“I yearn for us to move forward and have a new generation begin to lead,” said Julian Cyr, Democratic candidate for the Cape & Islands state senate seat.
Cyr, 30, of Truro, served as director of policy and regulatory affairs for environmental health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Previously, under Governor Deval Patrick, he was deputy director for government affairs at the Department of Public Health. He has also interned at the White House, and worked for the Clinton Global Initiative.
“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Cyr said of his decision to run. “But then, ‘That makes a lot of sense,’ is a lot of response I would get.” Having worked in the state bureaucracy, he said he enjoys public policy.
“You have to figure out how the system works to move an issue forward. In public policy, the aim and the goal is to serve people,” he said. “Barney Frank always says this, and I love this; government is the work we choose to do together. And that’s always done through big systems.”
The Boy Who Wanted To Be A Zoologist
Cyr, the oldest of two children, was born and raised in Truro. His parents owned Adrian’s Restaurant in Truro for 28 years, until it closed in 2012. “They were like many of the generation that raised my generation,” he said. “They were really involved in my school.”
Cyr grew up working in that restaurant. “I started working there before it was legal. It was the quintessential Cape business. The whole family was in it,” he said.
“I learned a lot of valuable skills early. I learned hard work. Restaurants are a ton of work,” said Cyr. “And I had a lens into how decisions are made. How late would they stay open every season. The fragility of the pay.”
When he was young, Cyr dreamed of being a zoologist. “I was always obsessed with animals,” he said. One year, his grandmother from Maine “gave my sister and I a pony.” He remembers having “hundreds of plastic animals” as a kid, as well as having “a whole menagerie” of real animals, including cats, chickens and horses.
He described himself as a “quiet bookish kid… who was really into music and the arts.”
But in sophomore year he was accepted into the 16-person honors chorus at Nauset High, which was “one of the best choruses in the state,” he said. They performed at Carnegie Hall and at Symphony Hall. “For a quiet, shy bookish kid who was in the closet, this really helped my confidence,” he said.
Cyr is a gay man.
Growing up near Provincetown, he said older adults have since told him that they knew he was gay from when he was very young. In other words, they knew before he knew.
“I was called ‘faggot’ all the time,” he said. “It was the 90s. The culture wars were going on.”
“The experience of being an outsider has had a serious impact on me,” said Cyr. “And being the outsider is a valuable perspective to have in the democratic process.”
Although Cyr grew up in one of the most tolerant places in America, school is school and kids are kids and he said he heard many slurs said about gays. But, he said, his is the first generation to grow up with the growing normalization.
Nevertheless, as a politician running for his first public office, Cyr said, “Anyone who has experience with oppression, this work brings out all your old insecurities, all your self doubts.”
“Now I understand why we don’t have so many women candidates, or folks of color,” said Cyr.
When Cyr was 16, his school system announced it was laying off 40 staff members “including my choir teacher,” he said.
Cyr and other students organized. “Not knowing what I was doing,” Cyr said he led a group of students to stop the cuts. “And it worked,” he said. “We sent mailings to all the taxpayers of the town. We spoke at town meeting.”
As the most public face of the group of the group that he said was “credited with saving the school,” Cyr said it “catapulted me into this much more visible role and it gave me the understanding that I could step out in my community and I could create change.”
After high school, he went to New York University, where he studied public policy and community health.
Going to New York from Truro wasn’t a big stretch, he said. “Truro is way out there, but I spent my summers waiting on New Yorkers.” The reason why New Yorkers go to Truro, he said, is because “the Outer Cape is a culturally relevant place.”
So he went to college where many of his summer customers lived.
“I am always really interested in coming at it from a social justice lens.” – Julian Cyr
While in college, Cyr said he began seeing himself “as a policy wonk activist.” He worked to ensure that students had access to HIV testing on campus, and “making sure our environment was making safe space for transgender students.”
In his senior year, he served in the student senate, said Cyr.
“I got really into public policy,” he said. He began thinking about “how does one individual create change within large organizations? Is that possible, or not possible?”
“I am always really interested in coming at it from a social justice lens,” he said. “Growing up where I did, and as a gay person, the opportunity I have in my life is directly a result of those who came before me.”
“If you really care about justice and social equity, there are two places to work,” said Cyr. “You can rail against the system on the outside, or you can work on the inside… I’m not the best rabble rouser activist,” he said. “But I’m pretty good at getting policy makers to move an issue forward.”
The Clinton Global Initiative, Then The Obama White House
Cyr graduated from NYU in 2008.
First, he worked for the Clinton Global Initiative, which is part of the Clinton Foundation, said Cyr. He helped funnel attention to university students who were part of a Clinton Global Initiative project to create change and improve their communities, he said.
“And every summer I would go home and wait tables and work in my parents restaurant,” he said. He was “cooking in the kitchen, waiting on tables, and volunteering as an HIV counselor in Provincetown,” said Cyr.
From the Global Clinton Initiative, he went to the White House. “I applied for and got a White House internship. I worked for Van Jones for five days, and then Van Jones resigned,” he said.
He worked for the Counsel of Environmental Quality, said Cyr. He loved working in the White House. “Oh my God, it was like every day you go to work, I can’t believe I get to be here,” he said.
He was there early in the Obama administration when “there was a whole new generation of people coming into government. Working there, you could feel a palpable sense of energy.”
