After Arduous Campaign, Victory for Velis…& a Vastly Changed World…
WESTFIELD—For a few hours in the western Pioneer Valley Tuesday, humans walked the earth much like they did only a few months ago. Polling places throughout the region seemed almost normal, save the masked sign-holders. Voters—or their mailed ballots—were there too, selecting the region’s next state senator. For the first time in 25 years, residents of the 2nd Hampden & Hampshire district chose a Democrat, State Representative John Velis.
The special election to fill now-Westfield Mayor Don Humason’s senate seat and another special senate election in Plymouth were the first state elections held under the shroud of the novel coronavirus. The virus has laid waste to state finances, among the many challenges the new senator will face. While the outbreak had necessitated changes to election procedures, but turnout was comparable to pre-COVID specials elsewhere in the commonwealth.
Speaking via phone, Velis said he was “humbled” by the victory. He heaped praise on campaign staff and supporters who helped him score nearly 65% of the vote according to unofficial results. That amounts to more than 10,000 votes out of over 15,500 cast.
“I’ve got so many people I need to thank,” Velis, 41, told WMP&I. Normally, he might have thanked many in person at a big rally with supporters at the Sons of Erin or Shortstop Bar & Grill. Such things are for now verboten due to the pandemic.
Velis defeated Republican John Cain, a businessman and first-time candidate from Southwick, reclaiming the seat for Democrats. Former State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien became the last Democrat to hold the seat after she won it the same year Bill Clinton was elected president.
The 2nd Hampden & Hampshire includes Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland and four precincts in Chicopee.
Velis’ victory was not unexpected. Since winning a 2014 special election to become the rep for the Westfield-only 4th Hampden House district, he has cultivated a nonpartisan reputation and emphasized the Whip City’s needs. On Tuesday, Westfield, usually the swing community in a district with both archliberal and archconservative poles, went for Velis 2-1.
The election caps a slog that stretched well over a year. In early 2019, then-Mayor Brian Sullivan announced his retirement. Eyes immediately turned to Humason. With Humason favored, a path opened for Velis to matriculate to the Senate. Campaigning subtly at first, Velis formally declared for the seat after Humason won Westfield’s mayoralty in a squeaker.
The election itself was delayed six weeks by the pandemic. Originally slated for March 31, the Senate moved it to May 19 amid concerns from clerks that they could not make sufficient preparations in time.
The delay helped election officials throughout the district adjust to minimize risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. In the end, about the same number of people voted in this election as the last special senate election held in Worcester and Middlesex counties in 2017.
Some towns moved polling locations away from locations where at-risk individuals might congregate. Voting by mail was encouraged. Social distancing was enforced. Polling booths were frequently sterilized, dividers to separate poll workers were erected and masks were encouraged.
In Westfield, election officials, led by City Clerk Karen Fanion, centralized polling locations at the Middle School near downtown for this election only. To use normal polling places would require opening more closed schools and officials hoped risks might be easier to manage in one place.
A phalanx of polling booths draped with white sheets evoking showers—or a hospital ward—could be seen inside through the school’s windows. Unofficial results for all 12 precincts, convetionally posted just outside the actual polling room, were taped to windows for those outside to see.
Despite the outbreak, turnout was steady in many quarters. Urban settings like Chicopee and Holyoke, a Democratic stronghold, were slow, though Velis easily captured all precincts from both cities. His supporters stationed at Easthampton High School were pleasantly surprised with the regular flow of voters, if not the tides that typically fill the parking lot on election days. Unsurprisingly, the town delivered hundreds of votes at lopsided margins for Velis.
Cain won only Agawam, Southwick and Tolland and not by numbers a Republican would need to win to be competitive.
In a text to WMP&I, Cain congratulated Velis on his victory, but assured supporters’ “their effort was not in vain.”
“Thank you to everyone who, despite pandemic, came out to the polls to support my message,” he said, noting he was outspent 3-1.
While Cain was outspent by Velis, Massachusetts Republicans also spent money on mailings and Facebook ads. State Democrats helped Velis, too, but mostly organized remote phone banks.
Cain is expected to appear on the ballot for the regularly scheduled election in November, too, likely for another face off against Velis again.
“The support I have garnered has been immense,” Cain contiued. “Leaders lead form the front and I am ready to continue building for November.”
That election seems far off. For now, Velis will move from representing one to 11 communities as the outbreak threatens their finances either directly or indirectly due to the pandemic’s squeeze on the state budget.
After catching extra shut little shuteye for the first time in months, Velis said he would get to work. “Now that this is official, I just want to go from theory to practice,” he said.
Velis planned to reach out to mayors, town and city councils and select boards to better understand their budget situations before bringing them to the Senate. The date of his swearing in is not clear. It will take some time for the results to be formally canvassed by Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office and then presented to the Governor’s Council for certification.
However, Velis said he has spoken to Senate President Karen Spilka and hopes to join the Senate soon. Once in office, the district will have representation for the first time in months.
“The senate president, from the get-go, has really understood that the thousands and thousands of people in this district need a senator,” he said.
Velis was not the only Democrat to flip a seat Tuesday. Out east, Susan Moran, a Falmouth Selectwoman, was elected to fill the seat left vacant by Republican Vinny deMacedo. DeMacdeo resigned in November to take a job with Bridgewater State University.
The Cape Cod Times reported that Moran’s opponent, James McMahon, had called to concede the race to her. Her and Velis’ victories bring Democrats up to 36 out of 40 Senate seats.