Debates’ Course Heading: North by North Westfield…
WESTFIELD—With time running short, the candidates to replace Don Humason in the Westfield-only 4th Hampden House special election have done battle before seniors and the venerable Jim Madigan. Republican Dan Allie and Democrat John Velis traded political jabs, but found a great deal of agreement in their confrontations. This left the contrast centered more on style, campaign themes and rhetoric.
Humason resigned from the House of Representatives in November as he took over the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire Senate seat, itself vacated by longtime senator Mike Knapik. Earlier this month, an uncontested and anticlimactic primary formally nominated Allie and Velis as their party’s nominee heading into a (no joke!) April 1st general elections.
Allie, a freshman city councilor, and Velis, an attorney in the city, jousted at the Westfield Council on Aging and on WGBY’s Connecting Point over taxes, spending, the minimum wage, Allie’s campaign expenditures, potholes. They agreed a lot on taxes, job creation and business regulation, although not in concrete terms. But candidates’ caution and nebulous policy prescriptions may have reflected the limited parameters in which the issues can be safely debated in Westfield, if pushed a bit by Madigan.
Velis, who genuinely seems pretty middle of the road ideologically and eager to work with any party, did not want to stray off the center. Allie, who has a history of activism in the GOP’s conservative wing, did not want to be pegged as a winger, which few, if any of the string of Republican holders of the seat were or at least appeared to be.
That is partly due to the political nature of Westfield, a city defined by a small “c” conservatism that at times traces the more conventional political meaning of the term, but usually means a preference for the status quo. It is also a city that swings wildly between the parties, often, though not exclusively going for the GOP down ballot, but staying reliably Democratic in presidential contests.
Despite getting a peppering from audience members at the Council of Aging, Allie clearly tried to go on the attack during both debates. If the attempt was to unnerve the relaxed, cool Velis, it did not work at either venue. The contrast in tone and calm between the two showed a bit at the Council on Aging forum, but was very clear in front of Madigan when Allie appeared more nervous and his thoughts disorganized.
At one point Allie questioned Velis’ self-labeling as a “conservative Democrat.” “I don’t know what that means,” Allie said at one of the meetings. Velis said on WGBY he favors lower taxes and is probably as much, if not more fiscally conservative than Allie. Velis’ answer underscored the lack of daylight between the two candidates on an issue Allie would love to own, even an oft-misused one.
Allie might argue he is definitively for lowering numerous state taxes, while providing little more than vague examples of cutting waste to pay for it. Velis has called for lower taxes, but avoided specific promises to lower particular state taxes, instead focusing on local property taxes via an increase in local aide from Boston. Fiscal conservatism is often shorthanded as less taxes and less spending, but a fairer definition is paying for either new spending or tax cuts without budget gimmicks or borrowing.
Velis had not been offering his platform with granular specificity either, though. Allie noted in both encounters that afternoon that Velis lacked an issues page on his website. It was an odd target—and an awkward as Allie held up printouts of a website on TV— as his own page is spare with few actual views listed. Velis has since put one up, but it covers and says far more, consistent with his positions articulated in earlier interviews.
Velis got in some ribbing too, keeping with his themes. When Allie touted endorsements from some right-wing groups like the National Federation for Independence business and the Mass Fiscal Alliance, he noted his pledge to never raise taxes. Flipping the script, Velis said when you sign a pledge “your loyalties…shift away from Westfield.” “I will never sign a pledge to a special interest group,” he said.
Velis reemphasized this when Allie accused him of being obligated to do the Speaker’s bidding as a Democrat. Velis countered that he would never vote against Westfield’s interests at the behest of Democratic leadership in the House.
Both talked about growing local aide without a clear plan how, but only Allie was calling for cuts to specific revenues, which feed, among other things, local aide. Both also erroneously said a recent local aide $125 million bump was only $25 million.
