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From Westfield to Beacon Hill, Velis Knows How to Play Ball…

UPDATED 11/23/15 5:23PM: Gov. Baker has signed Velis’ bill into law.

Still riding high.(WMassP&I)

Still riding high. Velis in 2014. (WMassP&I)

WESTFIELD—The dreary, rainy fall night enveloping a former auto dealership along Route 20 belied the party inside. Bright arc lights flooded the service bays, now filled with the Shortstop Bar & Grille’s batting cages. It was the perfect backdrop for an out-of-town baseball fan like Robert DeLeo to relax, meet new friends and throw the full weight of the Massachusetts Speaker of the House’s office behind local rep John Velis.

The timing of DeLeo’s visit West could not have been better for the Whip City Democrat. Hours before, the State Senate unanimously approved his Stolen Valor Act, sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill, which outlaws false representation of military service to obtain a job, had been the North Star of Velis’ veterans agenda for a year and it did what few other bills can: make it through Beacon Hill.

“This young man is a rising star in the House of Representatives,” DeLeo announced to the packed room.

This was hardly the first time DeLeo has come West for his members. Both of Springfield’s new reps, Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Tosado, have had fundraisers with the speaker as have longer-serving members. However, DeLeo’s embrace of Velis has been key to the younger rep’s success in the House and solidifying his place here.

The event drew electeds from across the region, but city pols and residents, including successful and unsuccessful aspirants in Westfield’s recent election dominated. From Democratic Sullivans to Republican Knapiks, the crowd even included Velis’ two-time rival, Councilor Dan Allie.

Westfield had long gotten a reputation as a red city, but it is more complex. Democratic presidents have reliably won the city since Dukakis, while the city has proven more mercurial in gubernatorial elections and (usually) voted Republican for the legislature.

Speaker Robert DeLeo (via Twitter/@speakerdeleo)

Velis has thrived electorally in this purplish environment, making him a priority for state political leaders like DeLeo. Thus the speaker has eagerly helped bolster Velis from the beginning.

In his formal remarks, Velis recalled meeting DeLeo during budget week—the same week Velis was sworn in.

“I proceeded to tell him what we needed,” Velis said. “And we got it!”

Velis is not the only rep to get help with the budget, but as with his actions, DeLeo’s comments seemed to go further. “I’m so pleased, excited and honored that he is our colleague,” DeLeo told the crowd.

In an interview with WMassP&I, DeLeo acknowledged an affection for Velis, 36, who reminded the speaker of himself as a new rep. DeLeo said Velis “doesn’t forget where he came from,” something pols like DeLeo, who rose up through Winthrop politics, prize.

One of Velis' Friendly Confines. (WMassP&I)

Just one of Velis’ Friendly Confines. (WMassP&I)

DeLeo also noted that Velis balances district needs against the recognition that what he votes on “affects all the people of the commonwealth and he takes that very seriously.”

Bills like the Stolen Valor Act may seem like “no, duh!” legislation, but they face the same labyrinthine process few proposed laws can sidestep. Countless other no-brainer bills die slow, quiet deaths.

Velis credits veterans who lobbied hard for his bill first and foremost, but it also seems undeniable that his relationship with House leadership—and the Senate’s new clutch of up-and-comers—helped steer his bill clear of the dustbin. Velis told the crowd that Baker’s advisers signaled the governor will likely sign the bill.

Speaking to WMassP&I, Velis said he is now focusing on the opiate epidemic echoing comments he has made in past interviews. Though he likes much of the governor’s opiate proposal, he said there is a lot to review before either he or the House signs on. The Senate passed its opiate legislation last month.

Unlike the Stolen Valor Act, which was simple, but both symbolically and substantively impactful, Velis said legislation to address opioids must be “holistic” and “global.” A sprawling law that cuts across public health, law enforcement, appropriations and regulation is needed to match the scale of the problem.

Then it has to be designed and implemented fairly across the commonwealth.

“We have to make sure those funding components are allocated equitably” among Massachusetts’s regions. “That’s the foremost priority.”

Rep. John Velis (via Facebook/Velis campaign)

As Velis charged through the details of the opiate bill at an almost frenetic pace, it was easy to see how he won over Beacon Hill leadership, just like he won over Westfield voters. Velis pairs his obvious energy and drive with that artful gait necessary in politics in order to overcome inertia.

In his speech, Velis—a high school sports star himself—said he considered the speaker’s love of American’s pastime when selecting the Shortstop for the fundraiser and urged him to return next summer when Westfield will host a national youth World Series.

“I just like him!” DeLeo told WMassP&I with a big smile.

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