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U.S. Rep. John Olver of Amherst counts down to end of four decades in politics

U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, is preparing to leave more than two decades in the U.S. Congress early next month. “I’ve done a lot of small significant things and a few pretty major things,” Olver said.

LARRY PARNASS U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, is preparing to leave more than two decades in the U.S. Congress early next month. “I’ve done a lot of small significant things and a few pretty major things,” Olver said. Purchase photo reprints »

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John W. Olver sat in his office in the Longworth Office Building here surrounded by the mementos collected over the course of a 22-year congressional career: a picture of himself and President Barack Obama, the framed newspapers showing the night in 1991 he defeated Republican Steven Pierce to win a seat in Congress, stacks of graphs, files and a map of what will soon be his former 1st Congressional District.

It was Wednesday last week, moving day for Olver. Boxes lay strewn about the office. Pictures littered the tables and sat on the floor, propped up against the walls. His chief of staff, Hunter Ridgway, frantically typed an email before having his computer taken away at day’s end.

After four decades in politics — two each in the state Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives — the Amherst Democrat had to have all his belongings, and those of his staff, out of the building by day’s end. He will spend the last weeks of his term working from a cubicle on Capitol Hill.

“I was 55. I didn’t expect I would be around anything like 20 years at that time,” Olver said, reflecting on his arrival in Washington in 1991.

Olver now is 76. His political journey began in 1968 as a University of Massachusetts chemistry professor running in a four-way Democratic primary for state representative that included former state Rep. James R. Nolen of Ware. Olver won that election and every contest since — two for state representative, 10 for state Senate and 11 for Congress, including a special election.

He leaves Capitol Hill as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, an influential voice on transportation policy and an outspoken liberal who opposed the Iraq war, championed health care reform and advocated for an active role for government in addressing the nation’s largest problems.

“I will miss him very much,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. Olver is the committee’s top Democrat.

“He really studies the communities where we are doing projects,” Latham said. “He can tell you a lot of facts about your district you may not have known.”

Latham said that despite their political differences, the pair have a “cooperative” working relationship. “He’s interested in getting work done,” Latham said. “We worked together as a team.”

This year, the subcommittee’s budget was passed with the most bipartisan support of any Appropriations spending plan put forward for a vote by the full House.

“He’s not the person who’s always on TV, always on the talk shows, getting his face in the paper,” said U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, the Worcester Democrat whose new 2nd District will include much of Olver’s former territory. “For him it’s not about the glory, it’s about the achievements, getting things done. That’s really unusual for most politicians. Politicians have big egos. Olver kind of goes against that grain.”

The scientist

Olver was born on a farm in Honesdale, Pa., in 1936. As he advanced his education, politics did not seem to figure in his future. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. By the time he was 24, Olver had earned a doctorate in the subject from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

He and his wife moved to Amherst in 1963 where they both had teaching jobs. John taught chemistry at UMass, and Rose Olver was a professor of psychology and women and gender studies at Amherst College. She retired last year after being diagnosed with cancer.

“Since her job was so stable I could take risks with my job with politics,” Olver said.

But how does one go from chemistry professor to politician?

Olver said his increasing interest in public affairs, particularly international relations, led him to the profession. “I was very interested in world affairs and the type of horrors that were going on in Asia and Africa,” Olver said.

It would be almost two decades before Olver could play a role on the international level, however. As a state legislator, Olver started out working on educational issues. But he soon expanded his areas of expertise beyond that. He chaired the commission that oversaw the closure of Massachusetts’ state hospitals and schools for the mentally ill.

“Those were just atrocious places,” Olver said.

He led the charge for a state bottle bill. And he began developing his expertise on transportation, the area in which he would become arguably the most influential as a congressman.

Olver said he asked to serve on the transportation committee when he entered the state Senate and helped push for the creation of regional transit agencies such as the PVTA. His interest was born out of its economic importance, as transportation and related industries account for almost 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

“It seemed like an important economic thing to get involved with and a very important thing where jobs were,” he said.

Seeing opportunity

Meanwhile, he waited for his chance to move up. Olver said he never considered running against former U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte, the powerful Pittsfield Republican who chaired the Appropriations Committee.

His deference was partly out of respect, Olver said, noting that Conte was a liberal Republican who would “likely be drummed out of the party” today.

But it was also a political calculation.

“There wasn’t any chance of defeating him. I didn’t see any reason to tilt at windmills,” Olver said. “I’ve been quoted as saying that I never ran for something I didn’t think I could win and go at it as if I had to put my whole heart and head into it in order to be able to win. That’s how I got into these offices.”

