Focusing on “the Children,” O’Connell Sets the Stage for His Campaign…
HOLYOKE—With a banner blaring “a new direction” behind him, Francis “Fran” O’Connell offered a nostalgic appeal to a crowd of supporters and cited his business experience to undergird his case to elect him Holyoke’s chief executive. Although he touched on other issues in his remarks and in interviews, the emphasis on children and their education, suggested his campaign would lean heavily on the state takeover of the public schools here.
At the Monday night campaign kickoff, guests, who ranged from fervent backers to curious onlookers, reveled and listened to live music. O’Connell worked the room, shaking hands with attendees who congregated at the Yankee Pedlar, filling up a function room and spilling out onto its balcony.
“I grew up in a city that invested in its children,” O’Connell declared to the audience. “Every child in Holyoke deserve a chance to succeed.”
Attendees included the elder David Bartley, the former Massachusetts House Speaker and former Ward 4 Councilor Jason Ferreira. Countless candidates for City Council were on hand as well, some who support Morse and others who are neutral in the mayoral contest.
Due to his public persona—partly a consequence of his home healthcare company’s ubiquitous ads—and his deep pockets, O’Connell, a longtime city resident, has instantly became a top-tier candidate. Incumbent Alex Morse kicked off his reelection last month, shortly after Ward 2 Councilor Anthony Soto launched his bid for mayor.
Despite being heavily Latino today, turnout patterns still historically awarded municipal control to the longstanding, urban political establishment. Like in many cities, that power fell into decline, suffering a body blow when in 2011 Alex Morse, then 22, defeated well-liked, but somewhat vanilla one-term mayor Elaine Pluta.
The powers that were have sought a return ever since and the milieu of O’Connell’s kickoff suggest he may be trying to channel that crowd’s drive.
O’Connell’s own interest has been questioned, however. In an interview with The Republican’s Mike Plaisance, O’Connell seemed less than keen on running, but he told WMassP&I his full quotes were less ambivalent.
Rather, he had not yearned to be mayor but wanted the post now, because “my city is in trouble.” Still, he made a Freudian slip during remarks saying “Being the mayor of Holyoke is not the job I want,” before correcting himself to say it was the job he wanted, jokingly attributing the error to Plaisance’s story.
O’Connell promised a positive campaign, yet there were jabs. In his remarks, he charged that the enthusiasm of Morse administration’s “has not been matched by an effective economic development program.”
During an interview before addressing supporters, O’Connell highlighted economic development schools and public safety, taking issue directly or by implication with Morse’s stewardship in these areas.
Morse, in a statement to WMassP&I, did not directly respond to O’Connell, but defended his tenure. “I’m very happy with the work we’ve accomplished over the past three and a half years to get our city moving in the right direction,” the statement read. Acknowledging challenges remain, he continued, “but the progress on all fronts is undeniable, and the city is now benefiting from more positive recognition and investment than we’ve seen over the past decade.”
O’Connell seemed to put the takeover of city schools on the mayor, suggesting the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (ESE) action was a verdict on Morse’s Holyoke overall. As mayor, Morse is the chairman of the committee per the city charter, but one of 10 elected members. O’Connell acknowledged this, but insisted the body’s failings reflected a lack of leadership from Morse.
“I think the state noticed something,” O’Connell said.
Little in the lead up to the takeover clearly finds fault with Morse. A February report on the state of the schools did highlight poor relations between the School Committee and teachers, but it was one of many identified problems upon which ESE secretary Mitchell Chester recommended a takeover. A state board voted for his recommendation in April.
A spokesperson for the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education did not reply to an email requesting comment.
Holyoke Public Schools have been troubled for decades. They have been rated underperforming since 2003, the year Morse entered Holyoke High School. Moreover, Massachusetts law only allows state officials to intervene on the basis of data like test scores.
Asked if he had any insight as to whether the takeover was a verdict on Morse’s leadership of the city overall, O’Connell admitted, “This is speculation.”
O’Connell also found fault with economic policy, which he said had not resulted in concurrent increases in property values. But his critique focused more on a lack of business friendliness. He rasied the point in his formal remarks, too, saying City Hall needed to offer businesses better customer service.
“I know for a fact that Holyoke needs to increase its level of being business friendly,” he told WMassP&I.
But the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce has a different view. Robert Gilbert, who heads the chamber’s Government Affairs Subcommittee said in an email Tuesday the city’s economic development office and its leader, Marcos Marrero, a Morse appointee, “have worked hard to provide an atmosphere that encourages business to review what the city has to offer.”
“The city has freshened their website to entice a look at Holyoke,” he continued. “If we can get our commercial tax rate under control our collective efforts would bear more fruit.”
On Monday O’Connell had waved off the suggestion the chamber might be satisfied, saying he was not. Observers noted that some of his guests were owners of mom & pop stores and restaurants, rather than larger employers.
Morse is widely expected to advance beyond the preliminary and O’Connell would need to defeat Councilor Soto and whoever else files for the race by July 28. O’Connell has time to flesh out his platform, which still needs to gel in the coming weeks and months.
On public safety, O’Connell said he had been talking to residents and police officers, some of whom had ideas about how to approach the urban center’s decades-long struggle with crime. However, he declined to elaborate as to what those ideas were. “I’d rather not say at this time,” he said.