To Win His Seat, Candidates May Need to Be Like Mike (Knapik)…
BREAKING: State House News has source that puts special senate election Oct 8 (primary) & Nov 5 (general).
UPDATED 8/7/13 5:21PM: Maps from previous incarnations of 2nd Hampden & Hampshire District added; previous version of this story said Holyoke City Councilor Anthony Soto’s seat was at-large. His seat is actually from Ward 2; a quote incorrectly copied/pasted has been corrected; the mayor of Agawam is Richard, not Ed, Cohen .
Except for the Special Senate Election, Western Massachusetts looked like it could avoid the election-mania that has swept much of the state. Amidst a cascade of vacancies, triggered by death, scandal and resignations to take seats won in special elections, residents from Worcester to Boston have been gripped by endless voting. Municipal elections aside, the democratic mania seemed unlikely to infect the Bay State Occident.
Enter 18+ year incumbent Senator Michael Knapik and his bombshell resignation announcement to take a job at Westfield State University. Knapik was first elected to the State Senate from the district that includes Easthampton, Holyoke and Westfield in 1994. For four years prior to that Knapik was the State Representative from the Whip City.
The district has changed over time, but today it covers Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland, Westfield and four Chicopee precincts.
With Knapik’s departure, however, attention is now turning to who might succeed him. Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Galvin told WMassP&I that holding an election is up to the State Senate, but he expected the Senate would act. He said the Senate could happen even during an informal session during August, but he declined to comment on what a timeline might look like. Senate President Therese Murray’s office confirmed in news reports that they will hold an election.
Candidacies are already starting to materialize. Rep. Don Humason, who represents Westfield in the State House, has entered the race. Retiring Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik, confirming earlier rumors from sources, has also joined the fray. Humason, a former Knapik aide, seems unlikely to face opposition from within Westfield. The only plausible GOP rival from Westfield is the mayor, who is Knapik’s brother.
However, the field is far from set. Sources from throughout the district are looking at several potential candidates and there are many more to choose from. However, Knapik’s timing, whether intentional or not, has put Democrats who might try to grab the seat back after Knapik’s eighteen year rule do have some disadvantages. By contrast, Republicans, who only hold four State Senate seats, can ill-afford to lose Knapik’s seat for good.
Rep. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke) said he expected the primary for the special election to fall in November, possibly on election day for municipal races in the district’s cities. The general would likely be in late December, which matches special election timelines elsewhere in the commonwealth. That would save money for cities and town, Vega said in a phone interview, which is good, but also means some of the strongest candidates on the Democrats’ bench are tied up in contested municipal races.
Vega added that rumors of Knapik’s departure at the end of the term had been swirling in for months. The Holyoke Democrat said he was surprised to find Knapik leaving so soon, but he wished Knapik well. “The new job is a great opportunity,” he said That early departure, however, may give Republicans an edge. It could blunt voter outreach, which is Dems’ forte, by pushing the door-knocking season into winter while leaving Republicans’ structural advantages in place.
The parties’ history of success in the district is difficult to trace because its name has changed periodically (the state is one of very few that name rather than number districts). However, except recent additions like Agawam and sporadic swapping of towns south of Westfield, the district has consistently had an Easthampton-Holyoke-Westfield axis.
The tilt toward Republicans probably came with the added weight of the Hilltowns, but also a slow, but subtle shift in population over the last twenty years from Holyoke to Westfield. Whereas Holyoke is solidly Democratic, Westfield is far more divided with both parties claiming wins recently (Obama and Scott Brown both won the city in 2012).
There is a Democratic legacy here. Former State Treasurer and Romney Gubernatorial opponent Shannon O‘Brien, then of Easthampton, held the seat before Knapik and other Democrats held it before her.
But to win, Dems need to work hard. Vega said Democrats have, as last year’s elections proved, organizational muscle which gave Elizabeth Warren a tremendous edge in Holyoke and kept her losses in cities like Westfield to very low double digits. “Somebody with name recognition in different circles.” and “Somebody who can bring forth a real campaign,” can win, he said.
