THE ADVOCATE ASKS: Michael Coller talks about switching from Republican to unenrolled in his campaign for the Ninth Essex House District seat
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Michael A. Coller, who recently pulled nomination papers from the Elections Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office in Boston as he mulls over a possible run against four-term incumbent state Rep. Donald Wong (R-Saugus) in this fall’s race for the Ninth Essex House District seat. Precincts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in Saugus make up the core of the district, which also includes parts of Lynn and Wakefield. Initially, Coller said he planned to run as a Republican Party challenger. But this week, he said he is more likely to change his party affiliation to unenrolled candidate and would make that decision sometime this month. He has until May 1 to file his nomination papers.
Coller is a 1985 Saugus High School graduate and received a Bachelor of Science in Management degree from Bridgewater State College in 1990. Last fall he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Selectmen. Coller is a former member of the Conservation Commission and Library Board of Trustees. Coller, who has worked for 23 years in Corporate Security, cites his experience as a Massachusetts State Police Licensed private investigator. He founded MAC Investigations and Constable Services in 2009. It is in this capacity that Coller has worked as an appointed constable in Essex County and Criminal Investigator.
Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: Michael, there have been a lot of reports about your entertaining a run at the State House. Tell me a little bit about your plans and your thoughts.
A: After some consideration following my run for selectman in the town of Saugus, the next step that I feel certainly to bring light to many topics within the town and cities within the district and the state – that running for state rep. will surely give me the stage to discuss issues that affect the citizens – not only of District 9, but also the citizens of Massachusetts.
Q: What was the one thing that kind of crystallized your decision to run or got you thinking about it? Was there one event? Did somebody suggest “Hey, why don’t you run for the State House?”
A: I think one of the largest concerns that I had was the turnout for the selectman’s race on Nov. 8, 2017, where we got under 25 percent voter participation. I think it was somewhere around 22 percent, about 4,500 votes, which really for me is a concern for the fact of some of the issues affecting the town positively, and some have opportunity. And I felt that to spark interest in the constituents in the town and the state – and topics that affect everyone – that I think the first win that I’m concentrating on is to bring awareness and my second win is to get elected as state rep.
Q: Now, the earlier reports were that you were going to run in the Republican primary. But I now understand that you are considering another approach?
A: Speaking with some of my team members, I’ve considered changing parties. The deadline date is Feb. 23. I’ve been a Republican since last October. Prior to that, I was unenrolled for about 30 years. I feel that it will give me better odds to leverage different topics, some of the topics that I am going to speak to in a little bit. With unenrolled being the largest part of the voters in the district, I’m certainly entertaining that thought, and I will be traveling back to Ashburton Place for my [unenrolled candidate] paperwork.
Q: You’re going to be running essentially in three communities: in Saugus, most of the precincts except for 3 and 10; and then you got a small section of Lynn, and then you have Wakefield. I don’t really want to focus on the issues of those other communities for the purposes of this interview, because people in Saugus want to know about where you stand on Saugus issues. What are your primary issues – if you could give five or six issues that you would consider priorities or a key part of your platform if you decide to run in the fall campaign?
A: The points that I would concentrate on – and I know that you asked about Saugus – I know a hot topic both in Saugus and on the North Shore is traffic, which would be intra-state, which would be Route 1, which is affected by congestion, which I believe has been brought on by overdevelopment.
Q: Let’s stop there for a moment, that’s a big, big issue, and it’s been going on for a long, long time – four or five decades, maybe. What would be your starting point on that issue?
A: As far as making citizens aware of the projects that are going to happen on Route 1 and the Route 1 area, the AvalonBay (former Hilltop property) is about 400 to 450 units, quite possibly two parking spots for each unit. There’s going to be about 100,000 square feet representing three retail units along the grass and Route 1 – one that will be 45,000 square feet approximately, 30,000 or so square feet, and then a smaller unit. Certainly that will bring larger traffic and concerns with the flow going in and out of that area. Essex Landing, certainly, at that semi-jug handle is going to pose a serious concern for traffic coming off and getting onto Route 1. And certainly, the new High School, which I applaud selectmen and the rest of the town, folks and town government. The town manager did a phenomenal job with that. But certainly, some of the traffic that’s going to be traveling in and out of the Highland Avenue area, coupled with Lincoln Avenue, Main Street, Central Street, Essex Street are just clogged morning and evening from the traffic and the commuters. So, I’ll be looking into that.
Q: What would be your starting point? I mean, you can’t do it alone, so how would you approach that?
A: Certainly it would involve my attempt to partner with the current town government, highway departments and certainly in search of funds, which is difficult as a town when we know that being a city tends to lend more aid to communities.
Q: How do you get an audience that can help you on this?
A: I would partner with representatives of other communities and delegates in Middlesex County and Suffolk County – officials in Revere, Malden and a portion of communities on the North Shore, which would be Lynnfield, Danvers, Topsfield and Peabody. And I think there would be power in numbers and certainly a lot of voice for the whole North Shore – and not just one community.
Q: And other communities?
A: I would certainly have Melrose as a part of that team.
Q: What do you envisage, some kind of task force?
