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Glidden Wants to Hear Holyoke out—and Bring It Together…

Billy Glidden

You’ve heard me out. Let me hear you out. Glidden at his kickoff in April. (WMP&I)

HOLYOKE—Few, if still too few, political candidates run on explicit calls for division. Even those that are effectively slicing and dicing society pay lip service to unity. The field of candidates for mayor here are no different. However, there is one candidate for whom it is truly central. It anchors the attitude and direction of both his campaign and the mayor’s office he would run.

At 29, William Glidden—but you don’t really know him if you don’t know him as Billy—did not expect to run for mayor. That Alex Morse would announce his retirement last year was no shock, but that Glidden a former Morse aide, decided to run was a tad surprising. Considering his life and its foundation in Holyoke, perhaps it should seem natural and Glidden thinks his approach is what the city needs.

“My conviction has deepened, that there is a transcendent common humanity that that we share, and that and that our politics should be speaking to,” Glidden said. He chose to run “because I understood that the future we want in Holyoke can only be built together and by incorporating the ideas and the passions and the perspectives of people in every neighborhood, and regardless of their longevity in the city.”

On Tuesday, Holyoke will make the first of two decisions as is prepares to elect its first new mayor in a decade. Glidden is one of seven in the field, which includes councilors, School Committee members and educators.

Glidden expresses a specific desire to move past needless fights and division that has swamped Holyoke for years. He saw many of them up close. He served as an aide to Morse for a few years after college. But even as he still counts the former mayor as a friend, he admits distance. He counts both critics and the Morse-indifferent among his supporters. That crossover appeal is a factor for some.

Holyoke City Hall

Glidden eyes to return to the corner office, but with a promotion. (WMP&I)

Mimi Panitch, who serves on the Planning Board, said Glidden certain shares many of her beliefs. Yet, she was attracted to the scope of his support across the city and his interest in consensus.

“The critical thing about Billy is, he’s an old-fashioned American pragmatist,” she said. “Yes, he has values, and he holds them very deeply. But beneath all the values, there’s a guy who just wants his city to work, and who’s willing to put the time into figuring out how it can.”

On a recent Sunday, Glidden, fresh from morning mass at St. Jerome’s, spoke to WMP&I about his life, outlook and positions. Though one cannot (sacrilegiously?) fling a rosary here without hitting a Catholic, Glidden comfortably draws his beliefs into conversation. Glidden is a Francis guy who can debate the classics and pens his thoughts often. When it comes to the civic arena, he puts a premium on the impact on real people.

Holyoke has its legacies of errors and inequities that fell hardest on certain populations. The mayor is not a community organizer per se, Glidden said. However, mayoral decisions should have sympathy and appreciation for history.

“And are you going to have a mayor who is fundamentally sympathetic? Or somebody who’s gonna shut the door on that kind of deliberation?” Glidden said.

Glidden is not the only mayoral candidate with Holyoke Canal water running through his or her veins. However, he has highlighted specifics of his biography during the campaign.

The Glidden household was intergenerational. Born in Holyoke, the candidate considers himself raised by both his parents and his grandmother, who once taught at Holyoke Catholic. His father was fixture of the community. As Glidden prepared to go off to Williams College, his father became ill. He died days before a big party at the Boys & Girls club. Glidden thinks back to giving a eulogy for his father before a packed church as a key threshold in his life.

“I have many memories of riding around in the car with him, and he’s pointing to the various baseball fields in town where he played and became a legend, he would say,” Glidden said, his voice a bit lower than his usual chill tone, like a trusted wingman.

Within months, his grandmother slipped into a coma. She came out of it, but passed away a year or so later. Glidden discovered a picture of himself amid prayer cards in a desk of hers. He surmised she was praying for him after what he had been through.

Glidden is careful to note other have faced far worse tragedies, but he says his experience is formative and underpins his campaign.

“I think with my with them two,” he said of his father and grandmother, “it’s the rootedness in the community, but it’s also a sense of the fragility of life and the preciousness of our time together.”

