Analysis: A Late, Breezy Shift in Holyoke’s 1st Midterms…
Holyoke will experience its first “midterm” election in 2019. It may be easy forget as he is running for something, but Alex Morse is not on the ballot this year. The four-term mayor is halfway through his first four-year mayoral term. But the City Council and much of the School Committee remain on a two-year election cycle. Voters rejected doubling councilors’ term in 2015 even as they lengthened mayoral terms to four years.
There is some reason to think Holyoke will see less drama this cycle. It is not just the lack of a mayoral contest. A drama central to the last few elections will be missing: a high risk of incumbents losing. At-large Councilor Daniel Bresnahan has opted not to seek reelection. With an open seat for which newcomers can jockey, the at-large race will still get notice, but without the same gallows humor of recent elections.
That speculation was front and center in 2017. Holyoke was shrinking its Council to 13 members by cutting the at-large seats from eight to six. Rebecca Lisi, the body’s urban policy maven, barely hung on in 2015. Her supporters worried the seat reduction would favor candidates the city’s traditional power base backed. She made it, though, comfortably outpacing Bresnahan—or Breezy D to some—who placed sixth.
Bresnahan told Masslive he was retiring to spend more time with his children and because of self-imposed term limits.
The open seat at-large seat augurs in favor of incumbents’ survival. One of the challengers is a familiar face, however. Howard Greaney was one of the two incumbents eliminated in 2017—all eight incumbents had run for the six at-large seats that year. In cities like Holyoke, well-placing if unsuccessful candidates from the prior cycle often do well.
The battle for that at-large seat will come down to two considerations: who does well enough to get close to the six places in the winner circle and whether Greaney has the oomph to get there himself. There is no guarantee of the latter. Greaney himself turned in a weak performance two years ago, especially at an at-large debate at the Holyoke Senior Center.
The other at-large challengers include returning challenger Deborah Aloisi (2017) and Jordan Lemieux (2015), and newcomers Nelson Lopez, Israel Rivera, Wilmer Puello-Moto and Michelle Trousil. Incumbents seeking reelection are Lisi, James Leahy, Joe McGiverin, Michael Sullivan and Peter Tallman.
There is some ward competition, too. Ward 4 Councilor Jossie Valentin is retiring to focus on her gig as Massachusetts Director for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid. Valentin has endorsed Libby Hernandez. Masslive reported that Hernandez has sought office before and Valentin’s endorsement could provide a boost. Hernandez faces Michael Siciliano, a one-time mayoral candidate.
Several races have zero drama. Incumbent Gladys Lebron, Juan Anderson-Burgos and Todd McGee of Ward 1, 6, and 7 face no challenger. Technically, incumbent Terence Murphy of Ward 2 has no opponent either, but he had originally no plans to seek the seat himself.
Murphy was a compromise appointee the rest of the Council picked for the heavily Hispanic seat. It had become vacant following the resignation—now, it appears, under a cloud—of Nelson Roman. Murphy only pulled papers shortly before the filing deadline when it became apparent nobody else was running. Had he not opted to run and no write-in candidate got enough votes in November, the Council would have again filled the seat.
In Ward 5 Linda Vacon faces a challenge from Jens Michelson. Ward 3 is the only part of the city holding a preliminary. Incumbent David Bartley faces Ward 3 School Committee member Dennis Birks and Anne Thalheimer, who also sought the seat two years ago. The scuttlebutt is that Birks leapt into the race, partly because Bartley was among the three councilors that opposed the ballot question to finance the construction of new schools in Holyoke. Bresnahan and Vacon were the other noes.
On the School Committee, only the Ward 3 and 4 races are contested. Rebecca Birks, the spouse of Dennis, and Marc Hickey are seeking the Ward 3 seat. The Ward 4 seat is a race between incumbent Irene Feliciano-Sims and challenger Faizul Sibdhanny. Erin Brunelle, the at-large committee member up this year, faces no opposition. The other at-large member, Devin Sheehan, is in the middle of a four-year term.
Clearly Ward 3 and 4 will get their share of attention. That is not to say Ward 5 will not, but Vacon has been able to entrench herself despite right-wing views largely out of step with indigo-blue Holyoke.
There had been some speculation before now that longtime members like McGiverin and Tallman would move on. Instead, it was Bresnahan. This probably should not have been surprising. His last-place finish among the 2017 winners prompted speculation about Bresnahan’s viability long term.
With no mayor’s race, few voters may show up, likely fall scrambling assumptions about the race. However, the debt exclusion question on school construction could buoy turnout.
In retrospect, Bresnahan’s vote against the debt exclusion ballot may have been a tell. The Paper City is split over whether to approve the tax increase to finance the school building. Yet, allowing voters the final say seems broadly popular.
Ironically, Bresnahan’s fall from fourth in 2015 to sixth in 2017 came after James Bickford died in a motorcycle accident. Known best by his nom de plume Pronoblem Baalberith, the artsy, lefty activist, published the semi-satirical and decidedly irreverent site H.U.S.H. Pronoblem had mercilessly, if somewhat accurately—even scatologically—pummeled Bresnahan’s shortcomings as a public official—and human.
Breezy-D endured Pronoblem, but the latter helped end the Councilorhood of Jennifer Chateauneuf. They, too, had jousted several times over the years over edgy, blogged criticisms. By 2016, things escalated to Chateauneuf claiming he surreptitiously photographed her in the bathroom.
Holyoke Police, no reservoir of support for Pronoblem’s politics and tactics, investigated and all but called her a liar. Police determined the photos mailed to her father came from a porn site. Chataeuneuf resigned shortly thereafter.
Three years after Chateauneuf’s implosion and Bickford’s death, Bresnhan’s exit closes more than one chapter in Holyoke lore.