Governor Maura Healey tapped state Senator Anne M. Gobi to serve as her administration’s newly created director of rural affairs, turning to a veteran lawmaker and longtime leader of the Legislature’s agriculture committee to help give Massachusetts’ rural communities a stronger voice within state government.
Gobi, a five-term senator, starts June 5. She will fill a role Healey has described as a “dedicated advocate and ombudsman” for economic development in the state’s 160 rural towns, where residents and officials have often felt their needs are overlooked on Beacon Hill.
Gobi, a Spencer Democrat and former attorney, has co-chaired a version of the Legislature’s agricultural committee in four of her five sessions in the Senate and helps lead the Legislature’s Rural Caucus. She also serves on the state’s East-West Rail commission examining how to pursue the long-sought goal of expanding passenger rail in Western Massachusetts.
She is the second lawmaker that Healey has plucked from the Legislature for a high-profile role, following former state Representative Jon Santiago, now the state’s secretary of Veterans’ Services.
“Senator Gobi’s fierce advocacy of rural equity, agricultural and small businesses, and conservation initiatives makes her the ideal candidate to help our rural towns across the state succeed,” Healey said in a statement Monday.
Gobi’s departure will likely set up a special election for her Worcester and Hampshire seat, considered one of the state’s more competitive Senate districts in a Democrat-dominated chamber.
She topped her Republican opponent by fewer than 400 votes to first win the open seat in 2014 and has drawn GOP challengers every election since. Two sitting Republican state representatives — Peter Durant and Donald Berthiaume — live in Spencer alone, one of the few communities in the district that’s not considered rural by state standards.
Gobi was first elected to the Massachusetts House in 2001, and later succeeded longtime senator Stephen Brewer, the chamber’s one-time budget chairman who unsuccessfully vied for the Senate president post before retiring.
Gobi told the State House News Service that her final day in the Senate will be June 4. That will allow her to vote and debate as part of the Senate’s deliberations over the state’s $56 billion state budget this week.
Gobi did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. In a statement released by the governor’s office, Gobi said she was grateful that Healey is “elevating our rural communities.”
Healey announced the new $117,000-a-year director role in March, pitching it as a first-of-its-kind effort to dedicate staff to promoting economic development in rural towns. At the time, she said the director would be tasked with reviewing all types of state grants to “mitigate” any barriers for rural and small communities. Gobi is also expected to host office hours for rural officials to help identify any grant opportunities.
Gobi will primarily work out of the administration’s regional offices, but is expected to also have a presence in Boston, according to Healey’s office.
Growing the economy in the state’s western reaches comes with challenges. The state as a whole added residents in the 2020 census, but counties in Western Massachusetts grew only slightly, or in some cases, actually lost residents from their already small and aging populations. Those areas tend to have lower housing prices, but they’re often offset by higher transportation costs, as well as limited or no public transportation options, a 2019 state commission report found.
The economy looks different there, too. Many of Massachusetts’ leading economic sectors — be it life sciences or financial services — have a limited footprint in the rural communities that make up more than half of Massachusetts’ geography but account for just 13 percent of its population. Instead, rural areas tend to have more workers who are self-employed or in manufacturing than the state as a whole.
“There needs to be a different approach to rural economic development,” said Linda Dunlavy, executive director of Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We know our economy is really stood up by small entrepreneurs that, with support, can grow and become our larger employers. It’s not high tech and life sciences [here].”
Healey’s choice for the new role has been closely watched by local elected officials, particularly in western Massachusetts, where most of the state’s rural towns are clustered.
Andrew Hogeland, president of Massachusetts Select Board Association and a Williamstown Select Board member, said his hope is that Gobi will help drive a review of various funding formulas, including for what’s known as Chapter 90 funding, the bucket of local infrastructure money towns and cities use to patch potholes or fix bridges.
The state auditor’s office said in 2021 that the governor can unilaterally change how the state distributes the local roads funding to give more weight to the amount of miles of roadways a town or city has, and less to its population and employment levels. The current formula, the auditor’s office argued, heavily favors Boston and other urban centers at the expense of other communities out west.
“A lot of state funding programs have been using formulas that haven’t been assessed for how they disproportionately affect rural communities,” Hogeland said. He called Gobi a “well-known advocate” whose district has included rural towns. “We’re hopeful she’ll make a great fit,” he said.
Dunlavy set the expectations for Gobi’s new role even higher.
“It’s all areas of rural life that we hope are addressed,” she said, adding with a laugh: “Let’s not overwhelm her before she begins.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.