Tautznik, like O’Brien before him, could be that candidate, but so could somebody from the district’s Democratic heart, Holyoke. Sources have named Treasurer Jon Lumbra as a potential contender, but he has since disclaimed interest in the race.
Some, like Amy Rist, an Easthampton Democratic activist, may prefer a legislator. In an email she said, “I truly believe it should be someone with experience in the state house” impliedly as opposed to one without. She suggested Vega, despite being a freshman and/or John Scibak, who represent her town in the House.
Another Holyoke name mentioned by sources from across the district is Anthony Soto. A Latino City Council from Ward 2 in the Paper City, Soto has been rising in prominence as the city’s Democratic infrastructure has rebuilt itself over the last election cycle. Another name mentioned is Christopher Hopewell, a member of the Fire Commission.
Among Holyokers, The Republican named Lumbra, Vega and political aide Patrick Beaudry. Vega would only tell WMassP&I that he is weighing his options and talking to supporters. The Republican also reported that the mayors of Chicopee and Holyoke are not interested and focusing on their elections.
Sources tell WMassP&I things are certainly “buzzing” among Westfield Dems. The Republican named Brian Sullivan, an at-large City Councilor, but he is hardly the only potential Sullivan. The politically ubiquitous Sullivan family of Westfield includes School Committee Member, Kevin; Richard, a former mayor and Gov. Deval Patrick’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs; and Bo, a radio personality. Bo was the last Democrat to challenge Humason when the latter won the seat in 2002.
As divided at Westfield is, a base in the Whip City could be just as helpful as a strong Holyoke contender, siphoning off GOP support. Kevin Sullivan has money left over from his unsuccessful Governor’s Council bid and he family has close ties to District Attorney Mark Mastroianni and former Rep John Olver who used to represent the area in Washington.
If Brian Sullivan runs, having been certified for the November Council ballot per the city clerk, he would either need to withdraw or potentially show up on two ballots at once. Kevin, not up this year, would not need to. Richard Sullivan has been mentioned as a Lieutenant Governor candidate, but he has also made a commitment to Patrick to remain in his cabinet. But Knapik‘s surprise announcement may change that.
Sources in Agawam have said they do not expect any strong candidates from there. Some like Mayor Richard Cohen, former Mayor Susan Dawson and former State Representative Rosemary Sandlin could mount a challenge. Though Cohen and Dawson are committed to municipal races and Sandlin seems likely to sit out elections for now.
Vega also advised not to confuse Knapik’s string of unopposed races with an assumption of the seat’s solid Republican nature. Like Brian Lees, who represented part of Springfield for years, Knapik in Vega’s estimate, “was very bipartisan and good for Holyoke.” Indeed, Knapik’s last opponent in 2002 was Daniel Szostkiewicz, Holyoke’s one-time (and currently would-be) mayor. Knapik bested Szostkiewicz even in the ex-mayor’s city.
Another fact that belies Knapik’s rock solid support over the years is the substantial amount of blank votes cast in the year’s Knapik was opposed. In 2012, for example, nearly 20,000 voters chose nobody over choosing Knapik. While such numbers are unlikely in a special election, it underscores the potential for a Democratic candidate.
Vega suggests that Humason, who is slightly more conservative than his Senate counterpart, may not glean the same support from more liberal voters in Easthampton and Holyoke. This assumes Humason becomes the Republican nominee. To the untrained eye, Humason may appear indistinguishable from Knapik, but a more conservative candidate like Tea Party Rep Nick Boldyga, (R-Southwick) would offer a stark contrast.
But even if the Democrats prevailed, the seat would remain endangered at best. Republicans would almost certainly target it next year during a hotly contested gubernatorial contest, one without as charismatic a standard bearer as Deval Patrick.
Until the Senate acts to set the election, it is impossible to lay out all of the possibilities. A contested primary seems certain for the Democrats, but a Republican primary may not happen. Assuming Westfield Republicans steer clear, only Boldyga would have enough name recognition to mount a credible candidacy, but nobody has mentioned his name yet.
For now both sides are testing the waters, but should know no matter who wins, the battle will no doubt spill over into next year.