With COVID Looming Overhead, Cain & Velis’ Senate Match Arrives…
The race for the 2nd Hampden & Hampshire Senate seat is quite unlike any other for both the region and the candidates. Campaigning under the shroud of the novel coronavirus has voided rallies, standouts, debates and almost every visible element of the race, save yard signs. That, obviously, has altered the experience for the candidates Democratic State Rep John Velis and Republican John Cain.
Special elections are not new territory for Velis. He won his Westfield-only rep seat in a special in 2014. Yet the restrictions the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on campaigning countermand Velis’ every instinct as a politician. Cain, who was campaigning for Congress as late as last year, has also had to adapt. Whoever wins will confront huge challenges left in the outbreak’s wake.
The original election date was March 31, scheduled after now-Westfield Mayor Don Humason resigned the seat, but the Senate moved it to this Tuesday May 19 as the outbreak and related shutdowns picked up speed.
Compared to the original date, clerks appear more ready to run a socially distant and hygienic election. Officials urge voters to vote absentee or contact city and town halls about polling places. Some have changed to reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
The 2nd Hampden & Hampshire includes Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland and four precincts in Chicopee.
The COVID-19 restrictions have crimped Velis’ style, who prefers person-to-person contact, something he says modern politics often lacks.
“To take away that retail aspect of it has been a challenge,” he said in an interview.
The Velis campaign has been calling voters to make direct contacts. The state party has helped steer volunteers to the campaign. Campaign staff use Zoom for trainings and to maintain the social element a physical phonebank would usually entail.
Cain, a Southwick businessowner, had relied on in-person contact, as a congressional and later state senate candidate. In an interview, Cain explained he transitioned to the senate race after supporters suggested he might be more helpful to the community in that seat.
“We’d been knocking doors and getting in front of people as much as possible,” he said. Now it is phonebanks and virtual town halls.
In a macro sense, the pandemic has reshuffled the issues deck for the race. The economic consequences of the pandemic are front and center. However, COVID-19 has birthed a unique crisis in the district. The outbreak and ensuing deaths of veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has garnered international attention.
At least 74 residents have died at the state-run Soldiers’ Home due to the outbreak. State officials claimed they did not know how bad things were until alerted by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, himself acting on a tip.
The all-but-ousted superintendent, Bennett Walsh, has claimed state officials were aware of the situation. Reporting from The Boston Globe and WBUR has laid additional blame on Walsh’s superiors, though the same reports hardly Febrezed away his responsibility.
At least six investigations have begun and/or will soon. However, Velis, an army reservist in the judge advocate general corp, argued the legislature’s impending probe will prove more critical. Other investigations will review what happened, but the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs must craft legislative solutions.
“I want to make damn sure that what happened never happens again,” he said, assuring accountability would go wherever the evidence led, even up into Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.
Cain, whom Baker has endorsed, did not directly speak to potential administration culpability. He agreed or the next senator would have a key role.
“I think they have a responsibility to look into what shortfalls came up during the pandemic,” said Cain, a former navy reservist. “I think we’re all ready to hold everybody accountable at this point.”
Cain rapped Velis for supporting Walsh pre-COVID and for not seeing problems forming in Holyoke despite frequent visits in the past.
“He obviously was blind to the issue,” he said of Velis.
Velis bridled at the charge, calling Cain’s comments “shameful.”
“Attempting to politicize the monumental loss of life at the Holyoke Soldiers Home is an absolute disgrace,” Velis said in a subsequent statement.
Velis defended his record on veterans’ issues and his visits. The last of these happened months before the outbreak and were primarily to engage with residents.
“Additionally, to attempt to weaponize this issue against someone who the veteran community knows no greater friend than demonstrates a complete lack of situational awareness and veterans advocacy,” Velis continued. He noted Cain’s own spotty record of public engagement like voting.
In March The Westfield News reported that Cain had not voted before the 2020 primary except in the 2016 election—although there was no record of that vote either. He told the paper he had not voted before because he was away in the merchant marine or naval reserve and did not then believe his vote was significant.
While the virus has changed the framing, many of the same issues animate the candidates.
Velis pointed to the Student Opportunity Act and transportation as continuing priorities. Yet, funding both now face extreme pressure with state revenue devastated by the shutdown. Municipal budgets also face chaos.
“The everyday partisan political issues have all taken a backseat,” Velis said. “We’re now in the position where you might see layoffs of teachers, nurses. We need to know what finances we’re going to get from the state.”
Velis has argued that understanding of Beacon Hill and possessing existing relationships—he has already had conversations with the Senate President—have never been more important. In the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate, he can make the most of it. The district will need a lot after nearly six months of vacancy.
“Whoever is the next state senator needs to be someone who has a seat on the table,” he said, and who “doesn’t need a tutorial on how to leverage contacts on how to bring back resources.”
Cain’s focus, dating to his congressional bid, has been workforce training and battling the opioid epidemic. Those will only become more salient, Cain argued.
“People affected by job loss and addiction are even more at risk,” he said. “We’re just trying to get people back to work. Getting people safely back to work.”
Cain argued that people outside government are can tackle the issues better. As the owner of a construction business, he said his perspective would be more useful than that of a “career politician.” Whether Velis, 41, counts as a career politician after six years in office is debatable.
Jabbing Velis again, Cain claimed the Westfield rep was ineffective because he had not climbed into House leadership. By comparison, based on discussions he has had with Senate Republicans, he would almost certainly enter leadership.
Cain, 32, likely would get some post, but only because the Senate GOP is small. Even if on Tuesday Republicans hold Humason’s seat and that of another departed Republican, the Senate GOP could still caucus in a minivan. Should both lose, the caucus could downgrade to a sedan.
Velis, in a follow up statement, dismissed Cain’s comments. “This is an example of why my experience as a lawmaker and knowledge and understanding of the reality of how government works is absolutely paramount for this district,” he said.
In the earlier interview, Velis noted that campaigning took a backseat to constituents and businesses from his House district seeking assistance during the pandemic and economic fallout.
“I’d be a pretty crappy elected official that, because I’m running for a different or a higher office, I shifted my focus from my district,” he said.
Although COVID-19 has curtailed some campaigning, other elements like endorsements and ads endure.
In addition to Baker, Cain has received support from GOP luminaries like Worcester Sheriff Lew Evangelides and Senator Ryan Fattman. Velis has the support of firefighter unions and prominent local Democrats including Hampden Sheriff Nick Cocchi and Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.
The most recent campaign finance reports from April 30 show Velis has raised considerably more money than Cain. Velis started the year with $50,000 and has raised the same amount since then. Cain, who could not transfer any money from his former federal campaign, has raised about $21,000. However, Cain has also received some backup from the State Republican party.
Both candidates have advertised on Facebook. Velis has a panoply of ads touting his record and endorsements, such as Cocchi’s. Cain hasn’t advertised on Facebook, but Massachusetts Republicans have. The GOP ads blast Velis and tout Cain. Total spending on behalf of each candidate runs into the hundreds of dollars.
It is unclear how much, but Massachusetts Republicans have paid for mailers for Cain.
On the airwaves, Velis is alone. Federal Communications Commission paperwork indicates he has placed just short of $10,000 for spots on WWLP with another $600 for six spots on classic rock station WAQY.
Cain’s campaign has queried WAQY, but no ad contract is available as of posting time.