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To Last on Holyoke’s Shrinking Council, Lisi Needs to Move up…

Hello, Goodbye? Councilor Rebecca Lisi in 2009. How will she face a shrinking Council? (via Facebook/Lisi campaign)

HOLYOKE—Thanks to charter amendments voters approved in 2015, City Hall is undergoing some changes this year. While the prospect of a four-year term thrilled Alex Morse supporters at his mayoral kickoff Monday, shifts in the other branch of city government engender a bit more doubt.

The City Council is shrinking the number of at-large councilors to six from eight. The seven ward seats are unaffected. But with at seven of the eight at-large incumbents seeking to remain this year, one is destined to be voted off the island. Though not necessarily an accurate barometer of future elections, attention turns to the candidate who finished eighth in 2015, Rebecca Lisi.

A ten-year incumbent, Lisi should be among the safer candidates running this year. However, over several elections her place in the eight-seat at-large race has fluctuated dramatically.

A few weeks ago, at the new Holyoke Hummus Company across from City Hall, Lisi and supporters gathered to eat mashed chickpeas, collect signatures and prepare for the campaign. There were no illusions about the headwinds to carrying Lisi into the smaller City Council that takes office in January.

People are “discontented with government,” she said in an interview. They have “lost faith that government can create solutions.”

The Holyoke City Council Chamber after a meeting last year. (WMassP&I)

Lisi must overcome placing eighth out of eight. However, her 2015 finish belies the fact that less than 100 votes separated her and three of her colleagues. To lighten the pressure a bit more, Jennifer Chateauneuf resigned in early 2016 and her replacement, Diosdado Lopez, a former ward councilor, appears unlikely to seek a full term.

Another X-factor is gender. After Chateauneuf’s resignation, Lisi became the only woman elected to the Council at-large in Holyoke. Only two other women took out papers for Council at-large this year. One may drop down to a ward race. The Paper City has a better record of electing women than socioeconomically similar, but much larger Springfield, but will that hold amid the at-large reduction? Or will the threat of fewer women on the Council benefit Lisi?

Supporters at the signature-gathering event said plans are in the works to get Lisi out in front of voters and to campaign aggressively. The mayor’s race, depending on its competitiveness, usually dominates political attention, but many of Holyoke’s top grassroots activists view Lisi’s campaign as a priority.

Socioeconomically, Holyoke remains a struggling, deindustrializing city. Politically, it has seen a progressive edge develop more typical of rebounded urban places like Northampton or Cambridge.

Old-style urban politics often dominate cities like Holyoke and, to a large extent, still do in this city. However, it has also attracted a growing number of urban pioneers who have allied with a groundswell of liberal-minded natives. While multicandidate at-large races in cities can have the effect of limiting ethnic diversity, it can be more forgiving of ideological differences.

Rep. Aaron Vega (via

This dynamic is what propelled Lisi and others like now-State Rep Aaron Vega into the Council. Both were somewhat early heralds for a wider sociopolitical transformation that has taken hold in Holyoke. It formed part of Morse’s base and likely limits any revanchist takeover by the city’s old guard.

But those dynamics do not change an immutable truth about low-level races. Name recognition and visibility can drive elections. In 2015, incumbents swept at-large races in Hampden County’s six cities holding November elections.

In past elections, Lisi has actually ridden this wave.

A native of Long Island, Lisi and her husband, Damien Cote, moved to Holyoke in 2003. They restored a two-family home in the city’s northern tier near Mount Tom where they live with their son. In the meantime, Lisi became active in several city organizations and eventually ran for the Ward 7 Council seat in 2005. Unsuccessful, she tried at-large the following election and won.

“She ran some really great campaigns,” said Vega, whose Council tenure overlapped with Lisi’s.

By 2013, she placed fourth after a well-received tenure chairing the Ordinance Committee. Undoubtedly not hurting was some sympathetic attention that followed the revelation of fratty chitchat among two of her colleagues about her.

Downtown Holyoke with City Hall in the background. (WMassP&I)

But by the 2015 election, she was appearing in the spotlight a bit less.

Vega said two factors can have an impact on his or her placing in the municipal election. Who a councilor supports for Council President and his or her ideology affect committee assignments and, in turn, visibility.

Kevin Jourdian kept Lisi as Ordinance Chair for his first two terms as Council President. However, he gave the post to Linda Vacon, a close political ally of his, for the current term.

Though Lisi was still chairing the Ordinance Committee leading into November 2015, her hands became fuller between elections. She gave birth to her son just before the 2013 election and has been pursuing her doctorate at UMass. These may have reduced her visibility on, if not her substantive contribution to the Council.

Going into 2017, Lisi doesn’t have her Ordinance perch and the Council has been a bit bogged down this term.

“I think we do get a lot done,” Lisi said, “though this last term there have been some changes that have reduced [the Council’s] actual workload.” Several issues have been “swatted” back to committee or otherwise delayed like methadone regulation.

But Lisi was confident that with some campaign elbow grease, she would survive the Council’s shrinkage this year. She underscored, deliberately perhaps, her willingness to grind into the complexities of land use, historic preservation and environmental issue.s.

Lisi highlighted her work finding a solution to the YMCA’s parking lot, redevelopment of downtown Holyoke and developing a new special permit process.

“I take my role as a legislator really seriously,” she said.