Mediator in Afghanistan, Attorney Runs to Be Negotiator on Beacon Hill…
The story of a veteran running for office is a common one in American politics, but often one based on little more than hagiography of service to one’s country. Too rare are the actual skills and experiences from that service offered as a qualification in itself. John Velis, the Democrat in the 4th Hampden special election appears to be doing just that.
In the last gasps of the 2013, the dates were announced to fill the Westfield-only rep seat vacated by now State Senator Don Humason. Velis, an attorney in Westfield, had announced his campaign for rep before the special election for Senate that Humason won intending to run whether in a special or against Humason this November. As Humason won, Velis turned his attention to the special.
The primary is scheduled for March 4. The general will be April 1.
A lifelong resident of the Whip City, Velis has been an attorney since graduating from Suffolk Law in 2008. However, for much of 2013, he was applying his negotiation skills in a very different place, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. He joined the reserves after graduation and got called up to serve in what has become America’s longest war in the JAG unit.
“My main task was Law & Order and the Rule of Law,” Velis explained. Zabul, described by Velis as a “highly kinetic and volatile province,” lacked a real justice system and it was up to him and his team to develop judicial institutions agreeable to the government, local tribes and possible, Taliban elements. Defendants would often get railroaded by prosecutors, furthering distrust between local and national officials. Velis and his team sought to help build a system both sides could trust.
It is these skills of negotiation, sitting across the table from people with diametrically opposed points of view that the Westfield lawyer hopes to bring to Beacon Hill.
During an interview, Velis laughed a bit when asked about a friends Facebook comment suggesting he was destined to run for office. “John Velis had a serious transition from to high school to college” he said. He got more serious about his studies in college and law school. Nevertheless, he was thrilled with the response he had gotten from ex-classmates and people he got to know from in his hometown.
His law practice which he started after a brief stint in the Hampden County District Attorney’s office, is a general one. He handles domestic relations, real estate and worker’s compensation defense for municipalities. There is a little bit of criminal law, which affords the most opportunities for litigation, a favorite of Velis’s. “I’m a courtroom guy,” he said.
Velis, who’ll turn 35 this month, shows off an affection for Westfield both in word and deed. He serves on the Disability Commission and intends to remain on it during the campaign even though resigning might make it easier to raise money. He talks up the potential of Westfield’s downtown. Tall and armed with piercing blue eyes, he played basketball for Westfield High, his name appearing frequently in the sports section archives of The Republican, then The Springfield Union-News.
Velis got his start in campaigns during his freshman year in college at the University of South Florida volunteering for Senator John McCain in 2000. He’s worked on campaigns ever since including Shannon O’Brien’s 2002 gubernatorial bid and Kevin Sullivan’s bid for Governor’s Council.
Sullivan, a member of a prominent political family in Westfield that includes former mayor and current Massachusetts energy secretary Richard Sullivan, remembers Velis when the latter played basketball at Westfield High School, but did not know him that well. “He helped me out on my campaign for governor’s council,” Sullivan said at which time they found they had a lot of mutual friends. Sullivan said the race in or not will be a test of the city’s allegiance to the GOP, although it did vote for Obama in 2012 and consistently supported Democrat John Olver when he was in Congress.
Politics is in the Velis family too. Retired Superior Court Judge Peter Velis, who shares Velis’ practice, served in the legislature representing Westfield. A Republican, he was the first of long string of Republicans that have held Westfield’s rep seat ever since, according to Sullivan.
But the younger Velis, having worked for candidates of both parties labeled himself a Democrat, albeit a conservative one. “I view a lot of national Republicans, a lot of them are more interested in ideological politics as opposed to solving a problem,” he said. The current state of the national Republican party sent him over the edge.
As of the interview, Velis was still educating himself on the issues, meeting with teachers, police officers and civic leaders to ascertain what Westfield needs from Boston that it has otherwise not received.
“Westfield, for whatever reason, is not getting their fair share of the pie,” Velis claimed. However, he preferred to change it rather than find fault, “I am not going to speculate as to why that is the case.”
