After 8 Month Trial, a Full Term and a Full Plate for Velis…
This is the third in a series of posts on the new 189th Massachusetts General Court sworn in January 7.
WESTFIELD—When John Velis first became the 4th Hampden’s representative, it was too late to file items for the budget himself, let alone legislation that could escape the labyrinthine committee process. Velis, sworn in mid-April last year, needed colleagues to submit amendments on his behalf. Another election was just around the corner, too.
Now, at the beginning of his first full term representing the Westfield-only district, Velis has laid out an agenda that conforms to his brand and addresses issues of concern throughout the commonwealth. Moreover, Velis does not face election for nearly two years (when presidential turnout in the Whip City will work in his favor) allowing him some breathing room to get work done on Beacon Hill.
Being a JAG officer in the Army Reserve, veterans issues are paramount, but Velis also spoke passionately about the problem with opiate abuse.
“This is a public health crisis,” he said, his already piercing blue-eyed gaze growing a bit more intense.
During an interview at the Tavern restaurant as Brian Sullivan’s mayoral kickoff began to quiet down, Velis discussed his legislative priorities and the balancing act reps from the 413 face.
Velis acknowledged that some matters are unlikely to gain traction very soon. While local aide will not be cut (and indeed were spared by Baker’s deficit plan that the legislature passed last week), a hike is not imminent either.
“As much as I’d like to see increases,” he said, “we are a few years off” from that.
Gregarious and outgoing, Velis is making an impact out east as well. Rep. Garrett Bradley who is floor leader where Velis sits in the House chamber, was impressed by the questions and energy the Westfield Democrat brought to a training leadership held for new reps in Amherst.
“His district will be well-served,” Bradley said.
The broad array of bills Velis has sponsored might bolster that assessment.
One would make it a crime for an individual to profit by misrepresenting their service as a veteran. The US Supreme Court struck down a federal law that outlawed the impersonation itself, but it remains possible to hold individuals accountable for trying to profit from such fraud.
Another bill would stiffen penalties for crimes against the elderly and disabled. While the thrust of the bill appears to protect the elderly, Velis highlighted its application to the physically and mentally disabled with whom he worked as a member of Westfield’s Disability Commission.
While how much will actually get through the legislature is anybody’s guess, the range of Velis’s agenda seems quite broad and noteworthy for a very junior rep.
When he became the first Democrat from this mildly red-tinted district in 35 years, both the legislative and electoral calendars limited Velis. His challenger in the special, Republican Dan Allie, committed to running in last November’s election too, thrusting Velis back into campaign mode almost immediately.
With only three and a half months left to the legislative session, Velis spent a lot of time avoiding political landmines that Allie could exploit in a year when ticket-topper Baker, a Republican, was almost assured to carry Westfield.
With the help of Reps like Hank Naughton who introduced amendments on Velis’s behalf before actually getting sworn in, Velis was able add items for Westfield during the budget debate.
In 2016, the Democratic presidential nominee is likely to carry Westfield amid higher turnout, thus Velis has a cushion. Yet, Westfield voters often emphasize personal over party anyway, despite the city’s reputation as a conservative bastion. Pols like Velis do track to the center, but a communitarian reputation matters more.
Representing only one community, Velis could and did sell hometown pride on the stump. Velis appears at countless events, regularly calls Bingo and coaches youth basketball at the Boys & Girls club.
In Boston he has developed a rapport with colleagues like Bradley, Naughton and Speaker Robert DeLeo that has helped Velis deliver for his district. For example, after the vote to end term limits, Velis told Masslive that he appreciated DeLeo’s visits to Western Mass and his attentiveness to the region’s issues.
Velis has been supportive of efforts to extend rail service to Western Massachusetts as a means to encourage the state’s overall economy to spread from Boston to the West.
But the opiate crisis could prove the greatest opportunity for collaboration in the short term. It has brought together Everybody from labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman to Gov. Baker.
Securing funding amid tight budgets may be difficult, but Velis was optimistic. Despite the deficit, the state was a good and economic shape and boasts one of the largest rainy day funds in the country. The states with better ones are oil states, Velis added.
Other efforts to tackle opiates may need little money. He expressed support for Attorney General Maura Healey’s opiate task force and Senator Eric Lesser’s bill to monitor and control how pharmacies are dispensing painkillers.
“Are we at the point in time when we monitor how or when doctor prescribe?” Velis said. Perhaps, he continued, officials need to “nip it in the bud by codifying when we prescribe.”
Velis’s role in the legislative process will vary depending on his committee assignments. Delayed partly by Boston’s epic snowstorms, appointments are not out yet, but his colleagues expect Velis to play a role wherever he is assigned.
Noting that Velis attends informal sessions (where typically only uncontroversial measures are discussed) and is attentive during formal sessions, Rep Bradley predicted, “He’s going to be active in the committees,” whichever they will be.
That type of presence in Boston bodes well for both Velis and by extension for Westfield and to Velis, that is the point. Being ubiquitous in Westfield is not enough to adequately represent it.
“It is all about relationship building,” on Beacon Hill, Velis said. “We need to have our ins with Eastern Mass.”