A: I certainly think just the voice and reaching out to town government in each of those communities is a good start to break out and decide what we want to do.
Q: Please go on.
A: Something I think about quite often is the impact of Wheelabrator on the environment and also redistricting. You have expansion of the ash landfill down there in another county, and it has Precinct 10 of Saugus.
Q: Any other issues that you want to touch upon?
A: The attorney general has made some changes in the legislation affecting gun laws. I certainly have my own opinions on that. I closely follow the NRA and their concern and their lawsuit on those measures, and that’s something I will be watching. And lastly, conservation is something I’m concerned with after having been a commercial fisherman, which helped me get through college for my bachelor’s degree. I respect the environment. As a Conservation Commission member two years in Saugus, I believe I showed I’m a true supporter of Conservation issues.
Q: Any other issues that you wish to talk about it.
A: No. I think over the next two months, my pace will pick up.
Q: Now, you mentioned you are considering changing back to an unenrolled party affiliation.
A: Yes, I should have that wrapped up by the end of the week. I changed my party to unenrolled. I just need to notify Ashburton Place on the 17th floor and then follow the guidelines accordingly.
Q: Okay. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I gotta ask you this question. You had the election last fall; you ran for the Board of Selectmen; you campaigned hard. You were out there, very visible, but you finished eight out of nine candidates, and I don’t think you got a thousand votes. So what makes you think you can run for the State House and win?
A: It was close to a thousand votes. A thousand votes against five incumbent is certainly an admirable attempt at gaining a seat on that board. With the turnout rate as we said, 22 to 23 percent or 4,500 voters, whatever it was …
A: To secure a thousand votes out of that … I was happy with it being the first attempt. I’d like to just use this analogy: Before Abe Lincoln took the seat as president of the United States, he had approximately 12 huge life-saving experiences (mostly negative) – congressional seat, gubernatorial seat, some personal issues – and then he was elected President of the United States. So, I’ve done some research on that and found that interesting, and I respect the man for his intestinal fortitude.
Q: Let me ask you another question. You have Donald Wong as a popular Republican candidate who blew away the Democratic challenger two years ago. He would be running for his fifth term, so he’s going for a decade representing the district. He’s popular and he’s strong, particularly in the business community. What are your thoughts going up against a candidate like that?
A: Donald does a fantastic job. I consider him a great businessman. My experiences with him personally have been nothing but cordial and friendly. I wish him the best of luck. I just like to refer to my first statement: that sparking interests among the citizens and making my constituents’ topics important and raising the level of awareness for everything that affects all of us is my first win. Anything else that comes of that is a bonus. And as far as my stance in the legislature, constituent services through passing fair legislation is certainly my main focal point. It’s all about the citizens and the constituents, certainly not about my personal thoughts.
Q: Let me ask you – this is sort of an offbeat question – less than 25 percent, less than a quarter of the registered voters in Saugus turned out for the school project. But they ultimately passed it. It was one of the most important votes in years – approving the new school project. But less than 25 percent of the people voted on this important project. So, how do you engage the voters of this district? How do you get them to turn out? How do you increase voter participation?
A: I think it was a big win: an overwhelming number of the people voting for that coming together. And that should stand out in folks’ minds – that when you do that, you make change. That’s just a perfect political science project … to show that when you get together for something you want, you can make change. The old adage is “walk, talk and knock.” I enjoy people, and I think my best bet is to get out and hit the communities … no fancy lights. It’s going to be handshakes and conversation.
Q: Let me ask you this philosophical question. There are two kinds of legislation, to put it into simplistic terms. There are representatives who concentrate on constituent service; they don’t care about passing laws; they go to Beacon Hill in Boston, and their primary thing is to focus on constituent services. And then there are legislators who want to become career politicians; they want to shape legislation, and they want to get leadership positions; they want to be in the headlines with the legislation they pass. Then you got legislators that are a blend between the two; they want to pass legislation for the sake of their citizens, and maybe they get involved to a lesser extent in global issues, but they’re also very good on constituent services. So, which of the three would you consider yourself if you were elected to the statehouse?
A: If I can create a level of awareness to current topics that are issues that affect folks every day and can make a positive outcome on the things that they do all the time. And that if I can do an excellent job in constituent services, that would satisfy me.
Q: So, you’re sort of a blend of the two?
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about as you consider running for the statehouse?
A: I’m going to focus on the meetings I plan on having: sharing topics with them and getting them involved. I don’t have any other aspirations to go any further; I don’t want my name up in lights; I don’t want my name “skywrited” anywhere. If I can change 1,500 people to truly understand that their vote counts, and if they truly feel that they want some things to change, so they get involved … then I have truly won.
Q: What would you say your best strengths are – the assets that you bring to the table, the background or associations, skills, skill set?
A: I would say my involvement in town government, as almost a three-year trustee of the Saugus Public Library, two years on the Conservation Committee and 20-so-long years working. My experience and my passion is what I bring to the table.
Q: What about your background?
A: Working for my own company. Working with the courts, partnering with district attorneys and defense attorneys alike, engaging with the public defender’s office and dealing with folks who need help.