A Fifth of Hampden: Duffy Pitches Resume of Aiding Holyoke in Boston…
A Fifth of Hampden is a series of profiles of candidates for Holyoke’s Next Rep
HOLYOKE—Growing up in a military family, Patricia Duffy had lived in a lot of places. Born in Los Angeles and educated in metro Boston, she found her way to Western Massachusetts for grad school. She had been living in South Hadley Falls which she jokingly called Holyoke’s eighth ward—the city has seven. Duffy wanted to stay in the area and she was attracted to the Paper City proper.
Once moving there, the city quickly had her in its teeth. She backed political candidates, ran for city council, joined community organizations and served on the city’s redevelopment authority. Now she is looking to represent the city on Beacon Hill, armed with the knowledge and experience from working for the incumbent, Aaron Vega.
“People already trust me and know me,” she said, noting her work on constituent services.
Reflecting on how the city has handled the pandemic, she added, “I do see the city pulling together all the time, I really do and I’ve had experience with all parts of it.”
Duffy is one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the Fifth Hampden district, which constitutes the whole of Holyoke. Vega, who is retiring, has represented the district since 2012. Duffy became his aide in 2014.
Coupled with experience in various elements of city government and politics, Duffy has pitched herself as Vega’s natural successor. He agrees and endorsed her.
“Pat’s the right candidate to take this seat because she understands the job and she has the relationships,” he said in a recent interview.
After Vega announced retirement but before the shroud of the coronavirus fell, Duffy kicked off her campaign at the Summit House. The launch attracted luminaries from across Holyoke from Vega to the Democratic City Committee chair. Duffy has also drawn support from city’s Latino councilors Gladys Lebron, Libby Hernandez and Juan Anderson-Burgos.
Back then, few could conceive how different the campaign would be. This is not her first bid for office. Duffy ran for state rep from South Hadley back in 2002 and for City Council after moving to Holyoke. It is her first bid during a pandemic.
She laments there are no house parties or frequent visits to Brennan’s—a noted Holyoke watering hole—to get the buzz. However, a lot of activities live on, like phone-banking, if on Zoom.
“You do all the same stuff, but it is adapted,” she said.
While many wounds from the city’s political battle between New and Old Holyoke have healed, there are scars. Some would still put her on one end of this Holyoke political spectrum with opponents David Bartley and Patrick Beaudry on the other and in between respectively.
Duffy disputed the notion she could not cross the city’s political gaps, though. Rather, as Vega’s aide, she would hit the ground running if elected.
In an interview at Heritage State Park overlooking Holyoke’s canals, Duffy discussed her life, political activism and work at the State House. Like her opponents, she is not naïve about Holyoke’s challenges, but she is sanguine about the city’s potential and vitality.
At one point, a maestro of horns overtook the otherwise calm parkland. A row of cars was rolling up Appleton Street. Given the proximity to election day, a political caravana—a staple of politics on Puerto Rico imported to the mainland—seemed plausible. Then, the convoy pulled into the lot.
“It’s a wedding. I love it!” Duffy exclaimed. “It’s so much better!”
Duffy’s early forays into city politics included Tim Purington’s 2007 bid for Ward 4’s Council seat. Purington, who died in 2019, was the city’s first openly-gay elected. Another pivotal campaign was a referendum on privatizing city wastewater services. Duffy’s side opposing privatization won, but the question was nonbinding. Then-Mayor Michael Sullivan contracted the service out anyway.
“That campaign really attracted the breadth of Holyoke,” she noted.
Sullivan chose a good vender to run the plant Duffy said, but she worries what will happen when the contract expires.
She later became involved with Nueva Esperanza, a non-profit in the city where she met Carlos Vega a community activist and Representative Vega’s father. Years on, the younger Vega ran for City Council and state rep, finding an ally in Duffy.
In the Beforetimes, when House sessions were not potential disease vectors, she and Vega rode into Boston together. On the way, they divvied up meetings and priorities in the building. Votes would usually conclude before 7pm. Only during the lengthy budget votes would she need to stay overnight with her sister in Quincy.
Aside from bitterest of contests, the outgoing and incoming officials must exchange a baton of issues. That is especially true in the 5th Hampden. Vega was a key player in the passage of the Student Opportunity Act. The novel coronavirus squelched hopes of fully funding the bill this year, but advocates are not giving up.
“I do have an advantage there,” she asserted. “We’ve got the team in place [at the State House] that got the low-income funding into the bill.”
The Soldiers Homes looms particularly large, however. Given the outbreak there—during which 76 residents died—it will feature hugely in the next legislative term. Vega is already on a committee assembling a legislative response and as his aide, Duffy is working on that, too.
However, Duffy offers some perspective of time having worked with two different Home superintendents. Paul Barabani, who took office in 2011, provided feedback and responsiveness. Without condemning Bennett Walsh, who took over in 2016, she said the experience with his administration was not the same. Meanwhile longstanding problems festered.
It “has laid bare issues that a lot of us have been worried about for a while,” she said. Earlier this millennium, Duffy worked for the unions at the Soldiers’ Home after becoming involved with UMass-Amherst’s unions in grad school. That adds, she argues, to her preparedness for this job.
Broadly speaking, Duffy is also thinking about infrastructure in Holyoke. Sitting on the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority board, she has seen both the potential and the need. For example, South Holyoke has several vacant lots and potential for housing. While legally independent, the HRA works closely with the city’s Planning Department. One major initiative involves preparing utilities should funds materialize to build on those lots.
All candidates for the 5th Hampden have spotlighted transportation. Duffy admitted to being less than enthusiastic about raising the gas tax, as the House has proposed. It would hit people who make less money, especially hourly employees, she said. Duffy does want to see more investment in electric buses and public transit so that car ownership becomes less essential.
Ironically, the coronavirus has given her some hope about another transportation initiative. Amtrak runs the Valley Flyer, a Springfield to Greenfield train, to connect with services to New York. Its timing is not conducive to intra-Valley travel. While frequency is a major reason, Amtrak has not been helpful either. Since ridership plummeted due to the virus, Duffy said, the railroad has been more open to different schedules. That could lay the groundwork for more regular service along the line, which include a stop in Holyoke.
Although she is not the incumbent, Duffy has received criticism as if she is. At a recent forum, Beaudry gently jabbed her as a status quo candidate. Bartley has been more overt, often trashing Vega and tarring Duffy with her boss’s (vague) list of alleged failures.
One hobbyhorse of Bartley’s is the debt exclusion to build two new schools voters rejected last year. Both Beaudry and Duffy supported it. Bartley did not and he has tried to staple the question’s failure to his opponents’ foreheads.
Speaking to WMP&I, Duffy did not shy away from her support.
“I was a yes, but it was a big wake up call,” she said. Longtime allies of hers had been on the other side and she has spoken about how genuine concerns about housing insecurity played into the debate. (The debt would have been financed with a real estate surcharge).
However, Duffy also said she found hope in the new resolve to build one new middle school among those who had been opponents only last year.
Duffy returns to this theme often. There is always more lemonade one can make from the lemons of circumstance. The crises the city, commonwealth and nation face, whether COVID-19 or the recent unrest over the death of black and brown citizens can be a chance for something better.
“Hard and tragic as it is, I think it is an opportunity and I feel like we can’t blow it,” she said.