Suburbia’s 2nd Hampden Could Come Down to Service…
MONSON—Every seat in the stuffy auditorium near the center of town was filled. A few crowded along the walls or near the open side door bringing in some welcome cool air. Angry and concerned residents were there to learn what they could about their defective foundations.
The organizers did not directly traipse into politics even inadvertently. Still, the vapors of Election season were wafting into the historic town building. The last to speak were the area’s legislators, some facing varying degrees of electoral challenges. They reaffirmed their commitment to finding homeowners justice. Among them was Monson’s State Rep, Brian Ashe.
Ashe, a Democrat, will need towns like Monson to win reelection. He faces perhaps his stiffest challenge since his 2010 reelection in Republican Allison Werder. A political newcomer and former president of Masslive, she has thrown herself and her own money into one of the few competitive local races this November.
The 2nd Hampden House district including Hampden, Longmeadow, Monson and three quarters of East Longmeadow.
Although it constitutes less than half of the district, Longmeadow is its de facto anchor. Both Ashe and his Republican predecessors, Mary Rogeness and the late Iris Holland live/lived there as does Werder. Candidates from outside Longmeadow have had difficulty gaining traction in both primaries and general elections.
Once a paradigm of Republican suburbia, Longmeadow’s shifting sociopolitical dynamics gave Democrats an opening when Rogeness retired in 2008. Ashe became the 2nd Hampden’s first Democratic rep in nearly 40 years. Even if Ashe maintains his past advantage there, East Longmeadow and Hampden are far more Republican leaving Monson a critical backstop.
Despite her structural advantages, Werder does face countervailing political winds. Following Donald Trump’s election, districts like the 2nd Hampden—well-educated, wealthy and socially liberal—have recoiled from Republicans. Still, the governor’s race complicates those assumptions.
Voters may rule on more things more tangible than ideology.
It’s Too Late to Change Events
The September 17 forum came about amid growing awareness of the presence of pyrrhotite in concrete foundations.
At the foundation forum on September 17, Ashe joined his Republican colleagues in the neighboring 1st Hampden Seat, Todd Smola, and Senators Anne Gobi and Eric Lesser, both Democrats.
The foundation issue has already erupted in Connecticut where legislators have tried to assist those affected. It has predominately affected homes built over the last thirty years whose foundations include pyrrhotite which can cause the concrete to crumble.
Michelle Loglisci, a forum organizer here, called the discovery of defective concrete in the house she and her husband built, “heartbreaking.” It upended plans to pass the home on to their children.
“This was a whole new experience for me,” she said of seeking help from elected officials. She “had nowhere else to go.”
Loglisci broadly lauded the efforts of Ashe and Gobi, who represents Monson in the Senate.
“He was very responsive,” Loglisci said of Ashe.
Beacon Hill sources say Ashe and Smola filed legislation to form a commission to seek long term solutions for the issues. It eventually got into the House-Senate compromise budget. Ashe and Gobi were named its co-chairs Monday.
Gobi successfully pursued funds to pay for concrete tests for pyrrhotite, overcoming a gubernatorial veto with Ashe’s help.
In an interview, Gobi explained how pyrrhotite has infected homes throughout her district. Stretching between the fringes of the Springfield and Worcester metropolitan areas, Gobi’s district has a lot in common with the areas hard hit in Connecticut.
“We don’t get anything done in just one branch,” Gobi observed, pointing to Ashe’s work. Their aides are on constant contact even though their districts share only Monson. “He’s been a great ally, a great help,” she added.
Things Could Be So Different Now
Although the foundation forum was not political, successful challengers will inherit the issue. Both Werder and Smola’s Democratic opponent Tanya Neslusan were there.
In an email, Werder said she had heard about the foundation well before becoming a candidate.
“When elected, I am committed to elevating awareness of this crucial issue and getting a handle on how many homes this affects, so we can work across industries and state lines to find solutions,” Werder emailed.
Among the presenters were town officials and electeds from Connecticut who have been tackling the issue for a bit longer.
In Massachusetts, the response began when resident began calling officials. With so many homes at risk for pyrrhotite contamination, a constituent services approach to the issue will endure for some time.
Although a Democrat in a distinctly purple district, Ashe has hung on. Some attribute that to his responsiveness to issues big and small.
Pyrrhotite is not the first disaster to hit the 2nd Hampden. The June 2011 tornado hit Monson hard, devastating its historic center. Ashe became a key conduit to the state’s response.
The question is whether that will be enough this year.
Now You’re Not Satisfied?
In her email, Werder said she had constituent services had been “lacking” from Ashe.
“One way to improve constituent services in the District will be to open a local office at which in-person meetings can be held and requests and issues addressed and accommodated,” Werder wrote. She cited her East Longmeadow campaign office as an example and criticized Ashe for not having a local number on his page on the state legislature’s website.
In an interview, Ashe rejected Werder’s critique noting that a stationary office would do little good given the district’s expanse.
“We do office hours every month in each community,” Ashe said. “We go right to the people. I go to them I don’t force them to come to me.”
Although legislators have office budgets per se, they cover a broad range of costs. Most lawmakers dip into campaign funds to maintain an office. Others do not.
“We’re using our campaign money wisely and efficiently,” Ashe said, defending not using campaign funds for an office.
Werder has a campaign office. However, the Massachusetts GOP also uses it and federal campaign finance records indicate the party foots the bill. Were Werder to win, she would have to pay the rent.
As for a local number, Ashe said one existed, but it apparently disappeared when the legislature upgraded its website. Indeed, an archived version shows his 413 number.
You Will Always Wonder How
Personal connections loom large in the race. Two things have helped Werder compared to Ashe’s past challengers. Her children are still in Longmeadow schools, affording her opportunities to hobnob with other parents as other town pols have done. Ashe’s kids have since graduated.
Second, before her position at Masslive was eliminated, Werder developed politically useful relationships, particularly among women in business.
Yet, it’s not clear how far that will go. She has Governor Charlie Baker’s backing, but his coattails are short. In 2016, Baker’s support for Senator Lesser’s Republican challenger barely left a scratch.
Meanwhile, Ashe has one of a few competitive legislative races in the 413. Local Democratic luminaries can focus attention here.
This month at an East Longmeadow fundraiser, Lesser, Hampden Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi, his predecessor Mike Ashe, and Governor’s Councilor Mary Hurley pledged their resources to Ashe’s reelection.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than to help Brian Ashe,” Hurley, a former Springfield mayor said.
Cocchi, who worked with Ashe at the sheriff’s office, emphasized the importance of relationships on Beacon Hill.
“It’s great when you have the respect from your colleagues,” Cocchi said referring to Ashe.
For delivering the proof
That experience hook has become a key part of Ashe’s pitch. In addition, amid turnover in the House, he may be in line for a chairmanship next session.
Being there may prove more decisive though.
Turnout at the September 17 forum, including among pols, pleased Loglisci, the Monson organizer. Just showing up meant a lot.
During his remarks, Ashe, marveled at the turnout, too.
“When this meeting was getting set up nobody knew how many people would show up,” he said. A long path lay ahead, but, he and his colleagues were seeking a bipartisan response.
“This is about trying to make our constituents whole again,” he said.
Whether voters believe Ashe can may decide the race.