A compassionate conservative for Worcester County
By Evan Lips | April 1, 2016, 14:38 EDT
BOSTON – Massachusetts state Sen. Ryan Fattman is rarely far from a basketball, and if he is, you can bet his mind is never far from the gym.
Earlier this month, the 31-year-old Republican from central Massachusetts gripped a miniature rubber version of a basketball in his hands, reared back his arms and launched a small shot at the miniature hoop that’s mounted to the wall inside his office on Beacon Hill.
“That’s it for me, I’m done today,” Fattman said with a laugh.
The truth is, however, Fattman isn’t done. It’s not in his nature. Spend an hour with him and you’ll know competition runs deep in this legislator’s veins. From the time he was a boy dreaming of playing on the varsity basketball team at his hometown high school to the times he knocked on thousands of doors during his upstart political campaigns, it’s clear that Fattman hates to lose.
“I was the kid who spent every day during the summer showing up at 7 a.m. at the high school ready to play a pickup game,” Fattman said. “It got to the point where people would say my best friend is a basketball.”
The game has been good to him. Fattman said most of all it taught him at a young age what accountability is all about.
“If you’re not accountable on the court, you’ll be sitting on the bench,” he said. “If you’re not accountable [as a legislator] by the way you vote, people will take notice.”
In 2010, at the age of 25, Fattman decided to take aim at an eight-year Democratic incumbent named Jennifer Callahan, the state representative whose district includes his hometown of Sutton.
“I thought we could do better,” he said. “It was nothing personal, but I didn’t agree with her policies.”
Fattman campaigned, for example, in support of rolling back the state income tax to 5 percent. He also took a firm stance against Callahan’s support for “single-payer, government-run health care” and allowing illegal immigrants to gain access to state benefits.
Although he had some political experience, having won a seat in 2006 on the Sutton Board of Selectmen at just 21 years old, Fattman was, by all accounts, a political newcomer.
In April, the month Fattman announced his candidacy, a poll showed he had a name recognition rating of just 7 percent. For all intents and purposes, Fattman was starting “from nothing” as well. He had quit his job in Boston working as a policy analyst for the state Department of Housing. He had moved back into his parents’ home in Sutton in order to run against Callahan. Early polls showed Callahan leading him by 32 points.
After a summer’s worth of pavement-pounding and door-knocking, Fattman said a GOP poll showed him still trailing Callahan by almost 20 points.
It was then that his own party quit on him. That was October 2010.
“They said I couldn’t win,” Fattman said about the Massachusetts Republican State Committee at the time. “They pulled the plug on helping me. It was jarring.”
The person who didn’t pull the plug on Fattman was his then-girlfriend, Stephanie Kotseas. “She never left my side,” he said.
Kotseas, who was working in Medford at the time but would commute all the way back to Sutton most nights to help with his campaign, never gave up on Fattman.
“I always knew I loved her but what made me want to marry her was the work she did with me on my campaign,” he said.
Fattman recalled telling Kotseas the day before the election that he was expecting to lose.
“I would say jokingly that I could count on one hand the people who thought I could win and they were all related to me,” Fattman said. “But we won – and not only that – we won every town.”
Meeting Kotseas nearly didn’t happen. It was 2002, Fattman’s senior year of high school, the night of a dance, one that his parents had agreed to chaperone. The last thing he wanted to do was go to a school dance being run by his parents.
“A friend dragged me,” Fattman said, adding that it was a teammate of his on the basketball team who introduced him to Kotseas, a freshman at the time. “And I thought I was really good at remembering people’s names and such.”
But once the dance ended he couldn’t remember Stephanie’s name, and she let him hear about it.
“I’m walking out of this dance with my future wife and I don’t even know her name so she called me out on it,” Fattman said. “And I came home that night and I told my mom, ‘I think I met the girl I’m going to marry.’ ”
Their love, however, had to endure while Fattman was enrolled at Suffolk University and Kotseas was still in high school. Fattman said he remembered arriving at school during his first semester and feeling devastated.
