For Gomez, Brightwood to Beacon Hill is History & a Springfield Story…
Springfield politicos are no strangers to the Rumbleseat, a Chicopee pub just across the city line. Some have even held fundraisers here. Earlier this month, Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez sat at an outdoor high-top seat counter, as he had many times before. Come January, though, the senator-tantamount-to-elect will represent the very area he was sitting.
By defeating West Springfield Senator James Welch in last month’s Democratic primary, Gomez made history. He will be Hampden County’s first Hispanic State Senator, adding diversity to Massachusetts’s near-monochromatic Senate. Yet, his rise from the North End to 36 Court Street to Beacon Hill—thanks to overwhelming support in his hometown—is a quintessential story of Springfield politics.
“You meet a lot of people,” Gomez said of his early and pre-electoral life. “I got to build relationships that are forever relationships.”
Political success in Springfield rests on relationships. The city is too big to know enough people to win, but relationships can become coalitions and thence webs of support. Name recognition counts for something, but city voters also reward tangible records of accomplishment.
However staunchly Democratic, Springfield rightly has a small-c conservative reputation. Yet, on September 1, it backed Gomez, an unabashed progressive who backed Bernie Sanders for president, over Welch 2-to-1.
The Hampden Senate district consists of West Springfield, two-thirds of Springfield, and a third of Chicopee. Capturing diverse precincts of Chicopee and Springfield, it was drawn to be a minority-majority senate district in Western Mass.
Broader COVID-conscious voting options and competitive up-ballot races supercharged turnout. Gomez won 45 of the district’s 46 Springfield precincts, even predominantly whiter ones. Such success in Springfield is not inevitable.
Speaking to reporters outside his polling place during his contest with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, Congressman Richard Neal succinctly described his campaigns in Springfield.
“It’s still neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, eye contact and identifying your supporters and getting out,” said Neal. Neal’s 30-point margin in Springfield fueled his 18-point win districtwide.
Forty years after Neal first sought office, Gomez’s approach is not much different. Combined with a well-known family name, a lifetime of relationships and a legislative record, it delivered him the Hampden senate district Democratic nomination.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Councilor Gomez who never shies away from tackling the tough issues that matter most to his constituents,” City Council President Justin Hurst said in an email. He pointed to Gomez’s work on police reform, marijuana regulations and resolutions backing bills pending before the legislature.
Boston Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz praised Gomez’s work on criminal justice reform. She also highlighted the Black & Latinx municipal caucus he and other Latino local officials formed to support and grow their cohort.
“Unfortunately, it is a very small community of Latinx elected officials,” she said.
More broadly, Chang-Diaz has been the only senator of color since Linda Forry’s 2018 departure.
“When there is a commission or a committee where people want to have some representation from people of color, there is only one of me to go around right now,” she said.
Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield’s other third, said that he and Gomez have collaborated for years.
“He’s been involved in really, almost everything we’ve worked on in Springfield,” Lesser said, citing rail service to supporting community groups. Last Thanksgiving, they delivered turkeys together.
During a lunchtime interview at the Rumbleseat, Gomez spoke about his life and political career as cousins, colleagues and coworkers greeted him, in between jalapeno poppers and questions.
As the Ward 1 councilor, he represents downtown and the North End neighborhoods of Brightwood and Memorial Square. While vibrant in many ways, they also face some of the commonwealth’s steepest economic, social and environmental disparities.
That day, he had joined Senator Ed Markey and Neal to rally for the Post Office and the Census before meeting with Women of the Vanguard, a North End activist group. A solid, towering dude—he played football at Sci-Tech—he handles his duties with a passionate, but chill manner.
Gomez’s family are fixtures in the North End’s Brightwood neighborhood and city politics. Yet, it was not certain Gomez would enter politics or become a progressive stalwart.
“I come from a kind of conservative background,” Gomez admitted. Christian faith featured prominently at home alongside histories of military and law enforcement service.
Gumersindo Gomez, himself a vet, advocated for veterans’ services and once sought the Council seat his son holds. Eva Gomez ran the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and served on the Police Commission.
Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Springfield’s first Hispanic rep and now Hampden Register of Deeds, knows the family well and has roots in Brightwood. “It’s a very small, tight-knit community,” she said. Gomez’s “father was instrumental in me winning my first race.”
Prominent Latino figures like Herbie Flores of the New England Farmworkers Council and then-mayoral aide Carlos Gonzalez—now Coakley-Rivera’s successor in the House—assisted Gomez early in his educational and professional life. Gomez made his own connections too in high school and working at the YMCA’s camps. Camp kids and their families became friends—and later voters.
Not quite a decade ago, frustrated with inequities in his community, Gomez turned toward the political after reconnecting with high school friend, Jafet Robles. Robles drew Gomez into Neighbor 2 Neighbor (N2N), a community organization that advocates and empowers working class communities, especially those of color. Together they worked on countless issues including, most prominently, criminal justice reform, Robles’ passion.
Robles had another ambition, though. He wanted Gomez and others from the community to seek public office to build pride and connections between residents and their government. Gomez in particular had broad credibility, too. He knew and grew up with establishment Latinos, but had his base in up-and-coming groups like N2N.
“Regular people should feel proud to be part of their neighborhood boards, to be a school committee member, to be city councilors,” Gomez said. Ordinary people bring more to the table than those playing political games, he explained. “I think it comes from a place of empathy versus a place of opportunity.”
Gomez seemingly proved that during his 2015 challenge to Councilor Zaida Luna.
