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A LaChapelle Mayoralty & a Mayors Presidency…or What Happens When Making Plans…

Nicole LaChapelle

LaChapelle in her corner (office) of the arena. (WMP&I)

EASTHAMPTON—Despite years of involvement with Democratic politics, it is no secret that the 2016 election was a turning point for Nicole LaChapelle. It prompted her, among many others, to seek office for the first time. Two reelections later, LaChapelle will not seek reelection as mayor here next year, although there is another presidential election before that. 

“I was out at the Brass Cat and one of the bartenders is like, ‘Hey, Trump can be president again. Does that mean you’re gonna run again?’” LaChapelle recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh Gosh, I can’t believe that we’re here.’” 

That said, she will not seek another term. It is time, she says, to let somebody else lead this city of 16,000. Plus, 2024 will be busy enough. In addition to seeing projects through, in January, LaChapelle took the helm of the Massachusetts Mayor’s Association, putting her in a prominent position to influence state policy for local government. 

Influence, or at least connections, are not new for LaChapelle. Her years of Democratic activism slotted her into both Democratic National Convention delegations and the Electoral College. She had a turn as state party Treasurer and raised money for statewide officeholders. While active in Easthampton civic life, running for office—nonpartisan office—was a major shift from these past lives. 

The six years of her tenure have had bumps. Good-faith critics, rightly or wrongly, claimed she sought to fix the nonbroken. The unhinged swung for the fences and tried (and failed) to recall her. Supporters credit her unflappability in the face of attacks, both fair and unfair.  

While LaChapelle’s electoral origin story dates to the 2016 election, she had outside encouragement. Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, a longtime affordable housing activist and now the chair of the town Democratic Committee, got to know LaChapelle as a Zoning Board of Appeals member. In early 2017, Brousseau-Pereira sent LaChapelle a text. 

“Have you thought about running for mayor?” Brousseau-Pereira said, recalling the message. She noted the now-mayor’s background in law and running an educational facility. 

“She’s just so freaking smart, too,” Brousseau-Pereira said of LaChapelle. “It wasn’t clear that anybody else was rising up to the top of the candidate pool.” 

The rest is history. 

Kim Driscoll

Driscoll and LaChapelle have been pals since before the former got her promotion to LG. (WMP&I)

Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll got to know LaChapelle as a colleague, that is, when Driscoll was still mayor of Salem. In addition to statewide settings, they visited each other’s cities to learn what worked and what did not. 

“What I really appreciate about Nicole is she’s always willing to share the success but also share with candor the things that didn’t go as planned,” Driscoll said. 

Speaking to WMP&I in her City Hall office looking out at Mt. Tom, still winter-dusted white, LaChapelle discussed her new role, her tenure and her political trajectory. Whether discussing the serious challenges she has faced or geeking out about municipal policy, she maintained her casual mien throughout, save for the occasional swig of the organic health beverage she packed for the interview.  

“It’s not something I planned,” she said when asked about transitioning from party activist to candidate. “But when I looked at my resume and I thought about what I had worked for and with and whom and, and my path to get to law school, it was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’d be a good mayor!’”  

It was a good time to lead Easthampton, too, she thought. “Like, you know what? This town is on the cusp of something.” 

That 2017 race featured an old versus new resident vibe, with LaChapelle in the latter camp despite living here for years. She drew on her political contacts and later effected a campaign reboot. She won. 

Nobody challenged her in 2019. In 2021, the first year Easthampton instituted four-year mayoral terms, she faced token opposition. 

What seems like clutter on her desk and her walls are reams of schedules and calendars to complete this plan or that grant application. Of course, now there is another brief in her remit: leading the statewide mayoral organization. 

LaChapelle became president of the Mayors Association at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual conference in January. Then-Northampton Mayor David Narkiewicz turned her on to the mayors association’s reach and resources. She joined policy committees and did a stint as interim president. 

LaChapelle with then-mayoral neighbors David Narkiewicz and Alex Morse. (WMP&I)

“One of the reasons why I really appreciate the mayors association is it’s not press-forward and it’s not headline-forward,” LaChapelle said. “It’s really nitty-gritty walking through policies and how they affect cities.” 

Both big picture and nitty-gritty will be on LaChapelle’s agenda as the Mayors Association head. While she considers unique needs of Easthampton, LaChapelle underscores she represents the dozens of mayors in the state, too. Politics remains at a minimum, save lobbying Beacon Hill on legislation. 

Still, there can be advantages for the 413. Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia is the region’s representative for the association. With a background in professional municipal administration, these groups are not new for him. He said it helps “tremendously” when the 413 holds top roles. 

“Anytime we can get Western Mass statewide organization representation is always a benefit,” Garcia said.  

That, he continued, ensures the staff understand the gaps among cities and how to address them. In LaChapelle’s case, this is not just about area code, but the ability to implement. 

“Having Nicole as president, not just being from Western Mass but the skills she brings, adds value,” he said. 

However, her mayoralty has had rocky points. Those who have clashed with her did not respond to requests for comment. Even boosters worried she had been too ambitious early on. A preview of this was an early spat over separation of powers. 

More recently, a choice for school superintendent fell apart, in part, due to patronizing comments from the selectee. (LaChapelle, as mayor, is one of seven school board members). That event prompted national media attention.

Last year LaChapelle, a staunch advocate of reproductive freedom, found herself vetoing regulations for pregnancy crisis centers. Such institutions, usually antichoice in nature, purport to offer advice but often discharge disinformation about reproductive health generally. 

