New Kid in the House

After a year on the job, State Representative Dylan Fernandes is bringing home the bacon like a seasoned pro.

On a warm and bright Sunday in September, after many days of rain, about thirty people piled into a meeting room at the West Tisbury library to raise questions and concerns with State Senator Julian Cyr and State Representative Dylan Fernandes. A few hours earlier, over lunch at Waterside Market in Vineyard Haven, Fernandes and Cyr had wondered aloud if people would be inclined to show up given the beautiful weather and a coinciding Patriots game. They needn’t have worried: they were talking about a chance to pipe up on the issues in the off-season on Martha’s Vineyard. In West Tisbury no less. Chalk it up to the fact that both men are in their first terms representing the Island and both are from the Cape, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They’ll learn: turnout was good and the discourse was steady.

The constituents wanted to talk about homelessness, abortion access, the room occupancy tax, Eversource. But the hot topic, continually raised by the audience, was affordable housing. “Our community has become profoundly unaffordable,” Fernandes agreed. “Cambridge is also having a housing crisis, but they can bring in workers from Somerville and Revere. No one is climbing out of the Atlantic to work on the Vineyard or Nantucket.” 

But when Doug Ruskin, who is on the board of directors for Island Housing Trust, raised the notion that a chunk of the state forest might be an ideal spot for affordable housing units, Fernandes, barely a year on the job, sidestepped giving his opinion with political prowess. “I wouldn’t want to be that guy from Woods Hole who says, ‘Hey MV! We’re taking some of your forest away,’” he said. “I’d want to be sure that there is widespread support.”

At twenty-seven Fernandes is one of the youngest state representatives ever elected to the office. His age is noteworthy on its own, all the more so because it is indicative of a wave of young candidates in recent local elections: Fernandes beat twenty-eight-year-old independent Tobias Glidden of Nantucket to win his seat. Cyr, too, who is thirty-one, won election as the youngest member of the State Senate last November – this in a region known for its aging population and trouble drawing young families. (Both Fernandes and Cyr took over the vacated seats of more seasoned civil servants: Tim Madden of Nantucket, who was sixty years old at the time, and Dan Wolf of Harwich, who was fifty-nine.)

“Dylan seems to be doing a great job,” said his predecessor Madden, who misses the people he used to see regularly on the Vineyard and the rest of the district, but doesn’t miss the
commute from Nantucket. “Dylan’s the perfect age to do this work and has the makings of a great rep.”

Fernandes knows that his age draws attention, but said he wants to be known in spite of, not because of it. His website boasts a prominent quote from his Cape Cod Times endorsement: “Voters would be hard-pressed to guess Dylan Fernandes’ age. The Democrat running for the Falmouth and Islands House seat is confident and well-informed about the issues facing the district.” If he’s young for the job, he seems to want to say, it’s only because he got an early start.

Fernandes grew up in Woods Hole, the son of Tessa Lineaweaver, who is the owner of Flying Pig Pottery, and Mario Fernandes, who owns a landscaping company. “My dad grew up in abject poverty in East Falmouth,” he said, noting that his paternal great-grandparents immigrated from the Azores and Puerto Rico. “His family were strawberry farmers and he started his own landscape business and put me through college.” (Fernandes began college at American University in Washington, D.C., but when the stock market crash wreaked havoc with his college fund he transferred to the less expensive College of Charleston.) His father’s struggles and successes in life are what sparked Fernandes’s interest in social and economic justice issues, he said, and among the accomplishments he’s most proud of from his first year on the job is his contribution to advancing the so-called millionaire’s tax. In June he voted in the affirmative to raising the tax rate by 4 percent on incomes over $1 million. “It’s crazy – just silly that Massachusetts has a flat income tax. And for some reason it’s also very controversial,” he lamented. “Massachusetts ranks number seven for income inequality in the country,” he went on. “It’s a huge divide.”

The vote on the millionaire’s tax most likely did not come as a surprise to Fernandes’s most important political mentors. His interest in issues may have come from his upbringing – his other passion is the environment – but his political aspiration was sparked after reading The Two Income Trap, which was co-written by Elizabeth Warren. He was in college at the time. “I thought to myself, ‘This woman gets it, and I have to do everything I can to be a part of it,’” he recalled. So he took a semester off to campaign for Warren in her run for United States Senate in 2012.

Fernandes was sworn in as a Massachusetts state representative on January 4, 2017.
Courtesy Dylan Fernandes

Being a part of Warren’s eventual win was monumental for Fernandes, who admits to being a workaholic but concedes that it’s not always a good thing. For someone who wants to put eighty to ninety hours a week and all of his heart and soul into a project, however, the momentum of campaigning proved addictively rewarding. “You see tangible results at the end of every day,” he said.