“I was worried the relationship was done,” he said.
It wasn’t, however. Kotseas eventually enrolled at Boston University, and the two continued dating. But it was a phone call she got from him just before he first ran for state representative that threw her for a loop.
“I knew he was motivated and I knew he was ambitious,” Stephanie Fattman said about her then-boyfriend.
At the time, she was spending a semester away from B.U., interning in New York City. She said Ryan called and had something important to tell her. Could she meet him for dinner that night? Of course, she recalled saying.
Fattman laughs remembering the night, which he said could have gone south very quickly.
“We get to dinner, and I’m like, ‘I want to run for state representative,’ ” Fattman said. “Poor girl, she thought I was going to ask her to marry me.”
That day came later, in 2013.
Fattman points to his sophomore year of college as a time that set him on his current course. As fate would have it, it was a tragedy that steered him in the direction of pursuing a career in public service.
It was his old high school basketball coach, Steve Romasco, a legendary figure in Sutton, whom Fattman had turned down in February of 2005 after Romasco asked him whether he’d be interested in spending the summer coaching an eighth grade boys basketball team.
Fattman recalled how immediately after saying no to Romasco, he took a trip with a college roommate to Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The roommate’s family had come into wealth. Fattman said that as he spent the weekend in luxury staying at the casino’s presidential suite, he made up his mind he’d become a corporate attorney and pursue a lavish lifestyle for himself.
Fattman said his mind was made up by the time he returned to Sutton days later to watch his old high school team participate in a tournament game. By the second half, however, Romasco had to leave the game, complaining of a serious onset of headaches.
Romasco would be dead within hours, the victim of a brain aneurysm.
During our interview, Fattman pulled up a Romasco remembrance piece penned by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. Fattman read the first few paragraphs aloud, stopping when his voice began to waver.
“I’m sorry,” Fattman said. “This is so hard. It’s still so shocking.”
The grieving period saw Fattman alter his life’s priorities. He recalled thinking of Romasco and all the lives his beloved coach had touched and realized that money wasn’t what he was after.
“All that glitter from the past weekend – no amount of money would bring Coach back,” Fattman recalled.
He decided at that moment to coach the boy’s team. He wanted to pass Romasco’s teachings on to the next group of basketball players.
So what’s in a name?
During his coaching stint in the summer of 2005, Fattman met Carl Copeland, an long-time neighbor of Romasco’s, whose son played for Fattman. It was Copeland who convinced Fattman to run for a seat on the Sutton Board of Selectmen. It was also Copeland who advised Fattman not to work in 2010 on Republican Charlie Baker’s doomed gubernatorial campaign. Fattman said Copeland told him to run for state representative instead.
In a twist of fate, Fattman thinks a common problem that trips up most other politicians actually worked in his favor during his 2010 upset win over Callahan.
“Someone started stealing my signs,” Fattman said. “It was easy to figure out why, I mean, my last name is kinda funny.”
Fattman had experienced teasing while growing up but says he managed to shrug it off and embrace it.
“Fattman, it’s a name that carries weight,” he joked.
The potential for puns was endless. Fattman remembered during his campaign the time he was chased by two raging rottweilers during a door-knocking session in Oxford, on a stretch of road named Bacon Street.
“Imagine the headline that could have been – ‘Dog chases the fat on Bacon Street,’ ” Fattman joked.
There was also the time a supporter showed up to a live-shot television interview and brought him the charred remains of what had once been a Fattman campaign sign. Without skipping a beat, Fattman had a line ready for the media.
“It’s a perfect way to burn fat,” Fattman recalled saying, adding that the clip played on several networks.
Immediately after the report aired, Fattman said he noticed a difference during his door-knocking runs. People knew who he was. Fattman said most people did not agree with some of his more conservative viewpoints but noted that he was still able to connect with them simply by listening.