Holyoke debate

The candidates at a Holyoke Chamber of Commerce/Taxpayers Associate Debate. (still via Holyoke Chamber/Taxpayers & Holyoke Media)

Nobody has really attacked Glidden as a sophist. However, a question at a recent candidate forum asked how he would handle practical elements of being mayor, not just the feel-good stuff. Glidden almost bridled at the implication he had not addressed the office’s nuts and bolts. He pointed to his work with Community Access, a New York-based nonprofit at which he worked before returning home to run for mayor.

After the event, he put out an open letter that challenged fellow candidate Joshua Garcia’s claim that Holyoke was on the brink of receivership. He cited outside analysts reports that said finances were sound, but called for a consolidation of fiscal functions, which Glidden supports.

“Now, management’s important. Of course, it is,” Glidden told WMP&I. “But it’s important to be clear the nobody on that stage on Thursday night has ever managed the city of Holyoke, or anything comparable if we’re being honest about that.”

Glidden is confident in his own ability to manage. However, he does not appear to dismiss concerns that the next mayor should be more seasoned. Rather, he has highlighted his time in New York. Community Access is one of that city’s oldest nonprofits focused on the intersection of mental health and homelessness.

Jon Curtis, the former Communications Director at Community Access supervised Glidden through the latter’s time there. He said Glidden was especially valuable because he showed a willingness to learn and adapt. That is not given in the nonprofit space, where people may have a “fixed notion” about how things should happen.

Although Glidden’s old neighborhood in New York dwarfs Springfield in population, let alone Holyoke, all three communities face similar problems. At Community Access, he worked on efforts to retrain police there to better prepare them to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“If he’s talking about an issue, you can be confident he has put the hours in to learn about that issue,” Curtis said of Glidden.

Glidden’s role in communications and fundraising included telling the stories of the nonprofit’s clients. Phyll Fisher was one of them. She recalled working with Glidden to produce a video about Community Access’ purpose and impact.

Fisher found Glidden to have the right touch and helped her open up about her experience. She was struck by his sincerity and interest.

Lower Manhattan

Billy Glidden: the New York years… (WMP&I)

“His demeanor, his caring and his compassion made it very easy to let me to the things that I wanted to do,” Fisher said. They stayed in touch and she was pleased she heard of his bid for mayor.

“Either for somebody working for an agency like Community Access or running for mayor,” she continued. “It’s can’t just be a job. You really have to care.”

There will be a lot of care about in Holyoke. In addition to how to administer the city’s finances, there are big questions about development, schools and reaching out to the city’s minority communities. Glidden said he would embrace the mayor’s role as chair of the School Committee and seek out benchmarks to exit receivership.

Regarding engagement with Holyoke’s Latino community that Morse had begun, Glidden, paraphrasing Cornel West, said minorities must be seen as constituent elements of society. The challenge is how to ensure historically disenfranchised persons become enfranchised and continue to have access.

Glidden said he would have racially diverse appointments, but would look at economic diversity, too.

“People who are like living in poverty right now or who don’t have a high school diploma, or didn’t get to go to college,” he said. That, Glidden said, ties back to having a mayor who is thinking about and is conscious of the impact of such voices and the impact of their absence.

But will voters give Glidden a thumbs up? (via Twitter/@BillyGlidden)

As the campaign moves into its final hours, Glidden is all in. Since forming a campaign committee in February, he has been among the leaders in fundraising. Glidden is on both WWLP and WGGB/WSHM. Only rivals Rebecca Lisi and Michael Sullivan come close to Glidden’s Facebook ad buys. Lisi is the only candidate matching Glidden for ad variety.

In theory, Glidden has the hometown ties and positive reputation that wins mayoral campaigns here. Plus, he can tell the city a story, which he knows has elected mayors before. Whether that comes through as the coronavirus still casts a pall, however slowly receding, is another matter.

Glidden said the point was to make a difference.

“I come into this process, with goodwill, and a genuine desire to be helpful. That was my aim,” he said. “Helpful” was making life a little better and make them feel like “they’re part of something true and good and beautiful” as a city.

“And I’m only human, I will make mistakes. But I will try every day to go through life with integrity and honesty and compassion,” Glidden said.