On the strength of his experience with the Warren campaign, after graduating from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science, Fernandes was hired as the political director for Maura Healey’s campaign for Massachusetts attorney general. “I didn’t work for Maura as a résumé builder,” he said, “I really believe in her.”

For her part, the attorney general returns the compliment. “Dylan is an incredibly hard-working and committed progressive who loves his community and wants to serve its interests,” she wrote in an email. “He has strong values and a passion for important issues like environmental stewardship, pay equity and family leave, affordable housing and economic opportunity for all. These issues are especially important in the communities he serves – and across the state. However, in the current national landscape, where so many are seemingly backing away from many of these concerns, Dylan’s voice is especially important.”

To some of Fernandes’s new colleagues in the State House, however, the early vote to raise taxes on annual incomes of more than a million dollars may have come as a surprise. As Senator Cyr, who shares Fernandes’s passion for progressive issues and Cole Haan shoes – “We’re on our feet all day” – explained, “This is a very difficult district to represent because people don’t think there is a need. They don’t think of hunger and homelessness when they think of Martha’s Vineyard.”

With a nod, Fernandes agreed. “When colleagues hear that I represent the Cape and Islands, they often think, ‘Oh, wow! You must have a lot of millionaires.’ A very big part of the job is educating them about the uniqueness of the district.”

Timothy Whelan is a Republican representative for the First  Barnstable District. He and Fernandes have some glaring ideological differences. Whelan, who is a retired state police officer and an honorably discharged U.S. Marine, strongly supports mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. In January, Fernandes co-sponsored a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Still, Whelan only has good things to say about his younger, more progressive colleague. “He does a great job advocating for the Islands,” Whelan said of Fernandes, “I give him a lot of credit on housing, the economy, and jobs.” Whelan was initially struck by Fernandes’s youth. “He’s not much older than my own children,” he said, “but it’s refreshing to see millennials doing this work. It affects the conversations that we have.”  

In order to maintain a good working relationship, Whelan and his colleagues avoid political debates, though bill filings and sponsorships make it easy to identify each other’s leanings. Yet Whelan insists that the political turmoil in Washington, D.C., does not seep into the State House, “I think we all decided to let Washington be Washington and Boston be Boston; we wouldn’t get anything done otherwise.”

In conversations with people who know Fernandes, his talent for organization and his relentless capacity for political footwork come up often. “Dylan orchestrated the signature
collection process without which I would never have gotten on the ballot and he did so by building a statewide team of volunteers,” wrote Attorney General Healey. “As the campaign progressed, he built on this success by organizing our effort to secure convention delegates.”

“The first thing Dylan said to me about campaigning was, ‘I’m going to outwork everyone,’” recalled Brian Switzer, a family friend from Falmouth who was one of the first people Fernandes talked to about running for office and who eventually became his campaign manager. “And not only did he, but he impressed everyone too.”

Fernandes adopted a grassroots campaign strategy and knocked on hundreds of doors by way of introducing himself to potential constituents. All that door knocking and shoe leather created at least some lasting impressions, according to his Vineyard liaison, Kaylea Moore, who says she still gets emails from people who marvel that Fernandes found their house down a dirt road on Chappy. It also helped Fernandes to a 51.4 percent victory over his opponent Glidden. (There was no Republican on the ballot.)

Nor has he let up. “If Dylan has a free hour on-Island he tells me to fill it with something,” said Moore, who handles Fernandes’s schedule and transportation when he is on the Vineyard. In a single day he might meet with police chiefs, tribal leaders in Aquinnah, Friends of Family Planning, clergy members at the Federated Church in Edgartown, and make a brief appearance on MVTV’s Tank Talk. “Dylan really made his presence here. His platform really resonated with people and now he’s following through,” said Moore. “If he gets even one email about an issue, Dylan takes note. If he gets three or four, he really takes note. It’s how real change happens on a local level.”

When I first met with Fernandes at the State House in Boston it was about a week before his swearing-in ceremony in the winter of 2016. Emotions were still high from November’s upset presidential election, and Fernandes did not shield his dismay at what a Trump presidency might mean for the environment. But he was able to find a silver lining. “Given the national election, Massachusetts needs to step up and continue to lead the nation in environmental, social, economic, and civil justice. We’ve been a beacon. This is an opportunity for change to come from within individual states because we know it won’t happen at the federal level.”

For the first few weeks that they held office, he and the other freshman legislators shared a workspace referred to as the bull pen – a large open room in Boston’s historic State House with long tables riddled with computers, telephones, and eager policy makers. The buzz was palpable and Fernandes noted a nice balance of competition and camaraderie among his colleagues. “Anyone who runs for office is probably naturally competitive, but the most work gets done when we collaborate,” he said. “It does grind on me that things move so slowly, but I haven’t lost my optimism. Nothing comes easy; you have to scratch and claw your way to progress.”