Fattman in the House
Fattman looks back fondly on his time as a state representative. He said one of his biggest achievements was the work he put in to get a bill passed that had been in session “and had gone nowhere” for about a decade. The proposal was simple enough – it had to do with medical emergencies – specifically, requiring Massachusetts schools to have plans in place whenever and wherever they may occur.
On Nov. 15, 2010, a three-sport Sutton High School student named Michael Ellsessar, 16, died on the football field. Fattman said Michael suffered a rare incident of cardiac arrest after being struck in the chest during a game. Michael could not be revived and died. Fattman said if an automated external defibrillator had been on hand, Michael may have survived.
A month later a Blackstone-Millville Regional High School student nearly suffered the same fate after being struck by a puck during a hockey game. Fattman said that the mere fact an AED device had been moved from one rink to another was what saved the student’s life.
Soon after entering the State House as a representative, Fattman decided to take a bold step as a young member and spearhead support to pass the legislation, known as Michael’s Bill. Fattman recalled organizing students in his district and helping them “storm” the State House. The heart of the proposal involved requiring schools to have an emergency plan in place should another incident like the one that felled Michael occur.
“We knocked on doors and told lawmakers about this bill to require schools to have a plan, such as if there are available AED’s that they be present at the field during games and not locked away inside the high school like in Michael’s case,” Fattman said.
About a year and a half later Michael’s Bill passed the House 153-0. It later passed the Senate with the help of Uxbridge Democratic state Sen. Richard Moore.
Fattman would later unseat Moore, a longtime fixture on Beacon Hill, in 2014.
Eyes on the Senate
Fattman’s ambitious 2014 campaign saw him try to defeat a sitting senator whom he actually admired. Using the campaign slogan, “Two Good Men, Two Different Visions,” Fattman sought to draw a contrast between his campaign and Moore’s, whose mailers ripped Fattman over his stance on illegal immigration.
The race had some ugly elements, Fattman recalled. There was word-twisting, especially when it came to his stance on immigration. A 2011 quote Fattman claims was misleading came back to haunt him. That year, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette quoted Fattman as saying that immigrants living in Massachusetts “should be afraid to come forward” in response to his position opposing then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s refusal to join the federal Secure Communities program, which involved deporting illegal immigrants who had committed various crimes.
In the Telegram & Gazette interview, Fattman’s comment was reportedly in response to a question about whether an illegal immigrant rape victim would be afraid to report the crime due to their immigration status. Fattman said his words got twisted – he had been talking about the alleged perpetrators and not the victims.
“I’ve learned some lessons and I’ve learned about how reporters can twist things,” Fattman said. “I’ve learned from those mistakes.”
Moore nonetheless hammered Fattman over the quote. But Fattman managed to prevail.
But Ryan wasn’t the only Fattman running for higher office in 2014. Waging her own campaign was his wife, the former Stephanie Kotseas, who he had married just one year prior.
Stephanie Fattman was running in what would ultimately be a successful bid to wrestle Worcester County’s chief of probate court post away from another Democratic incumbent. Reached Friday, Stephanie Fattman recalled how she would rely on her husband for campaign advice. The road was difficult, but Fattman said she could depend on her husband’s support.
“For me there were so many times I’d come home, tell him what was said about me,” she said. “His compassion was what helped keep me going.”
On the issues
Fattman says he was raised in a “sort-of center-right community with a center-right family.”
His father, Fattman said, is a Republican, while his mother is a Democrat. He said he’s willing to listen to other positions.
“I don’t think it makes sense for anybody to be cemented into the ground,” Fattman said. “Things change, life circumstances happen, but your core values — those are what’s important.”
Fattman calls himself more of a moderate. In a 2014 interview with the Boston Globe, Fattman said he thinks his positions lie somewhere between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated by Warren the same year Fattman coasted to reelection.
