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Elections and Politics

Transit Advocate Chris Dempsey Wants to Be Our Next State Auditor

Chris Dempsey

Chris Dempsey. Photo by Liz Linder Photography, courtesy of the candidate.

One of Massachusetts’ most influential transportation wonks is applying for the biggest job of his career.

Chris Dempsey, a former Patrick administration MassDOT official who more recently led the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition, has thrown himself into what could be a tight race to replace the retiring Suzanne Bump as state auditor.

The position is up for grabs for the first time since 2011, and Dempsey was in early, launching his campaign in July 2021.

From a recent interview with StreetsblogMASS, it’s clear that Dempsey still has plenty of affection for the field that’s defined his career so far. His Zoom background has a mocked up Green Line sign with his name on it, and he talked enthusiastically about taking transit often while traveling across the state to talk to voters.

But running for auditor has also meant Dempsey has had to widen his policy horizons. He’s made news with his plan to review the State Police, for example.

“The job is really about doing two things. The first is making state government work better. And the second is all about standing up to protect the public interest,” Dempsey said. “And I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to do both of those things in my career.”

It’s a position where the power wielded is mostly “indirect,” as Dempsey put it. The auditor can’t change policy directly, but can influence debate and try to change the way people think about the state’s spending and policies.

He said he has experience doing that, both in his role as a leader of the ultimately successful No Boston Olympics campaign and more recently as director of T4Mass, where he cited his focus on traffic congestion as an example of his ability to “build a bully pulpit.”

“[Congestion] was something that before my tenure at T4MA was sort of taken as just a fact of life of living in Massachusetts. And I think that progressive transportation advocates were somewhat reluctant to talk about it, because often it had been used as an excuse to widen roads and make decisions that were auto-centric,” Dempsey said. “But in fact, I think we showed ways in which you can reduce congestion and improve service for transit riders and others who are not driving through public policy.”

Even though the auditor position would have him take on a much broader portfolio of issues, Dempsey said he’s still planning to focus on transportation if elected, including oversight of MassDOT.

“Fundamentally, MassDOT still spends too much money on traditional road and bridge projects relative to the resources it’s putting into better operating the roads that it owns,” he said, pointing to under-utilized strategies like road pricing and dedicated bus lanes. “And if we did that, if we invested more in operations, and had some more political will from our elected leaders, then we would actually start to address the congestion problems that were the worst in the country before the pandemic and which we see are already coming back.”

Dempsey’s campaign has also called for creating an environmental justice commission within the auditor’s office and becoming the first auditor in the country to incorporate carbon accounting into its audits.

The position has a history of longevity. The current auditor, Suzanne Bump, has held the office since 2011, and her predecessor was in the position for 24 years.

It’s a competitive race to replace Bump. Governor Charlie Baker (who Dempsey had a good-natured clash with at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast)  has thrown his support behind Republican candidate Anthony Amore.

Dempsey would also have to overcome Methuen Democrat Rep. Diana DiZoglio in the primary.

The Brookline resident, who also once chaired the town’s transportation board, said that another thing that makes him stand out is the way he gets around. Along with his transit ridership, Dempsey is a Bluebikes fanatic; during our interview, he pulled up the app to report that he’s taken 930 trips for 2,201 miles using the bikeshare system since 2013.

“I think it’s been too long since we’ve had what you might call an urbanist in a statewide elected position in Massachusetts,” said Dempsey. “Someone who gets around by walking and biking and transit just as much as they get around by car, and thinks about how to build great cities and great communities and great villages across the Commonwealth. And I will be that person.”

Dempsey said he’ll keep taking the T to work in 2023 and beyond if he has a new office to commute to on Beacon Hill.

Sam Mintz is a Boston-based journalist covering transportation and energy policy. Before moving back to his hometown in 2021, Sam spent five years in D.C. covering Congress and federal agencies for Politico and E&E News. He lives in Brighton, equidistant to stops on the B,C, and D branches of the Green Line.

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