State Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton said one of the most frequently asked questions she receives is, “Why did you leave a career in public health to become a politician?” She argues that she never left.
“I really see the Legislature as just the place where I do my public health work,” she said. “Every policy for the most part that we pass at the State House impacts our health and well-being, whether you’re talking about access to a good paying job that gives you a reason to get up in the morning, or you’re talking again about reliable transportation or the climate crisis.”
Gouveia touts a long career in public health, including an almost 10-year stint at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center and at Boston University, where she received her master’s in social work and doctorate of public health, focusing on opioid policy. Despite this, she always knew she wanted to work in politics, and won her seat in the State House in 2018.
“I’ve wanted to run for office since I was a little kid growing up in Lowell and seeing a lot of needs around me, and also learning in school about how government can and should play a role in helping support residents and support people,” she said. She also served as president of the Student Government Association at Mount Holyoke College as an undergraduate.
After college, Gouveia worked in public health and social work settings throughout the state, and credits these experiences with shaping her view of governing. “That’s really where I learned the value of building trusting relationships, maintaining credibility in terms of the information that I was sharing, respecting and understanding that people have different life experiences that influence their behavior,” she said, speaking of her time at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center.
She relayed a story on how she focused on an effort to reduce wait times in the health center. This wasn’t a lived experience for upper-level management because the predominantly white, well-educated men who lived outside of Lawrence “were not the same people who had the experience of having to get on a bus and take their kids in tow and taking two hours out of their day to bring their child to an appointment if the child had an earache,” she said.
This lesson, she said, has informed her approach to the pandemic, and in checking the Baker-Polito administration. “There’s a significant role that government has in providing accurate, timely and trustworthy information. And so I, in my role as a state rep, and also as a public health professional, I’ve really stepped in and tried to quite honestly fill the void from the Baker-Polito administration,” she said.
Gouveia, who represents the 14th Middlesex District, was well ahead in advocating for Massachusetts residents to stay home from work, school and restaurants, and has advised constituents on public health matters throughout the pandemic. She has also made sure to listen to her constituents’ issues and learn from them, in an effort to provide them with a vaccination experience they’ll feel comfortable with.
She staunchly disagrees with Gov. Baker’s companion system for the vaccine, for example, partially because of information she’s gleaned from listening. “The administration has assumed that elders are hesitant to go to mass vaccination sites because they don’t have transportation. Well, that’s not their only source of hesitation, there’s a whole host of reasons why they might hesitate: maybe they can’t sit in a car for an hour and a half… Maybe they don’t have family that can take essentially a full day out of work to drive them because of other family obligations. Maybe they’re just afraid of being that far away from their house,” she said.
She also applies this approach to police reform, an issue important to both her constituents and to her, as her partner is a longtime member of the Acton Police Department. She was able to use information gleaned from him to allay fears, misunderstandings and misinformation officers had about the state’s new police reform bill, and set the record straight about it.
She even listens to, and sometimes engages with, commenters on social media and on news articles “because it’s a way for me to learn what other people are thinking, people who I might not hear from otherwise,” she said. “I do like to read the comments. Sometimes they’re painful. I’ve definitely been called, you know, sexist names that my dad was not too happy to hear I was being called,” she said. “It’s really scary, and it does have a chilling effect,” she said of the harassment she and other women face online, especially those from marginalized groups. “It can impact the representation that we end up with in our elected officials if we don’t figure out how to address this problem.”
She’s filing legislation on misinformation to begin to chip away at the issue.
Her ability to listen is one of the qualities her colleague and friend Nika Elugardo, a state rep. from Boston, admires most about her. “Tami is a very courageous legislator. I think she always puts out what is right first. And she works really hard to make sure her conception of what is right doesn’t just come out of her own head, but out of a collaborative conversation, not only with people like me, who are very politically similar to her, but also people that are very different,” she said. “It’s that respect that over the long term is going to make her one of the stronger leaders that we have in policy and legislation.”
Although they initially bonded over their similar progressive agendas and bird’s-eye view of how the state’s systems interact, Elugardo has seen her political skills shine in the pandemic. “She may not go down in the history books because she gets behind the scenes and develops others and pushes forward the voice of the people she’s representing,” she said. “But the work that she has contributed will live on throughout future ages because it’s very robust and very grounded in real change and real outcomes.” Elugardo, who talks almost daily on the phone with Gouveia, calls them “friends for life.”
Beyond her political skill, what has guided Gouveia’s policy-making throughout the pandemic is, of course, her knowledge of public health, which she sees as integral to her ability to solve the “kitchen table” issues her constituents care about.
“I see the mistakes that are happening in response to this crisis, and that’s frustrating that we’re not always acting in the ways that are aligned with sound public health interventions and sound public health approaches,” she said. “And yet, I also feel lucky, because I can then at least speak with authority and credibility around what people should be doing to protect themselves.”
Her subject matter expertise is one of the qualities state Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton admires most about her. “(She) has a real depth of knowledge, and you can see it in in the detailed letters that she’s written in the legislation,” he said. “To have someone that’s really an expert on a subject is really critical if we’re really serious about creating sort of real change in society and in government.”
Gouveia has filed legislation on issues like creating guidelines for reopening schools, implementing new rapid testing systems, addressing mental health among youth and increasing oversight of long-term care facilities, to name a few.
She’s also writing the aforementioned letters to Gov. Baker about issues like prioritizing “mom and pop” local health centers over “Walmart” mass vaccination sites, providing public health information to colleagues and constituents and donating almost 2,000 KN95 masks to local food pantries and other places of need.
Despite the challenges she’s faced in her short stint on Beacon Hill, she said she’s eager to run for re-election. “I feel grateful that I have a platform that I can make good use of in order to get people the information that they need, and that they trust, and that they can take action on,” she said. “I love this work, I love this job.”