Unbeatable since ’68, Olver threatened by redistricting

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The congressman appears to lack the basic skill set of politics. John Olver is wonkish, rarely quotable, and not much of an orator — and this is according to his friends.

The former chemistry teacher dryly notes that he still talks in 50-minute blocks. He can bury weary listeners in minutia.

“He’s an enigma wrapped in a paradox — the most unlikely politician,’’ state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat, said of Olver, his former boss.

The unlikely politician from the First Congressional District has also proven to be unbeatable. Olver has won a state or federal election every two years since 1968, plus one special election to Congress, giving him more continuous time in public office than any of his Bay State colleagues.

But with redistricting and the loss of one US House seat hanging over the state’s 10-member delegation, speculation is building over which one will lose a brutal game of political roulette.

Olver could be the odd man out.

“He’s from an obviously gerry mandered district and is also the oldest guy in the delegation,’’ said Dennis Hale, a Boston College political scientist.

“I think Olver and his staff know that the finger is pointing in their direction,’’ he said.

The 74-year-old Olver, 6-foot-4 and gangly, with a deep voice, could make things easy for district mapmakers by retiring, which would open a path to redraw the congressional lines without forcing Democratic incumbents into primaries against each other. But Olver slapped down retirement speculation in December, announcing his intention to run for a 12th term before he was sworn in to his 11th, in January.

He revealed this week that his wife, Rose, a professor at Amherst College, has started treatment for ovarian cancer but said her illness “for the time being’’ has not affected his plans. He continues to raise money for the next campaign.

State officials will hold public hearings across Massachusetts in the coming months before redrawing the lines that will eliminate one congressional district, starting with the next election.

Olver insists he does not dwell on who might lose out. “We’re all in exactly the same boat,’’ he said.

Olver remains a lone wolf among the state’s chummy and media-savvy delegation. He does not seek out statewide news coverage and seems to be missing the standard political genes for back-slapping and self-promotion.

“I’ve been most fascinated about how unsuited I was for the job,’’ Olver, a Democrat, said in a rare interview. “But once I get my head into a job, then I do the job.’’

Over 20 years in Washington, Olver has risen by seniority and a mastery of arcane policy details to a potent position: As the former chairman, now ranking minority member, of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, Olver has delivered money for projects in his district and amassed a bulging campaign war chest to fortify his position.

He has been ranked the “most liberal’’ member of the House, yet thrives in a district that had been held by Republicans from the 19th century to his win in 1991. During last November’s Republican wave, Olver won reelection with 60 percent of the vote.

“Politics is not my field,’’ Olver insisted, despite 42 years on the job.

“I’m rather too, too — eh — shy and a little bit too academic and so forth. . . . Sometimes I can be good. I’ve learned how to survive in it, that’s obvious,’’ he said.

He has learned to survive while traversing the state’s most far-flung congressional district. The First District covers some 40 percent of the state, stretching from the liberal college towns of the Pioneer Valley to the struggling former mill cities of northern Worcester County.

Olver is a transplant to the district. He was born in northeast Pennsylvania in 1936 and grew up on a dairy farm. He attended a schoolhouse in which four grades learned together in one room; Olver managed to complete more than one grade per year and graduated at 15. He earned a bachelor of science degree in 1955, two years before the launch of Sputnik, then got his master’s from Tufts University and a doctorate in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He taught chemistry at the University of Massachusetts in the 1960s. A love of scientific data still permeates his life — even his affection for sports: Though a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, Olver finds baseball “a rather slow game.’’ He follows the sport through the box scores and daily standings, preferring the data produced by baseball to the actual games.

At home in Amherst, Olver is a devoted gardener, though admits he would starve if forced to live on what he grew. He still rock-climbs for fun.

In 2006, Olver and James McGovern were among five members of Congress arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the Darfur genocide. The Bay State representatives shared a cell.

“I’m glad they took my shoelaces because John was reading the graffiti [aloud] and I think I might have hanged myself,’’ said McGovern, a Worcester Democrat.

It was Olver’s enthusiasm for factoids and picky details that caught the attention of state Democratic leaders four decades ago, soon after he won a seat in the state Legislature. “Pretty soon I’m on the Ways and Means Committee because the leadership understood that I would understand the details of all these budgets really well,’’ said Olver. He championed liberal policies, became an early supporter of gay-rights legislation, and ended up the nemesis of tax-cap advocates.

In 1991, Congressman Silvio Conte, a moderate Republican, died in office. The flamboyant Conte was famous for roaring around the district in a fire-red convertible and for wearing a pig’s snout to protest pork-barrel spending. Into this charisma void stepped Olver, by then a state senator. “He was about as under the radar as Silvio Conte was over the screen,’’ said Anthony Cignoli, a Springfield political consultant.

Yet Olver defeated Republican Steve Pierce in a close race. Over the next two decades, Olver built a reputation as a quiet workhorse, said UMass political scientist Ray La Raja. “Olver plays an inside game. He’s an institution builder, which means you don’t tear down people you disagree with,’’ he said.

“He can afford to play the quiet game because he’s not running for higher office, and when you do that you make this steady rise through the leadership if they have trust in you.’’

From his post on the Appropriations Committee, Olver has drawn the support of powerful special interests, including labor unions and the defense industry. In the 2010 campaign, Olver outspent Republican challenger William Gunn by $908,000 to $53,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. About half of Olver’s money came from special-interest political action committees.

Gunn, in an interview, said Olver “is a wonderful example of the problems with our government’’ due to “his propensity for spending.’’ He gives Olver credit, however, for standing on his liberal record during the campaign: “This guy is who he appears to be.’’

And that is very much the same person who was elected 42 years ago. Olver insists he has not changed much since entering politics. “I’m loyal,’’ said Olver, “loyal to my instincts.’’

Cignoli, the consultant, agreed: “This is still the chemistry professor who ran for the Massachusetts House in 1968.’’

In the redistricting debate, many eyes will be on Rosenberg, the Democratic lawmaker from Amherst who is Olver’s friend. As Senate chairman of the state’s redistricting committee, Rosenberg wields significant power over the process, said David Wasserman, who studies House races for Cook Political Report.

He said Rosenberg is likely to “fight to preserve the Pioneer Valley in a district separate from industrial Springfield.’’

In an interview, Rosenberg said it is “much too early’’ to speculate about where the new lines will go.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at

John Olver

Age: 74

Hometown: Amherst

Positions: US representative, First Congressional District; first elected in a special election, 1991; state senator, 1973-91; state representative, 1969-73

Previous occupation: Chemistry professor, University of Massachusetts

Birthplace: Honesdale, Pa.

Family: Married to Rose Olver; one daughter

Hobbies: rock climbing, gardening