He rattled off a laundry list of things that Westfield’s various interests are eyeing like money for repairs to leaks in the Police Department, to pension reform to downtown improvements. Praising Mayor Dan Knapik for progress in the city’s center, Velis said a priority on Beacon Hill would be securing funding to continue those efforts.
Were Velis to win, however, it would be a coup for Democrats, which as Sullivan noted, have been locked out of the seat for decades. But he may have an edge given his biography, family history in town and bipartisan appeal among Republican with the help of relatives
“My family has roots in Westfileld going back 60 years,” he said noting that his grandfather owned restaurants and many remember his uncle. More than a few people react with a bit of shock of his entry into politics. “What do you want to do, you want to run for office?” Velis says is the reaction of many alluding to the low opinion lots of people have of politicians.
If there is an answer to that question, it may be that Velis wants to put his mediation skills from Afghanistan to use. “I think of these ideological purist folks, if something is not 100% in line with them,” they vote no, he says. For him, “It is not perfect or bust. If ABC is not perfect, then I get past that and look at DEF.” What is more important was whether he “was able to do some good things for Westfield.”
On the issues, Velis discussed services for veterans, transportation and even guns.
Velis would not commit to any of the particular revenue measures the legislature included in its transportation package earlier this year. However, the Westfield attorney did say the commonwealth has infrastructure including in Western Mass that is in dire need of repair, “Funding sources are needed. That’s as far as I’ll go on that.”
Massachusetts has not joined a small number of states that actually passed legislation in light of the Newtown massacre in 2012. However, legislation could come up for a vote this year. Velis said Westfield residents are wary of new gun law, which has had its own firearm tragedies. Massachusetts already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Of any Newtown-inspired legislation he might get behind, he hoped to find common ground on mental health
But aside from Westfield advocacy generally, what animated Velis most was working to maintain the excellent record the commonwealth has caring for those who served in uniform. Specifically, he cited the increasing ranks of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan whose needs often only become apparent with time. “A lot of it is day by day,” Velis said, “some of it has not manifested itself.”
Velis returned from Afghanistan last summer and it is easy to see why the issue has resonance beyond just being a veteran. One of the Afghans he worked with was later tortured and killed returning to Zabul province. Normally JAG’s are thought of as office workers, but Velis says that his mission required him to be interacting with Afghans on a regular basis and “exposed to everything that entails.”
“I did lose 3 friends on this deployment. You move on,” he said with wistful tone.
He waxed a bit philosophical about the war, “I did a diary from Afghanistan, I am firmly of the opinion we have forgotten the war” there. Measuring the efficacy of his and others’ efforts is hard to pin down because the US’s still-large footprint is holding so much together. The diary Velis referred to became a column he emailed to The Westfield News monthly. Showing off a sample of his campaign literature with a picture with his family and fiancée when he got back home. “I am glad to back to be back,” he said.
Velis had toyed with running for senate when Mike Knapik resigned, but ultimately decided there was not enough time between his return to the States and the election to get a campaign organized. He went back to his law practice on School Street, but never went back to practicing law full time.
After all he experienced overseas, Velis sought a different challenge. Since he turned his attention to less ambitious, but still tough campaign for State Rep, he says the response has been good. Democrats from across the city and region are visibly excited. Velis has drawn support from outside his party as well, which will be critical to win in a city that has picked GOP reps for longer than Velis has been alive.
“I have been very pleased with a lot of self-identified Republicans who have indicated support for me,” Velis said.
Still it could be a challenge. His likely opponent freshman at-large Councilor Dan Allie has his own baggage, but nevertheless touts activism that Westfield voters have traditional eaten up from its reps. Sullivan, the School Committee member, says that Democrats like he and his brothers, have succeeded because of the nonpartisan nature of municipal race. “Westfield is kind of unique in that once you put a partisan label, it changes the game.”
However, Sullivan also notes most Westfielders are independents who can and will look at the person and not just the party label. Velis may be one such candidate, “Past practice has not always been the case, but I think it will here.” Sullivan continued, “I think John will be a very solid candidate.”
Velis appears eager. The day of the interview, the Secretary of State announced the election dates. In neutral for a week between Humason’s win in November and now, Velis is itching to begin in earnest. “Post today, I’m 250 percent in campaign mode,” he said with a grin.