The uptick in phone calls to Senator Jamie Eldridge’s desk at the State House lately is coming from lobbyists he has never met during his seven terms as a legislator.
They represent banking and insurance interests — and they suddenly have a keen interest in what Eldridge, the new Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, has to say.
“I would say advocates who work on Beacon Hill are generally very nice, but they of course have an agenda and perspective,” Eldridge said in an interview. “And I am someone who very much has an open-door policy to anyone who wants to come in and be briefed by people from all perspectives.”
That open-door policy may not be wholly comforting to the banking and insurance lobbyists now calling to introduce themselves.
Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, plans to change how the Financial Services Committee operates this year as it delves into legislation dealing with banking, lending, and insurance institutions. He wants more public input and a more aggressive stance by the committee.
“I do think the Financial Services Committee needs to be bolder,” Eldridge said. “It needs to be more robust in the legislation that tries to protect consumers and residents in Massachusetts.”
Eldridge will lead the committee alongside Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Democrat who was named to the post recently.
Senator Ben Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, said Eldridge has a reputation for being one of the most — if not the most — liberal members in the Legislature.
Downing has heard that some lobbyists are concerned about Eldridge’s appointment to the committee but he said people should not mistake Eldridge for someone with a set agenda.
“While he has a certain point of view, he is someone who is open to people with new ideas. And he is someone who will test those ideas,” Downing said.
Eldridge sees his new post as a sequel of sorts to leading the Joint Committee on Housing. He began his homework for the Financial Services Committee assignment with a trip to the library, taking out books about the Wall Street crash in 2008, including “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind.
And while the Obama administration ushered in new federal regulations following the Great Recession, Eldridge says Beacon Hill still has its own work to do.
“I would argue that a lot of those same predatory practices and actions by lending institutions are still just as bad,” he said. “And I think that our state government needs to stand up and have a more robust action than what’s happened in the last few years.”
Before winning his first House seat in 2002, Eldridge worked for two years as a public interest attorney at Merrimack Valley Legal Services in Lowell. He helped indigent families stave off evictions and saw the limitations they faced in trying to improve their quality of life.
Eldridge knew he wanted to run for the Legislature in 1990 when he was 16 years old, working as a coordinator in Acton for his mentor, Bob Durand, who was running for state senator. But Eldridge’s time as a legal aid lawyer made him realize the work he wanted to do even before he came to occupy Durand’s former Senate seat.
“As much as I prided myself as a legal aid lawyer doing direct service, at the end of the day, most of those families were still going to be mired in poverty,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge suggested that he may pursue more regulation toward predatory lenders during his first term as chairman. But he is still in the early phases of meeting with his colleagues about potential legislation for this year.
Asked what he expects to be his greatest challenge as chairman, he said, “It’s absolutely the power of the banking lobby and health insurance lobby.”
“Certainly, I look forward to meeting with them and getting educated, but I also plan to respectfully disagree with a lot of their points of view,” he added.
Frank O’Brien, vice president of state government relations with Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said a chairman always undergoes a learning curve when coming into a new position.
“Whether it’s Senator Eldridge or any other senator before him, one of the things that both sides have to do is learn from each other,” said O’Brien.
Eldridge has already met with some lobbyists within the banking industry, but also recently sat down with members of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending.
“I have tried to, in the past three weeks, get both perspectives,” Eldridge said. He said he remains grounded by remembering how Durand and former senator Pam Resor, who held his Senate seat until 2009, treated everyone fairly, regardless of their stances on issues.
“I think that’s something that’s easy for politicians to lose sight of when you’re here for a number of years and you increase your quote-unquote power,” Eldridge said. “You need to treat everyone equally, and no one is more important than anyone else.”