When Conte died in 1991, Olver’s chance came. In the ensuing special election, Olver emerged from a nine-way Democratic primary and eventually defeated Pierce, a former state senator from Westfield, in the general election by a mere 1,970 votes.

Once in Congress, Olver’s decision to choose the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations might not have been a surprise, given his interest in international issues. Yugoslavia was descending into a bloody conflict and Olver wanted to play some sort of role.

He described that violence, along with the war in Iraq, as the lowest point in his congressional career. “I was absolutely torn to shreds about the slaughter of people of the same language, same ethnicity, but of different religion,” Olver said of the violence in the Balkans.

The assignment was also an example of the strategy that helped him win office. Olver said he had no plans then to serve in Washington for the long term. So he chose committee assignments in which he could quickly become a subcommittee chairman — and from which he could help direct federal policies. “It looked to me that there would be movement on foreign operations possibly fairly quickly,” Olver said.

If serving on foreign operations aided his career, the benefits of the assignment to his district were less clear. His chief of staff was “absolutely aghast” when Olver told him of his chosen committee assignments. “How do you think that is going to get you re-elected?” Olver recalled his chief of staff asking him.

In fact, Olver only faced one serious challenger during his career: former state Sen. Jane Swift, who later went on to become lieutenant governor and governor. Olver won that race by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Life in minority

Ultimately, the Amherst lawmaker spent the majority of his career in the minority. Democrats lost the House in a landslide in 1994 and were not returned to the majority until 2006.

He focused much of his attention on directing funding to projects in his district, guiding money to community health centers, bike paths, the 104th Air National Guard at Barnes Airport in Westfield and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee and the regional transit authorities he helped create while in the state Senate.

When Democrats finally returned to the majority, “it was like the chains were taken off,” Olver said. He called Obama’s election two years later the high point of his career. Work began on health care reform, financial reform and, as the legislator tasked with leading the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, Olver directed stimulus funds to infrastructure projects across the country.

He is an adamant defender of Obama. When a conversation turned to the economic stimulus, Olver jumped up from his desk, went to a stack of graphs and produced one that showed job losses slowing after the stimulus went into effect.

“It did not fail, it just wasn’t big enough,” he said emphatically, jabbing his finger at the graph.

He characterized health reform as a moral and economic necessity, needed to drive down health-care costs.

“Close to a quarter of our population had no health care or too little,” Olver said. The Affordable Care Act “will make major changes in the health of Americans, positive changes.”

But he expressed some skepticism about whether the reforms will be implemented, saying Republicans in Congress remain intent on rolling back the law.

“It still has to budgeted. The law of the land cannot be implemented if it is not budgeted,” Olver said.

Parties at odds

Continuing acrimony on the issue marks the increasingly partisan environment of Washington, Olver said. He placed blame on Republicans, saying they have moved to the right during his tenure.

“Back in the early days down here ... there would be five or six issues at odds between the two” parties, Olver said. “So you would sit down and say we the majority want these three and we’ll give you two of yours. Everybody gets something. Now it is winner take all.”

On local issues, Olver speaks enthusiastically about his efforts to create sustainable communities. The Franklin County, Berkshire County and Pioneer Valley planning commissions are each working on sustainability plans, he pointed out.

That means focusing on improving transportation, through projects such as the $73 million Knowledge Corridor high-speed rail. But it also involves building affordable housing projects near population centers and public transportation to cut commuting times, reduce pollution and increase productivity, Olver said.

“What has always impressed me about John was his strategic use of federal money for investment,” said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has served the past two decades with Olver.

Neal cited the work just about to begin on a $750,000 renovation to Elliot and Spring streets in Springfield, money that Olver helped secure.

McGovern described how Olver would corner colleagues when seeking their support.

“What he’ll do is, we’ll have a series of votes and he’ll be there with his note card and pen and he’ll be looking for you and say, ‘I need to talk to you for a second.’ Of course it’s never a second,” McGovern said with a laugh. “Nine hours later you say out of exhaustion, I’m with you John, you got it. But here’s the thing: he’s brilliant. He really is.”

McGovern said that when he takes constituents from hospitals and universities that are seeking an appropriation to meet Olver, he tells them “make sure you know what you’re talking about. Make sure you know all the answers to all the possible questions out there because he is going to ask them.”

As Olver heads toward the exit — his term officially ends Jan. 3 — he appears a man content with his place.

“I’ve done a lot of small significant things and a few pretty major things,” Olver said. “My approach was to try to try to help as many community organizations achieve their goals, because most of them had good goals, good inputs and good support to achieve those goals. I’ve had some good success. It will have to be judged ...” he trailed off.

By history, he was asked?

“Yes,” he replied.

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