers and friendships begin in the curious Beacon Hill tradition known as the freshman bullpen

Legislative careers and friendships begin in the freshman bullpen

The first day as a state representative in Massachusetts is memorable. Freshmen are surrounded by family and friends in the House chamber as the governor administers the oath of office. Afterward, the Speaker hosts a lavish reception in honor of the newcomers.

Veteran legislators then file back to their offices and get to work. But what about the new members? Where do they go? Freshmen don’t have offices awaiting them. Offices come with committee assignments, and those won’t be made for at least a month. At that point, the offices fall like dominoes, doled out according to seniority, with freshmen getting the leftovers. In the meantime, new legislators and their aides are housed in Room 437, a cavernous hearing room known affectionately – and pejoratively – as the “freshman bullpen.”

As a member of the House staff, I drew the assignment of manning the bullpen in January 2003. So I had a unique vantage point from which to watch one class of freshman lawmakers and their staffers go through a State House rite of passage. I soon realized that life in the bullpen could be pleasant and productive – or rude and miserable. Which one depended, in part, on expectations.

“You expect this beautiful office with a dark leather chair, with cherrywood bookcases, and you walk into a room that feels like you’re going for your entrance exam in the military,” says Rep. Robert Coughlin, a Dedham Democrat who was a member of the 2003 cohort.

Alayna Van Tassel, one of 22 new legislative aides jammed in with the 22 freshmen legislators, thought she knew what to expect, having worked for another lawmaker previously. But the aide to Rep. Alice Peisch, a Democrat from Wellesley, was shocked to find her new surroundings “almost like a telemarketing room.” Worst of all, adds Van Tassel, “there were only two computers for 44 people.”

“It’s organized chaos,” says Westfield Republican Donald Humason. Though a newly elected representative, Humason experienced the bullpen as a case of déjà vu. He inhabited it in 1991, as an aide to then-Rep. (and now Sen.) Mike Knapik. “I’d been through it,” says the sole bullpen veteran in the Class of 2003, who tried to settle his colleagues’ jitters. “Don’t sweat it,” he told them. “It’s not going to be this nerve-wracking the entire time.”

But nerve-wracking it was. “Noise was a problem,” says Taylor White, aide to Republican Rep. Jeffrey Perry of Sandwich. “That was one of the most frustrating things. Everyone’s on the phone, everyone’s making appointments. That was the biggest nuisance, having a constituent call and say, ‘Where are you, the subway?’”

“It was difficult,” Coughlin agrees. “You can’t meet with people. It’s difficult to talk on the phone.”

But Sutton Democrat Jennifer Callahan says she didn’t mind the racket. “I was a trauma nurse in the ER, and the level of noise there was even greater than in the bullpen,” she explains.

‘When you need to get some business done, people are staring at you.’

Another drawback is that lobbyists and constituents pop in unannounced. Once situated in offices, lawmakers can rely on receptionists to screen visitors and take messages. But the bullpen is wide open, with no dividers or cubes – making legislators and aides easy prey for whoever opens the door.

“When you need to get some business done, make some phone calls, take some phone calls, it’s very difficult when people are walking in, staring at you, waiting for you,” says Coughlin.

But there are definite upsides to life in the bullpen, especially the unending supply of goodies. “You never went through a day without someone bringing in some sort of treat,” White recalls. “I was definitely well-fed in the bullpen.”

“There were many days I didn’t have to buy lunch,” Van Tassel remembers. “And for somebody on my salary, that certainly helps.”

“Everyone chips in,” says Jamie Hellen, aide to Rep. Jamie Eldredge, an Acton Democrat. “They figure, ‘Hey, I made a banana bread, I’ll bring it in.’”

Even in the sharing of treats, however, the new reps represented the folks at home. “It was, ‘Okay, this is taffy from the North Shore,’” says Humason. “Well, I brought apples from the Berkshires. Someone else has cranberries from the Cape. Almost like you’re staking out your district.”

or freshly minted legislators, the most important part of their cramped initial quarters is the bonding. The bullpen is “a fitting place to start,” says Callahan. New legislators, she says, “all have the same questions, and some of those questions are best answered collectively.” Without that time jammed in Room 437, she says, “we would not have developed the camaraderie we have.”

Whether Republican or Democrat, says Coughlin, “you definitely felt that you were freshmen first.”

“It’s after the [fall] election, and politics is set aside,” says Humason. “You’re starting a new job. You’re all in the same boat.”

“I didn’t find one lick of partisanship in the bullpen,” says Hellen.

Indeed, it’s the focus on the mundane that builds bonds over party lines, says Humason. “It’s, ‘Hey, where do I get copy paper? Where do I pick up pens? Where do I get ribbon for my citations?’”

“At the end of the day,” says Coughlin, “we’re all friends.”

For the most part, that’s true. But even as I watched friendships form, I also saw animus fester. Two years later, friends remain friends and enemies remain enemies.

Callahan, the Sutton Democrat, and Susan Williams Gifford, a Wareham Republican, became pals despite their political differences. “She’s very nice,” Callahan says of Williams Gifford. “Susan and I took two of the four new seats” created in 2002 as a result of redistricting. “Regardless of what our party is, the two of us have that in common, not only as new legislators but as women colleagues focused on similar districts.”

‘I didn’t find a lick of partisanship in the bullpen.’

“I think that women have a different perspective when it comes to working together and formulating friendships and relationships,” says Williams Gifford. “Females are the true minority in the Legislature. We look at people differently. We’re colleagues, not adversaries.”

But in the close confines of the bullpen, even party ties are not enough to overcome bad manners. Two of the frosh, members of the same party, started out as friends; they were about the same age and had similar constituencies. But their relationship turned frosty when one of them developed a habit of leaving his briefcase on the other’s chair. Neither wants to talk about it, but bad blood remains.

As with most shared hardships, life in the bullpen was sweetest as it came to an end. “One of the best memories of the bullpen,” Humason recalls, took place “when we knew we were going to get out. Rep. Smitty Pignatelli from the Berkshires got a state flag and had us sign it.”

Rep. Mike Rush, a Democrat from West Roxbury, collected bumper stickers and made posters of them, which he gave out at Christmas. “I have it hanging up in my office,” says Humason.

For her part, Callahan organized a party at the Red Hat, a watering hole in the shadow of the building, to celebrate the committee assignments that signified the end of their time together. “It was called ‘Breaking down the Bullpen,’” she laughs. “And then we all went to a Red Sox game and had our picture taken with their bullpen coach.”

ow there is a new class of House freshmen – 13 new representatives and an equal number of legislative aides – jammed into Room 437. A few of this year’s frosh will likely see their first State House office as a lemon. But Coughlin tells them to make lemonade.

“Take advantage of it,” the Dedham Democrat says. “Utilize that time and those close quarters to learn from other people, to form relationships.”

‘[Use the] close quarters to learn from other people.’
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“As much as work is work, relationships require some amount of outside socialization,” adds Callahan. “Camaraderie gets built up that way.”

And that, she says, has tangible results for lawmakers and their constituents. Relationships are “much more important [in the State House] than anybody gives credence to on the outside,” says Callahan. “That’s how you become effective in being able to move things forward that are important to your constituents back home. I think it’s relationship-building that is most essential to being an effective legislator.”

James V. Horrigan is a writer and a staff member of the House of Representatives.