In Memoriam: Senator Ken Donnelly
On April 2nd, Massachusetts lost a great leader and champion of justice and environmental health, Senator Ken Donnelly. Senator Donnelly was a firefighter of 37 years, former Secretary/Treasurer of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts and the Senator from Massachusetts’ Fourth Middlesex District since 2009. He died of brain cancer.
As a Senator, he was best known for his advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill, union workers, and homeless families. However, he also worked hard over the years to reduce children’s and workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals. This is the capacity in which I knew him best and I am struck by the fact that he was felled by exactly the illness that he was fighting to prevent others from suffering.
My most striking memory of Senator Donnelly was from July, 2011. It was a hearing of the Joint Committee on Environment Natural Resources and Agriculture on An Act for Healthy Families and Businesses, Sponsored for the first time by Senator Donnelly and by Representative Jay Kaufman. The bill would have created a program for replacing toxic chemicals in consumer products with safer alternatives. I was sitting in the front of Gardener Auditorium at the State House before members of the Committee waiting to testimony, when Senator Donnelly came into the room. According the legislative custom, he was immediately invited up to the front of the room to give his testimony and as he did, he stood just inches from me.
I had not known him long and didn’t know what to expect, but his testimony was among the most passionate and personal that I have heard on a bill of this nature before or since. He spoke of being a cancer survivor himself (the brain cancer that eventually took his life was not his first encounter with the disease); of being at firefighter picnics where former colleagues traded notes on doctor visits and medications instead of children’s photos (it’s been documented in multiple studies that firefighters have higher rates of cancer and higher exposures to toxic chemicals than the rest of the population); and of the scourge of cancer on his family in which multiple people were fighting or had lost their fights to cancer. For Senator Donnelly, this bill was about life or death, and it was personal.
This session he was the sponsor of An Act relative to disclosure of toxic chemicals in children’s products, along with Kaufman. He was also a strong supporter of the Children and firefighters protection act (Senator Cynthia Stone Creem and Representative Marjorie Decker) which would ban toxic flame retardants in children’s products and household furniture. Clean Water Action will keep fighting in his name for these bills and to protect children, firefighters, and all of us from toxic chemicals.
Senator Donnelly, your leadership and passion will be missed.