Edge of 2017: Chicopee…The Next Generation Now Arriving…
CHICOPEE—At first glance, Derek Dobosz may not cut a particularly intimidating figure. Somewhat reserved and unimposing, he could easily be mistaken for younger than his 21 years. Nonetheless, Dobosz has accomplished one of the more difficult things to do in politics—knock off an incumbent city councilor and on his first try.
Dobosz is just one of three young people elected to office in Chicopee this year. In January, Joel McAuliffe will join Dobosz on the Council while James Tanhauser, Jr. will take a seat on the School Committee. Although the march of time inevitably brings younger generations to office, Chicopee has been somewhat behind its neighbors. Following this month’s election results, that is no longer true.
“I like helping people I like making government better.” Dobosz said, explaining why he ran this year. “I felt I could a really good job representing my neighbors.”
In the last five years, all of Hampden County’s traditional urban centers, Holyoke, Springfield, West Springfield—even Westfield if you count Rep. John Velis’ 2014 election at age 34—have elected younger pols. Holyoke and West Springfield’s mayors were both under 30 when elected. Millennials have marched upon the Springfield City Council for eight years now.
Chicopee has elected young officials, too, but sparingly. Adam Lamontagne won the seat McAuliffe will take twice. Yet, his resignation and replacement with the man Lamontage dethroned in 2013, Dino Brunetti, left Chicopee with no young electeds.
McAuliffe and Dobosz won the Ward 1 and Ward 6 Council seats respectively. Tanhauser scored the Ward 1 seat on the Chicopee School Committee member.
“It’s very exciting,” McAuliffe said in a phone interview. “It’s an opportunity to address the future of the city of Chicopee in a positive way.”
Tanhauser, who turns 23 next month, said politics and government always held his interest. Inspired by a relative who had served as mayor, he ran for office, if unsuccessfully, right out of high school.
“It is important just for the new perspective,” he said of people his age running. Tanhauser indicated he and his peers were already influencing other policymakers. “They’re actually listening to the issues we brought forward in our campaign,” he said.
The 413’s second largest city, Chicopee and its disparate villages seemingly contrasts with its decidedly urban neighbors Holyoke and Springfield. It broke away from Springfield in 1848 to stymie its older sibling’s adoption of a city form of government. Springfield became a city anyway four years later. Chicopee itself, by then industrializing, caved to citification in 1890.
In fact, Chicopee developed a paradigmatic urban political culture, complete with pols and power brokers hanging on. Nor surprisingly, Dobosz, McAuliffe and Tanhauser all faced calls to hold off running this time around.
In that way, the three newcomers’ races—among the city’s few competitive contests in 2017—can be reduced to a generational shift. There are other similarities. The three have worked on campaigns, attended school together and share many of the same issues. That’s not the whole story, though.
During an interview at a Dunkin Donuts down the street from City Hall, Dobosz took pains to note differences.
Ward 1, denser and bit more liberal, sits at about the center of the city spreading out from Memorial Drive and into Willimansett. Wealthier and sprawling, Ward 6 encompasses Westover Air Reserve Base and much of eastern Chicopee.
While supportive of his now-colleagues ideas like McAuliffe’s municipal Internet proposal, the councilor-elect noted each ward had different needs.
“Ward 1 may not have the public safety concerns that Ward 6 has,” Dobosz said. He explained that concerns about crime around the Wal-Mart on Memorial Drive and truck stops off I-291 and turnpike.
It was concerns like these, and constituent services responsiveness, Dobosz said, that helped him topple incumbent Timothy McLellan.
Dobosz graduated from correction officer academy in May and works at the jail in Ludlow. There, he monitors a pod of pre-trial inmates, adding to experience he hopes to apply in office.
“I definitely learned that most people [inside the jail] aren’t bad people, he said. “Most people in my pod have just made mistakes.”
McAuliffe, too, is eyeing constituent services, but he clearly wants to have a Chicopee-wide impact. On the stump, he called for Chicopee’s municipal electric company to provide consumer Internet service. That, he argued could attract startups and keep the city affordable. Both, he said, were salient issues for his generation. Many Millennials have left the 413 for opportunities in Boston and New York.
Now State Senator Eric Lesser’s district director, McAuliffe previously served three years as an aide to Mayor Richard Kos, a portfolio that included press relations. Last year he hosted radio show about the presidential race with Joshua Clark, who became his campaign manager.
“For me, I have a lot of existing relationships from the time I spent in the city for that last three years,” McAuliffe said.
WMassP&I editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski was a frequent guest on McAuliffe’s show. Szafranski also worked in Chicopee City Hall during a period concurrent to McAuliffe’s time in the mayor’s office.
Millennials have been playing a long game here. Sources say McAuliffe and others have been whispering in Kos’s ear to involve more young people in city government. Still, Chicopee Millennials’ political success has been limited to Lamontagne.
Neither Kos’s office nor Chicopee City Council president John Vieau returned an email requesting comment on the election as of posting time.
Of the three, Tanhauser, a recent graduate of Western New England University, had the most unique situation going into Election Day. While Dobosz and McAuliffe faced incumbents—if nominally so in the latter’s case—Tanhauser made huge strides toward victory in September.
Tanhauser’s race featured the rare preliminary in Chicopee this year. Tanhauser came in first. The incumbent, Dana Cutter, sputtered into third place behind challenger Trina House-Labonte. That eliminated Cutter from the general.
In both phases of the race, the general included with Kos unopposed, Tanhauser said he knew turnout would be low. “It also showed who could turn their base out,” he said in a phone interview.
Both Tanhauser and McAuliffe have run for office twice before. The latter ran for School Committee at large in 2011 and 2013. He said that losing those races and getting a chance to cool off from electoral politics was helpful.
“I feel very grateful to have lost those campaigns,” he said. “I don’t know how many people would say that.” Those losses also set him up for his roles in Kos’s office and later Lesser’s.
Tanhauser sought an at-large city council seat in 2013 and then the Ward 1 School Committee seat. When asked what made him run headlong into another election, Tanhauser was blunt.
“It was honestly the school budget,” he said. The Schools faced a $3.2 million deficit this year and an even larger one last year. Protracted negotiations with teachers were also a factor.
Dobosz, meanwhile can claim bragging rights for winning his first race. The youngest of the bunch, he said that his age was never a liability. He knocked on every door and his mother time working at the Chicopee Trading Post for years helped amplify his message. Unfortunately, he conceded reaching his peers was difficult. Friends his age turned out, but beyond that, his electorate skewed much older.
Dobosz is no stranger to politics. Like McAuliffe, he campaigned heavily for Hampden Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi. But it’s never the same as being the candidate.
“It’s more nerve-wracking,” he said. The response canvassing voters is quite different. “Everybody wants to talk to the candidate,” he said, compared to volunteers on the doors.
Some hope that these victories could position more young people for city office as the current officials retire and move on. Additional younger candidate could emerge in the next round of elections either to fill open seats or challenge incumbents.
Filling the pipeline will also become increasingly relevant and critical as the city looks beyond this election. One day, after all, someone will be running to Kos and the city’s state Representative Joseph Wagner.