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Briefings: Velis Launches & the Senate Battle Begins…

Ride now, ride to Boston…again.
Rep. John Velis addresses supporters. (WMP&I)

WESTFIELD—In one sense, the State Representative John Velis’ kickoff for State Senate was a formality. He had been running unofficially since last spring and officially since Don Humason announced his resignation, shortly after winning the mayoralty here. Still, the launch was both a show of force and of the hunger to return the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire Senate district to Democratic hands.

Supporters packed a room at the Shortstop Bar & Grill, an ex-Ford dealership-turned watering hole/batting cage facility and Velis political haunt. Electeds from places across Hampden and Hampshire county and practically throughout time were on hand. The crowd roared as Velis was announced and a sustained round of applause followed Hampden Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi’s introduction.

The Westfield Democrat first won his state rep seat in a special election in 2014. Now he is seeking a senate seat in a special election scheduled for March 31. So far Velis is the only Democrat to have entered the contest, hoping to break a quarter-century hold Republicans have had on the district.

The 2nd Hampden & Hampshire includes Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland and four precincts in Chicopee.

At one time, former State Treasurer and 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien and Holyoke Mayor Martin Dunn held the seat.

Then, Republican Michael Knapik won it in 1994 and was succeeded by Humason in 2013—also a special election. With the rightward tilt of once-Democratic places like Agawam, the district had seemed to be drifting further from Democrats’ reach.

The Second Hampden & Hampshire in purple. Click for larger view. (via malegislature.gov)

However, as Westfield’s rep, Velis has studious cultivated a nonpartisan image. Not surprisingly, more than a few Republicans were on hand, including Velis’ would-be predecessor Knapik, former State Senator Brian Lees and Velis’ twice-vanquished state rep foe, Dan Allie.

However, many Democrats are excited to have one of their own back in a seat that includes some of the state’s bluest areas, especially after Humason, a noted conservative. Many were there.

Velis is not alone in the race. He faces no opposition in the March 3 primary thus far, though he has a Republican challenger. Southwick businessman John Cain has announced he is running, though no sitting GOP officeholders have stepped forward.

Should the primaries remain uncontested, the John vs. John faceoff will become a test for each side, albeit in different ways. For Velis it will be an opportunity to flex his toned political muscle. It’s not clear what kind of fight Cain will be able to put up. Yet, if Velis doesn’t just win but decisively overcomes the partisan tribalism now rampant in politics, his profile will only soar.

On the other side, the stakes are more for the Massachusetts GOP than Cain, who had been running for Congress and could return to that race. Given Velis’ advantages, defeat would not alone bode ill for Republicans. What will say more is whether they can organize a respectable campaign in one of the few competitive areas left in the commonwealth.

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