Controversy had erupted over a proposal to relocate the Hampden Sheriff’s Alcohol Correction Center to the North End. (Its old home was in MGM’s footprint). Residents objected to another such facility—their neighborhood hosts many such services—let alone one that is technically a jail.
Coakley-Rivera recalled contentious public hearings filled with outraged residents.
“He was very effective in de-escalating the situation,” she said of Gomez. “He listened. What was more important was that the community listened to him. That established his run for City Council.”
The facility ended up elsewhere. Gomez unseated Luna.
The Council Gomez joined was experiencing change. Six years after voters revived ward representation, the body was on a fitful path to relevancy.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton had just begun his last year as Council President. He appreciated the frankness Gomez brought to discussions and negotiations on a range of issues. Some were percolating for years such as the Police Commission and Responsible Employer Ordinance.
“When Adam Gomez tells you something, you know that it is the truth and you know it is coming from his heart. That is currency in politics,” Fenton said. “There is no façade. Just him and what he wants to do.”
Gomez took a prominent role in 2018 when the Council ordered an end to Mayor Domenic Sarno’s bullying of South Congregational Church for sheltering an undocumented immigrant. By January, the Council passed the Welcoming Communities ordinance over Sarno’s veto, barring the collection of immigration status data. Though more passive than many “sanctuary” policies, it ensures undocumented residents can access municipal resources, including police, without fear.
There has been executive-legislative cooperation, too. But over the years, Gomez has sponsored or joined a number of initiatives Sarno has opposed.
Elvis Méndez, co-director of N2N in Massachusetts, said that episode exemplified Gomez’s community activism inform how he governs.
“After Obama, there’s this whole thing, ‘like everyone is a community organizer,’ and the word just ended up not meaning anything,” Méndez said, referencing the 44th president’s work on Chicago’s South Side. “Adam is the public servant elected official that I can honestly say has been an organizer. And that’s the mentality with which he approaches the work.”
Concerns about equity and injustice also led Gomez to run for Senate.
“Many individuals are really getting the short end of the stick, but not only that, Western Mass has its own regional economic disparities,” he said.
Gomez briefly ran in 2018, but withdrew rather than split votes with former Springfield City Councilor Amaad Rivera. Rivera lost, but the race sketched out a path.
However, Gomez’s Senate bid lacked something from his first Council run. In September 2017, Jafet Robles was found shot to death in Chicopee’s Szot Park.
The crime shocked the Valley activist community. Mourners from all over gathered. The Puerto Rican Parade included a huge procession in his honor. Gomez helped shepherd the grief in public and private. To this day, the murder remains unsolved.
The personal loss remains palpable, but Gomez said he felt Robles’ presence—often pushing him to keep knocking on doors.
“It was definitely something that I dealt with this, race, not having him there.” Gomez explained. “But what I did have was the support of his family; support of his mother, his sister, his cousin’s, his kids.”
A Gomez win had appeared remote. Welch outspent him and the COVID-19 pandemic had halted in-person campaigning for months. Then, Springfield, turning out at twice 2018’s rate, delivered even as Welch carried everything else. Gomez dominated minority precincts but secured impressive margins in whiter areas like Atwater Park and Forest Park.
Reflecting on her and Gomez’s elections to Beacon Hill, Coakley-Rivera said, “It brings a level of diversity that has not been seen before. That is very much needed to establish a true democratic system because not everybody is at the table.”
Pointing to the broadness of Gomez’s victory, she added, “What’s more important is that Latinos, Puerto Ricans in this area now are ready and capable of being responsible for the whole. It’s not just where the ward is 90% Puerto Rican and they’re voting for Adam.”
Others highlight the allure of a senator from Springfield. The city’s last resident senator Linda Melconian retired in 2004. Hometown pride—or, less generously, provincialism—looms large.
Fenton, who was neutral in the primary, took pains not to diminish Senators Lesser and Welch’s work for Springfield. However, “Adam Gomez will be announced as the State Senator from Springfield Massachusetts,” Fenton said. “That will carry a lot not just with the voters here, but on Beacon Hill as representing the state’s third-largest city.”
Once in Boston, Gomez plans to press for implementation of criminal justice and police reform legislation—assuming the latter passes this year. As a councilor, he encounters housing issues often, but Beacon Hill sets much of that policy. He is eyeing housing incentives and landlord-tenant rules, which are paramount as pandemic eviction moratoria expire.
Chang-Diaz warned the next legislative session will be tough. She too, joined the Senate amid an economic meltdown after unseating an incumbent.
“You’re flying a plane as you’re building it,” she said of setting up an office in those conditions. “It’s going to be really a rough ride for him with the budget cycle,” Chang-Diaz continued, adding she would offer whatever help she can to her incoming colleague.
Lesser expects Gomez will advocate for his district’s communities and for the broader region. “I think he’s someone that’s going to be a strong voice for Western Mass,” Lesser said.
Hurst seconded that.
“One thing that I can attest to during his years on the City Council is that Councilor Gomez will not be silenced,” Hurst said. He expected Gomez will be just as vocal fighting for Western Mass and the Hampden District. “He’s a fighter and I expect nothing less at the next level.”
The arena may be changing, but Gomez’s approach may not. While Beacon Hill can make Springfield’s political battlefield look like a sandbox, the same interpersonal strategy that works here is essential at the State house.
“I know that the same approach that I took in the city council and meeting people and understanding and learning them, because people you have to be teachable,” he said.