City lawyers had warned the ordinance would do little more than invite expensive lawsuits. Councilors countered with assurances of legal defense from reproductive rights groups. 

Recalling the debate, LaChapelle held firm in her decision. The risk to the city was too great. However, her voice breaking, she recalled telling supporters that if they pick this fight, they should win it.  

US Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs keeps making waves, but issue here was the earlier (and still controversial) National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra decision. (WMP&I)

“Because all those kids and women are depending on you to make your political stand,” she said. “They don’t understand it has nothing to do with abortion, this is free speech versus free will and a constitutional level that has nothing to do with us.” 

The override vote would fail 5-3, one vote short. 

In a statement at the time, Reproductive Equity Now’s President Rebecca Hart Holder blasted the result as “indicative of how rampant anti-abortion misinformation and disinformation can be in our communities.” 

“Nicole is not someone who is going to fall apart when somebody doesn’t like her,” Brousseau-Pereira said. She had supported the mayor’s veto at the time. However, she noted that mayors in every community face difficult choices.  

“She has a really thick skin,” Brousseau-Pereira said of the mayor. 

While LaChapelle still revels in politics, she lit up discussing municipal minutiae and policy. While the pandemic was a massive challenge, in its aftermath the American Rescue Plan Act presented opportunities. 

ARPA funded not only upgrades for the child advocacy center, but also steps to improve cybersecurity and budgeting. City departments’ outward communications improved, and the city hired its first information technology director. 

“For us to be able to really push ahead on some of our infrastructure projects and not have to wait or hope for a grant was really fabulous,” LaChapelle said. “That was all ARPA money to put into these departments with the idea with a fiscal plan to not fall off the cliff at the end.” 

City Council President Homar Gomez praised her efforts, noting the impact on municipal services. 

“We can see it in the services that the city provides to residents such as expanding the health department and offering more social services [and] doing what is necessary to move Easthampton to a greener city and its priority to create affordable housing.” 

In addition to the lieutenant governor being a former mayoral colleague, LaChapelle has been a longtime ally of Governor Maura Healey. Yet, as mayor, she enjoyed a good relationship with Governor Charlie Baker as well. 

His administration showered Easthampton with grants and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito was always accessible. Nevertheless, LaChapelle is not the first to imply that it was a top-down situation. 

“Throwing shade on the past administration would be really difficult for me to do,” LaChapelle said. However, “It’s very different. I would say with the Healy-Driscoll administration, it’s a conversation.” 

Few places suggest such back-and-forth than the Municipal Empowerment Act. The governor’s office released statements of support, among them one from LaChapelle.  

The bill includes a host of revenue options, infrastructure spending and law changes, including to procurement, to assist municipalities. Many had been facing challenges before the pandemic, only to them balloon thereafter. Driscoll indicated LaChapelle’s input will matter as the bill moves through the legislature. 

“Nicole being the head of the mayor’s association, she’ll play a chief role in [recommending] what cities and towns need at this time,” the lieutenant governor said. 

Union Street Easthampton

Union Street is slated for a big reconstruction concurrent to new businesses opening up along the route. (via WWLP/City of Easthampton)

Housing is also a priority LaChapelle and the Healey-Driscoll administration share. Longtime observers note her emphasis on economic development and housing. 

Wendy Foxmyn, a longtime municipal official who has worked as a town administrator and regional planner, pointed to planning and economic development staffing choices LaChapelle has made. 

“She’s been a great leader,” Foxmyn said of development of old mill buildings here. “It’s not only about what [mayors] do, but who they bring in.” 

Brousseau-Pereira agreed and pointed to fresh development along Union Street. Among the additions have been a coworking space, which has attracted businesses.

“That’s the kind of stuff that is going to be here in a testament to [LaChapelle’s] tenacity after she’s not mayor anymore,” she said. 

That time approaches. LaChapelle has confirmed she will leave when her term ends. To stay would mean, among other things, addressing the next master plan. She credits former Mayor Michael Tautznik with moving the 2008 plan forward and his successor Karen Cadieux with early implementation.  

LaChapelle’s administration continued that work, tightening up city offices to get it done. Yet, it is time for somebody else to lead that next big planning move. 

“I see the next year, the next mayor, or the next steps of the city, is to regroup,” she said. 

A break seems reasonable. Concurrent to her mayoralty, there were personal events, too. Her father passed away, but she also welcomed her first grandchild.  

Still, LaChapelle is not closing the door on running for something else.  

US Capitol

Not saying no way…one day. (WMP&I)

“I do,” she said when asked if she saw herself as a candidate again, mindful of time. 

Despite Easthampton voting for then-Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse in the 2020 Democratic primary, legislative cartographers did not draw the city out of the 1st Congressional District. Such was not the fate of other like-voting municipalities. (LaChapelle had endorsed incumbent Richard Neal). 

LaChapelle would not challenge Neal. She looks forward to what his retaking the gavel at Ways & Means can do for the region. Nevertheless, as time passes, when the seat opens becomes less of an idle debate. 

Despite the institution’s infirmities, LaChapelle said Congress is among the last places “that can really swing a bat.” 

“If COVID taught me anything—like, don’t plan too far ahead,” she said, after verbally toying with a congressional campaign. “So, I honestly don’t know what I will do after December 31, 2025, and my mind is open.” 

If she is advising Easthampton to step back and take a breather when she leaves office, she is ready for the same. Despite her own zest for the job, eight years—after serving out her current term—she said, is a long time to have a thumb on the municipal scale.  

“The one thing I’m very resolute of is stepping away from city politics once and for all,” she said. “I had a great eight years and I say that because I know: this is my timeline.”