Perhaps because of his connections to top state Democrats such as Warren and Healey, Fernandes did remarkably well in the early competition for committee assignments. Every freshman representative is assigned to serve on four committees and asked to rank their top three choices. Going in, they know that they might not get those top choices. Fernandes was the only freshman representative to get each of the committees he requested: the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture; Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery; Municipalities and Regional Government; and Redistricting. These reflect the priorities he emphasized throughout his campaign: the environment, affordable housing, and the opioid crisis.

He’s also done well in the competition for state money, which is a big part of a representative’s job, particularly given that Democrats control 126 of the 160 seats in the lower House, so the battles are not generally over great ideological divides. “As for metrics of success, Dylan got the most money from the budget of any freshman representative,” said Senator Cyr. The money includes $175,000 for shellfish propagation. He also secured $100,000 for transportation services off-Island for people in need and $25,000 for substance misuse and mental health treatment on Nantucket.

In November, Fernandes became the first of his freshman class of representatives to get a major piece of legislation he sponsored through the House: a bill affirming the state’s committment to the Paris Climate Agreement. “This legislation sends a message to the nation and the rest of the world that a handful of climate deniers in Washington, D.C., do not speak for the people of Massachusetts,” he said in a statement after the bill’s passage by a vote of 145–10. The bill moved to the Senate, where the primary sponsor is Cyr.

“It’s indicative of the good relationships and strong cases he has made,” said Cyr of Fernandes’s early legislative successes. “Being at the State House is a crash course in coalition building and getting a diverse population of people around an action,” he explained. “We work in collaboration and Dylan is a master organizer. Nothing is getting done in a vacuum, you have to work hard and relate to people.”

In keeping with his record of precociousness, perhaps, Fernandes was barely into his term when something of a scandal broke. In February, three months into his role as representative, several offensive Facebook posts, some of them nearly a decade old, resurfaced. Some of the posts included language that could not be printed in a newspaper and referred disparagingly to Native Americans. Fernandes released a carefully worded apology to the Cape Cod Times that read: “Needless to say, conversations I may have had with friends in jest as a teenager do not reflect my views today and I apologize for them.”

Shovel Circuit: Fernandes attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Scott’s Grove, an affordable housing project underway in West Tisbury.
Wayne Smith

It was an ironic turn of events in at least one way: Attorney General Healey specifically mentioned Fernandes’s skill with social media as being a factor in her election victory coming down the stretch. When I brought the Facebook scandal up with him last April, he bristled slightly.

“What it really comes down to is that I was a teenager at some point,” said Fernandes. He was tired of the narrative. But he found his stride in emphasizing that we are now seeing the first generation of politicians who grew up in a digital age and whose transgressions will live on in virtual eternity.

Perhaps because he is among the youngest members of the legislature, as is Cyr for that matter, Fernandes often looks at issues from the perspective of a rising generation. This is especially true of his special passion for environmental issues. “As a millennial, there is no issue that will have a greater impact on my generation and my children’s generation than climate change,” he said after the passage of his Paris Agreement bill in the House, echoing similar comments he has made elsewhere.

Global climate change is, by definition, a pan-world problem. But Fernandes sees it as a pressing local issue. “The economy of our communities is uniquely dependent on the health of our environment,” he points out whenever the topic comes up. And:  “This is a district that needs long-term planning.” 

The ease with which he has transitioned from helping to fight the same political battles he did at the at the statewide level to the seemingly smaller stage of the district is no surprise to his old boss. “The times when Dylan was happiest on our campaign were always when we got back to the Cape and Islands or got to talk about issues that matter to residents of his district,” Attorney General Healey wrote.

When Fernandes himself speaks of the geographical specificity of his job, it’s with a sense of comfort. “I am exclusively focused on the district. I love this job. I wake up every day and serve the district I love most. It’s an incredible honor,” he said.

But he’s the first to admit that public office was not something that he would have predicted, “This wasn’t my dream career, but I see a lot of challenges and I want to get things done,” he said. And he plans to keep going. “If I’m lucky enough to keep getting elected I’d like to serve for three or four more terms.” What lies beyond that, he won’t say.

Dream career or not, for now, Fernandes seems like the political version of a kid in a candy shop. “I learn something new every single day and constituency work is the most rewarding,” he said as he headed for the afternoon boat back to Falmouth.

“’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

Comments (2)

eileen haggerty
west roxbury ma
wow what a beautiful article everone can believe he is the right man for the job
January 9, 2018 - 10:51pm
Joanie Ames
West Tisbury
I am just plain proud to have campaigned for Dylan Fernandes, so clearly the right person for this job. Great article. Thanks.
January 21, 2018 - 12:34pm