It was Allie who misstated history or facts a bit more. As he highlighted his efforts to repeal the inflation-indexed gas tax increase, he labeled, erroneously, “taxation without representation.” In historical context, that refers to British Parliament’s votes to raise taxes on the colonists even though the colonists did not elect any members of Parliament. The gas tax, by contrast were enacted by duly elected members of the legislature, just like the automatically falling income tax rate was.
Allie’s rhetorical flourish did not end with historical license. In both debates, he said “We’ve lost two congressional districts,” due to declining population. The state did lose a seat in 2010 after going 20 years since losing one. Massachusetts’s House seats has ebbed from a high of 16 in 1930. There were even more before Maine became broke away in 1820. However, none of these losses are due to losing population. The state did grow between the last two censuses, but more slowly relative to other states.
Even Western Mass has been growing, albeit anemically and behind the rest of the state.
Allie also peppered out claims about the lack of need for revenue because of “$250 million of waste” at the MBTA, an apparent reference to a study from the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, which an MBTA spokesman dismissed as “riddled with false assumptions and misleading data.” The study said Boston’s transit system’s costs are only exceed by two systems in New York and San Francisco. All three cities are extremely transit-reliant cities with high costs of living driven by real estate above all else.
Perhaps alluding to this, Joe Pesaturo, the MBTA spokesman said that instead of lumping the MBTA with bus systems of varying sizes, “A thorough and reasoned analysis would show that MBTA wages are in line with other major transit systems with large bus operations.” Pesaturo added that factors like job classification and work rules were not considered and the study essentially concluded the MBTA should just pay employees less. Even if taken at face value, the study identified the savings over six years, not in one as it appeared Allie suggested in opposing additional revenue for transit projects. His issues page says this explicitly.
Velis, too, expressed disapproval of the gas taxes and tolls, but has said there is a need for revenue to improve infrastructure.
Allie was not the only one corrected. Velis suggested he was still in Afghanistan while Allie was collecting signatures to repeal the gas tax increase. In fact, Allie said, based on Velis’ return to the State at the end of summer, the signature gathering occurred after.
Allie also faced criticism for a campaign finance report he filed that showed spending on a chiropractor, something Allie told the Westfield News was a “campaign-related injury.” This led to an extended confrontation with a Ludlow man who filed a complaint against Allie. Allie has amended his report, but only to describe it as a reimbursement to the chiropractor, telling the News he confused his personal and campaign checkbooks. Allie contradicted himself at the Council on Aging saying at one point, “I knew what checkbook it was,” when he wrote the check to the chiropractor.
Allie said he brought the matter to the attention of the state Office of Campaign & Political Finance on February 28, but that was after WMassP&I’s initial report on the candidates’ campaign finance reports. Allie said he reimbursed his campaign, but his amended Feburary 24 report has yet to record that.
Beyond criticism of Allie, there was a great deal of love for the Council on Aging’s Executive Director Tina Gorman and plans to build a new senior center, a safe political bet with seniors likely to turnout in a special election.
One notable split between the candidates came during the WGBY debate when Madigan asked the candidates about the minimum wage. While open to unemployment reforms, Velis said he supported an increase. Velis doubted it would hurt small business as the Westfield business owners with whom he has spoken are already pay “more than the minimum wage.” “There are people who are surviving on next to nothing,” he said to keep up with the “basic cost of living.” Allie, while stating opposition to the wage increase, never clearly articulated why, saying the higher wage does not increase jobs.
In closings and openings, the candidates mostly stayed on bio. Allie had his unenlightening statement about having a family and Velis’ referred to his service overseas and repeated love for the Whip City. While some of the claims of the candidates (one more than the other) tested the boundaries of reality, the largely safe nature of the debate is a reflection of the uncertainty of a special election. However, it may also be a reflection of Westfield’s need to get outside its comfort zone on issues affecting its future.
Westfield has been a bright spot in the 413’s economy, but it often seems caught up very narrow disputes. To truly prosper and change in attitude may be needed, but must come from the citizens. Maybe April 1st we could see that happen, but April 2nd and beyond will be just as important.