Campaigning to Find the Holyoke Sixth Ward Sense…
UPDATED 7/14/17 9:06PM: For grammar & clarity.
HOLYOKE—A game of musical chairs—and mayoral ambition—left three of the Paper City’s ward seats on the City Council open(ish) in 2015. Spirited contests to fill them followed. That was on top of a massive at-large field for eight seats elected citywide. This year, much of the action in Holyoke will be at-large. Even there, the attention will be on who gets the boot as the body drops two at-large seats.
Only one incumbent ward councilor, Kevin Jourdain, is moving on. The faceoff between Juan Anderson-Burgos and James Brunault will be fought on the city’s scarred, cloven political battlefield. And yet, shifting political winds could just as easily make the race about more prosaic, if salient issues rather than political tribalism.
While Holyoke has defined neighborhoods, they do not stand out—or breed the same territorialism—as they do in the region’s metropolis downriver. But Ward 6 has its defining features.
Mayor Alex Morse, who grew up in the ward, said it is community of homeowners, and holds a big annual block party. But the ward also features several businesses along the Route 5 corridor. The ward’s needs reflect that.
“People expect someone who is responsive to their concerns about traffic and city parks,” Morse said.
That suggests residents here are not interested in the city’s divisions. Nevertheless, elements of this race will wink at the tired appellations like New and Old Holyoke.
Take the candidates’ kickoffs. Both were inviting if subdued affairs.
Anderson-Burgos held his at his home on a quiet, leafy street not far from Holyoke Hospital last month. A pop-up tent in the backyard shaded those listening to the candidate’s speech. Later, Anderson-Burgos and his husband urged attendees to partake in the spread of snacks and baked goods laid out just inside the house. It was a near-suburban ideal in what is otherwise one of the commonwealth’s poorest cities.
Were Anderson-Burgos to win, he would become the Council’s third LGBT member. While he is Latino, his election would not shift that element of the Council as at-large councilor Diosdado Lopez, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, is not expected to seek a full-term.
Meanwhile, across the ward, Brunault held his kickoff at Nick’s Nest, an independent fast food joint on Route 5. Surrounded by a few family members and supporters, he was working on setting up the sound system as supporters and passersby milled around. There’s nothing especially factional about hot dogs and ice cream, though the outlet has its own connections to the old guard.
Brunault also mirrors Jourdain in some ways, if broadly speaking. The former would be more consistent with the retiring incumbent, fitting in with the city’s old Caucasian-Catholic axis whose rule over Holyoke was once uncontested. Indeed, Jourdain announced his retirement early to give other candidates—Anderson-Burgos was already running—a chance to jump into the race.
And yet, these differences are fairly superficial. After all, both men have deep ties to the city and have been active in its affairs for a while.
Of course, neither talked about the divisions in interviews.
“I’m all about having sincere conversations no matter what a person’s ideology is,” Anderson-Burgos said in a follow-up Facebook message when asked about his strategy. A relationship banker at Citizens, he added that he was comfortable talking to anybody, regardless of their ideology.
With its many traffic islands, Ward 6 has seen an uptick in panhandling. Councilors have struggled to address the issue. They have sometimes lapsed into dehumanizing commentary or shuffled toward unconstitutional solutions.
“There seems to be a lot of judging,” Anderson-Burgos told WMassP&I at his kickoff. While he acknowledged that there needed to be some action, he said it had to be paired with compassion and understanding. “I don’t think these people woke up and decided they wanted to be panhandling,” he said.
Brunault, in an interview at Nick’s Nest, observed that Ward 6 hosted a lot of diversity reaching from downtown to Jarvis Heights. That spectrum of urban space means a range of needs. He said he wanted more of the city’s Community Development Block Grant go to the ward and foreclosures addressed.
A vocational counselor at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Brunault also said Holyoke needed to more aggressively market itself to attract employers. He related a conversation with a Connecticut employer that created jobs in Framingham. Asked why they went there, the employer replied, “Because they asked us.”
If factions are less relevant and issues remain difficult to break through, working the vote may be more determinative in Ward 6.
With about 5600 residents according to state figures, not all of whom are voters, meeting every Ward 6 voter is doable for both candidates.
Both were candidates in 2015, Anderson-Burgos against Jourdain and Brunault ran at-large. Brunault placed 10th in the eight-seat race with a little over 2800 votes. As different races, the comparison is fuzzy. Yet, Anderson-Burgos won 710 votes in Ward 6 to Brunault 454, per results posted to the City Clerk’s website. The former’s showing was impressive given that Jourdain, who was shifting to a ward seat from at-large, had been on the Council for two decades.
“Meet as many people as possible,” Brunault said of his strategy this year. He noted that he met 3000 people in 2015, which was close to his final count that year.
Morse, who is supporting Anderson-Burgos, observed Anderson-Burgos, “came close against a long term councilor” and was one of the “hardest working candidates we had in the city” in 2015. The candidate himself attributed it to a fearlessness of approaching even voters with his opponent’s signs.
Morse declined to comment on Brunault.
Still, how the typical battle lines play out is an X-factor. Morse still drums up strong feelings. He faces reelection this year, too, just as Holyoke transitions to four-year mayoral terms.
At the same time, the mayor’s likeliest challenger in November is former Councilor Jason Ferreira. He has not stoked as much anti-Morse hysteria typical of the last few cycles. That may blur the lines down ballot, too. Alternatively, voters may actually prefer candidates speak to the issues in 2017 after years of Holyoke’s political classes firing barbs at each other.