The Velis Senate Expansion Is Now Underway…
SOUTHAMPTON—At a low-key fundraiser Tuesday, Westfield Rep John Velis held court with local notables from both here and throughout the 2nd Hampden & Hampshire Senate district. This was not his first swing through town. Although the current occupant of the Senate seat, Don Humason has won the mayoralty in his and Velis’ hometown a month ago, the latter has been eyeing the position for some time.
To some extent, Velis is in a holding pattern now. Humason has not sent the Senate his resignation, post-dated to his mayoral swearing-in on January 6, 2020. Thus, the special election date and Velis’ potential remain unknown. However, the groundwork he has been laying for months now taken on more reality.
“I now know that, roughly in the next 60 to 90 days, there’s going to be election,” Velis said.
“But in terms of getting out there, I mean, nothing’s gonna change,” he continued. “I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing, meeting people finding out what’s on their mind and making the case why I’m the best person you can have state senator for this district.”
In January Westfield Mayor Brian Sullivan announced his retirement and the pieces began moving. Practically before social media could refresh from Humason’s March launch for mayor, Velis announced his Senate interest, couched in conditional language.
The 2nd Hampden & Hampshire includes Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland and four precincts in Chicopee.
Murmuring west of the river has encompassed Velis senatorial speculation for years. The only question was whether he would challenge Humason or wait, though were indications Velis might have taken a shot in 2020’s regular election. As Westfield’s state rep, Velis has advantage other Democratic challengers have lacked.
Westfield’s hold on the seat dates to 1994 when Michael Knapik, Humason’s predecessor and former boss, snagged it for Republicans. Knapik faced opposition once, in 2002, when he vaporized former Holyoke Mayor Daniel Szostkiewicz in 2002. Humason, by contrast, faced Democratic opposition in the 2013 special senate election when he was elected and in two of his three reelection bids.
One challenger was J.D. Parker-O’Grady, a former Knapik aide and now lawyer. Aside from the national political crosscurrents that delivered Westfield for Republicans for the first time since Reagan, Humason had obvious strengths in 2016.
“I see being from Westfield as crucial,” Parker-O’Grady said at Velis’ Southampton fundraiser. Originally from Southampton himself, he observed that the Democratic strength in the district’s north couldn’t counteract the big presence Humason had in Westfield.
“They want to hold onto that seat and that benefits John,” Parker-O’Grady observed, referring to Westfield residents.
Velis has endeared himself to Westfield through a combination of biography, military JAG service, and name recognition (his uncle held the state rep seat decades ago). Despite its recent rightward tilt, the city has swung between the parties in partisan electiosn while electing candidates across the spectrum in nonpartisan municipal elections.
However, Velis has been conscious that even victory in Westfield could be insufficient without districtwide support. Hence, he has campaigned throughout the district, including its Democratic belt running through Easthampton, Holyoke, Southampton and the Chicopee precincts.
Velis’ fundraiser was at Paisanos, a fixture here in small strip mall on Route 10, which runs the north-south length of the district. Guests and supporters came and went, sampling a spread of pizzas and appetizers.
“The good thing is John has been around in Southampton,” Janet Cain, the chair of Southampton Democratic Town Committee said. “That’s not what we’ve had in the past.”
In an interview with WMP&I as the fundraiser wound down, Velis acknowledged the differences in seeking election in a bigger district. Complicating things, he said was being only one a few reps, like Holyoke’s Aaron Vega, who represent only one city in its entirety.
Yet, he has relished expanding out to other cities and towns. Growing more visibly animated, even from his typically energetic mien, he described networking through Democratic colleagues like Easthampton Rep Dan Carey and Vega.
“It’s my favorite part of the job, getting out and meeting new people, looking them in the eyes, seeing what’s on their mind seeing what issues are important to them,” he said. The shift, he explained, has basically consisted of scaling up his campaigns from Westfield. “So, I love it. I welcome it,” he said.
That approach could fit well in the smaller, more intimate 40-member Senate. While there exists an expectation to work on big policy, there is more autonomy. By contrast, leadership in the 160-member House practically control reps’ access to the restroom.
Velis has also carefully sculpted an image as an almost nonpartisan figure. While tight with the speaker of an overwhelming Democratic, if ideologically fractured, House, he has always pitched himself as an issues-based, even nuts and bolts pol that put the Whip City first. His 2014 race for the 4th Hampden House district—which, like this race will be—was a special. Republican Dan Allie, tried to score partisan points, but largely failed to scuff Velis’ image.
Despite the clearer partisan spectrum in the 2nd Hampden & Hampshire District—Democratic north, Republican south and Westfield as the pivot—Velis has found this strategy still works. Residents are tired of bickering and partisan-fueled inertia.
“You might be surprised to find out that it’s a message that I’m finding has resonated in all 11 cities and towns,” he said. “I think it’s a response to what people are seeing at the national level, trickle down to the state level, trickles even further down to the local level.”
The Velis camp is warily eyeing a primary candidate to his left emerging from the district’s other large city: Holyoke. While the lack of election date has frozen things, the biggest Paper City names are not in contention.
Mayor Alex Morse is running for Congress. Vega has supported Velis. Outgoing city councilor Jossie Valentin left elected office herself to join US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. City Councilor Rebecca Lisi has not expressed public interest and may be focusing on the municipal.
Despite no primary opposition for now, Velis’ efforts to firm up support in the Democratic north make sense.
“If there’s a challenge from Holyoke,” Parker-O’Grady said, “Easthampton & Southampton will be crucial to the primary for John.”
The general is a different story. Despite a Republican governor and some recent gains, the GOP has struggled to maintain traction in the Senate. There are still no official GOP candidates for Humason’s seat. Only Southwick Rep Nicholas Boldyga has made noises about running, but has offered no commitments.
The bigger risk could be whether Democratic voters will be motivated to turn out for a less liberal candidate. While Velis will probably dominate in Westfield—essential for victory—he’ll still need Democrats to turn out in the north and in the remaining Democratic pockets in Agawam and Southwick.
The Westfield Democrat is unrepentant about his moderate approach. Yet, he said the promise to advocate for the district has resonance among Democrats, too. Whether challenges manifest in the general or primary, Velis says his campaign is ready.
If there’s any risk, Democrats don’t appear to be worried now and, anecdotally, are thrilled to replace the conservative Humason. Many at a recent Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts meeting were pleased Velis’ beliefs were closer, if not identical to theirs.
Back the fundraiser, Cain, the Southampton Democratic chair, said Velis has been listening to people across the town. She expressed confidence in his ability to give voice to their concerns in Boston.
“He’s able to reflect values of all of the different people in Southampton,” she said.