And the diverse staff assembled there, he said, “was reflective of who our country is.”
Growing up on the Outer Cape, he had not been exposed much to the military, he said, but working in the White House, “I immediately developed a profound respect and admiration for the military,” he said. “They were impressive,” he said.
And of the White House, Cyr said, “Every day I felt honored and humbled to be there.” Cyr said he met President Obama “a handful of times.”
In 2010, Cyr worked on Deval Patrick’s reelection campaign for governor. That was when he realized that he was good at organizing people and getting them to work on a campaign.
“I didn’t grow up and say, Yeah, I can be state senator,” said Cyr. “This is very much like an evolution.”
He next went to work for the state Department of Public Health as the deputy director of government affairs, he said.
“I worked alongside both Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “Nine out of ten things that we do in government are nonpartisan,” he said.
“I kept tabs on 1,300 bills. It was consequential. Public health is one of the broadest areas of government,” said Cyr.
Talking of his advocacy work for the Department of Public Health, Cyr cited the opiate epidemic and said he realized that “the challenge is not always figuring out what intervention is needed to be successful. The challenge is getting funding for those interventions and getting those policies through the political process.”
“I kept tabs on 1,300 bills. It was consequential. Public health is one of the broadest areas of government.” – Julian Cyr
And he cited the need for evidence-based decisions that aren’t always made correctly. He gave the example of a recovery program group from Boston and said, “There’s no way in hell the Department of Public Health would have funded it if certain powerful legislators in recovery had not gone through it.”
The DPH made a decision based on anecdotal evidence from a few rather than real evidence, said Cyr. “I want to make the case for funding for better programs,” he said.
“It was actually a phone call,” said Cyr of what spurred him to run. He was talking to Brewster selectman Ben deRuyter, who told Cyr that he was considering running for Wolf’s seat.
Before the call, Cyr didn’t know Wolf wasn’t running. “We proceeded to have this 45-minute conversation about how we need young people to get involved.”
“I got off the phone and I thought, Ben’s a nice guy. He’s super smart. But he’s been a selectman for two years,” said Cyr. “I thought, Is it something I should do?”
As for deRuyter, Cyr said that when he decided to run, “I think he was a little surprised.”
“Half of politics,” said Cyr, “is being in the right place at the right time. These positions don’t open up. People leave these positions when they are indicted or die.”
Cyr said he felt a strong connection to the district “having grown up and and watched how this place changed.”
“I think this is a fantastic district,” he said.
While there are differences from town to town, Cyr said, “It all feels like a cohesive Cape.”
“You may have lived different experiences, but I’ve increasingly found a common thread,” he said. “People really care about this place and feel very strongly about living here. They are connected.”
He said the job of a state senator is “driving the local interests of the constituents on Beacon Hill.” Essentially, he said, the job entails “being in the room where it happens.”
If he is elected, Cyr said that as a Democrat he will “have the juice to get things done. If you look at the senate, there’s a supermajority of Democrats,” he said. It helps to be part of the majority party, he said.
“The majority party really dictates what goes forward,” said Cyr.
The Issues: Jobs, Housing, Opiates, & the Environment
“I really feel like, in my personal experience, housing is a big barrier,” said Cyr. “Even for the people already here.”
“We need policies for the promotion of rental units,” he said. “There is a need for mixed-use housing and options for seniors to downsize,” he said.
“The towns need more flexibility,” he said. “The Cape needs more development and smart development. We should focus on the historic town centers. We have villages. We should be relying on that model.”
Cyr said a state senator can work to make affordable housing laws work for Cape Cod. State affordable housing programs, he said, “are not designed for our needs.”
He suggested, for instance, “the financing that would be used for a 400-unit development could be split over several sites.”
Cyr said Massachusetts should look at creating tax-free savings accounts for first time home buyers. These exist in Virginia and Wyoming, he said, and would be helpful here where “people are paying the equivalent of a mortgage on rent.”
Cyr said one way that Cape communities can help with the job situation is to work to extend the tourist season. There are many people on the Cape working in the hospitality business, he said, they would have a better chance of surviving and thriving with an extended season.
He said the growth of aquaculture, taking advantage of the Cape’s natural resources, should be encouraged.
Cyr said the rise in opiate addictions is one of the biggest issues on the Cape. “The challenge of the opiate epidemic is you need to find a continuum of care.” It is a long term battle, said Cyr. It has been shown that it “takes nine years and nine tries” to become clean, he said.
“We don’t have a system in place for that,” he said. “We need to provide more access to treatment.” He compared the fight to get addiction treatment covered by insurance companies to a previous battle to get HIV treatment covered. “It’s now mandated,” he said.
And Cyr said, “There should be a dedicated funding stream for prevention.”
“We can arrest this epidemic,” said Cyr. “We know it’s possible. The question is do we have the will to do it.”
Finally, Pot & Presidential Politics
Asked about the question on the ballot to legalize marijuana, Cyr said he worked to legalize medical marijuana and favors legalizing it recreationally, but “specific to this ballot initiative, it’s really bad public policy.”
It should be legalized in a responsible way, he said. “This barely taxes it and creates bizarre criteria for municipalities.”
Asked about the presidential campaign, Cyr said “the campaign is part of the growing pains of our country, of becoming a more pluralistic society with the emergence of the empowerment of certain populations.”
He said Donald Trump “awakened something very scary… I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. I’m excited to vote for the first woman president.”
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