But some of Fattman’s stances on issues are clearly conservative: He’s opposed, for example, to sanctuary city policies that bar police departments from sharing information with federal immigration authorities. On education, he wants to expand access to charter schools and favors ditching Common Core educational standards in favor of Massachusetts’ own locally developed standards. He boasts a 100 percent approval rating from the Gun Owners’ Action League and supports laws recognizing and preserving various religious freedoms.
Fattman also last year added his name to a list of sponsors supporting a bill that would require schools to obtain parental consent before allowing students to participate in various surveys, including questionnaires that touch on sensitive issues, including drug and alcohol use, emotional and psychological feelings, personal appraisals of their family members, abortion and birth control.
That said, Fattman said he’s also looking to find ways to reach a common ground with his more liberal and progressive colleagues. Fattman said he is planning on introducing a proposal that will not only combat homelessness, but also seeks to change the state’s approach to the epidemic.
“One of the programs that bothers me is how we deal with homelessness by putting them into hotels and motels,” Fattman said, referring to the state’s hotel homelessness program. “It’s expensive for the state but more importantly I think it creates a difficult environment for the families.”
Fattman said he’s planning on introducing a proposal that mirrors the approach Seattle is taking.
Currently, Massachusetts spends about $30 million annually on the homeless-to-hotels program. Fattman said he thinks his proposal could cut that number by about a third. The idea involves teaming up with landlords, with the state providing them insurance incentives to reduce the stresses of credit score and other leasing requirements.
“This idea is taking people who are private landlords and creating an insurance program for them where they would maybe be more lenient with their background checks,” Fattman said. “The benefits to a landlord is that they get a vacant property filled.
“Meanwhile the tenant gets access to potentially a single-family unit, maybe they have a yard and kitchen – life skills that you cannot really get at a hotel.”
A millennial senator
Fattman also sees himself in an interesting position as one of a handful of “millennials” on Beacon Hill. This month he and state Sen. Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow), also 31, co-wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post to promote what is being billed as “Millennial Engagement Initiative,” a rolling listening tour in which Fattman and others will traverse the state to hear the concerns of his generation.
“One sector that has failed to innovate is government, which remains frozen in place while everything else moves faster than ever,” the duo wrote. “In this environment, it’s easy to lose faith in the political process to be a force for change.”
Fattman said his age is one of the guiding factors when it comes to his approach to public service.
“I think my family, my community and my Christian faith have been incredibly important and I also think being young has affected me,” he said. “I look at the world, especially the nation, and I see two roads – where we’re going and where my generation won’t necessarily inherit the great things others did. We’re inheriting the biggest amount of debt we’ve ever had.”
That perspective, and perhaps his relative youth, is what attracted Fattman to the campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for whom he served as Massachusetts point man. Rubio bowed out of the race on March 15, following a poor showing that day in his home state’s winner-take-all primary.
“He (Rubio) would have been a good image for the GOP. Came from nothing. Had a difficult family situation but worked so hard, played by the rules, to get where he did.”
Fattman is unsure whom to support now that Rubio is out of the running. He said he’s disappointed to see that insults and deception appear to be carrying Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the top.
“Between his insults and her lies, and how personal it’s become, it turns off young voters big time,” he said. “It turns them off when they can least afford to do that.”
Fattman said some of his proudest moments occurred during his 2012 reelection effort whenever he’d pass a yard that included a sign in support of his Republican campaign alongside others promoting President Barack Obama’s reelection and Elizabeth Warren’s challenge to Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
These were some of the houses, Fattman recalled, that did not support him in 2010. He said he thinks the key to transcending party lines is the same reason he’s proud to have an “R” ahead of his name.
“I’ve always believed that the R in front of my name stands for reform and respect – not simply Republican,” he said.
It’s a lesson he said he learned on basketball court.
“Basketball taught me a lot about competition but it also taught me a lot about respecting others,” he said. “I’ve learned so many life lessons through the game, like accountability, preparation and being willing to step up.
“My belief is that we have a fantastic democratic republic but it also requires people to step up, and if you don’t do that, you’re not doing your part.”