At ABL, Benson Working To Build Industry “Influencers”
JAN. 13, 2022…..Two years after ending a career of more than a decade in the Massachusetts House upon becoming frustrated with what she called “pressure from the outside,” Alliance for Business Leadership head Jennifer Benson said Thursday she is happy working away from Beacon Hill to break down the idea that “The Business Community” is a single-minded organism.
On her two-year anniversary as president of ABL, Benson sat down virtually with The Nature Conservancy’s Alison Bowden to take stock of priorities shared between the organizations and to discuss the differences between being a state rep and being the head of an advocacy organization.
“I hit a point in the Legislature where I was getting things done, I was effective, I was in leadership, and I was in good stead with leadership, with my colleagues. I enjoyed my colleagues and they were doing the right thing, they were trying to do the right thing. But what I kept hearing was the pressure from the outside,” Benson said. She added, “What I kept hearing, especially for climate legislation but for other things too, ‘the business community doesn’t like it. It’s going to cost too much. Oh, we can’t pass this, we have to water it down because it’s going to cost too much the business community won’t like it.’ As if the business community is this monolith that all thinks the same way that is, you know, just going to bulldoze everything.”
The Lunenburg Democrat was serving as the House’s chair of the Health Care Financing Committee and had been leading the House’s effort to overhaul health care laws in order to control cost and further improve access to care when she announced in December 2019 that she would resign from the House to take the job with the progressive industry trade group. Benson was first elected to the House in 2008, representing Acton, Ayer, Boxborough, Harvard, Lunenburg and Shirley.
“My feeling was if I’m hitting a roadblock on the inside, maybe I can change it from the outside,” she said Thursday. “And so ABL was this great vehicle for addressing that problem.”
ABL is sponsored by organizations including the Barr Foundation, Eastern Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Cape Air and Lyft. Its board of directors is chaired by Housing Advisory Group Executive Director David Gasson and also includes Riverside Partners’ David Belluck, Vertex Pharmaceuticals founder Joshua Boger and Eos Foundation President Andrea Silbert.
As president of ABL, Benson works to build up an array of business leaders who can be “influencers” within their given industries. In her two years as president, some of ABL’s most visible work has been around energy and climate policy. She said her approach is to try to educate people rather than to “pontificate or evangelize about why these things are important” and that her style was influenced by the process of passing into law a bill she wrote as a freshman rep to deal with problems communities in her district had with utilities after a serious 2008 ice storm.
“It really showed me the power of getting people to work together and get something done. And the power of educating my colleagues on why something was really important because they didn’t see it. They didn’t live it. They didn’t understand the devastation that happened. But I was able to effectively communicate that to them and it really taught me a lot about the process,” she said.
Offshore wind has been a significant priority area for ABL in Benson’s two years at the helm and she said Thursday that her organization is bringing 25 business leaders to Denmark in June to let them see the potential of offshore wind power for themselves and to give them a chance to connect with Danish officials in various industries. The idea is that the Bay State business leaders can return home armed with an experience they can use to try to get others here on board.
“We have a cross-section of people from health care, high tech, architects, developers, to really try to dig into exactly that — How did this impact their industry?” Benson said. “What can you bring back to Massachusetts as a learning and as a teaching for others? So we’re really trying to be hands-on.”
She also said that the offshore wind bill that the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy referred to the House this week “is extremely important.”
“I think that that is something that needs to get passed,” Benson said. She added, “the offshore wind legislation … incorporates many other pieces of legislation pulled out of the Environment Committee and others. So it’s a real omnibus piece and I encourage everyone to learn and read about it. I’m still digging through it, but it has a lot of promise and I think it’s something that we should all be working on.”
Susannah Hatch, the clean energy coalitions director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, on Wednesday called the House’s offshore wind bill “ambitious” and said its provisions “would drive game changing investments that would position Massachusetts and New England as a hub for the burgeoning offshore wind industry.”
Benson also mentioned Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to boost funding for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (which the House wind bill also does but in a different manner) as an ABL priority for this session. But instead of pointing to other specific bills, the former rep reminded the audience Thursday that it’s crunch time for advocacy thanks to legislative rules.
“We’re running out of time. So you know, I hope you all know that the deadline for bills to get out of committee is, I think, the first week of February,” she said, referring to Joint Rule 10 Day on Feb. 2. “So we don’t have a lot of time.”