In Twilight of Election, Harrington & Oliveira Joust in 7th Hampden Debate…
by Michael Lachenmeyer
Late last February, the 7th Hampden District’s State Rep. Thomas M. Petrolati announced that he would not be seeking reelection for the seat which he has held since 1986. Democrats have dominated the 7th Hampden District for fifty years. Yet, with Petrolati out, Republicans are attempting to flip the seat. Their candidate is James “Chip” Harrington. His opponent is Democrat Jake Oliveira. Both are longtime members of the Ludlow School Committee.
The race reached a key point on October 15, when Harrington and Oliveira appeared on Ludlow Community Television (LCTV) for a debate that took place in the Ludlow High School auditorium. Mike Dobbs, managing editor for The Reminder, was the host.
Due to the pandemic, there was no audience, yet that did not prevent Dobbs from cultivating a lively atmosphere on stage.
Harrington introduced himself to the audience as a lifelong Ludlow resident, family man, and law enforcement officer. He portrayed his political ideology as that of a liberal Republican and compromise candidate. At the end of his opening statement, Harrington attacked Oliveira’s record on the Ludlow School Committee, namely a 2009 vote to reorganize Ludlow’s schools by grade rather than neighborhood.
During Oliveira’s opening statement, he emphasized his lifelong ties to Ludlow and highlighted his experiences on Beacon Hill, both as an aide to State Senator Michael Rodrigues and as a professional working in government relations. Oliveira seemed to brush off Harrington’s jab, stating that “we are not here tonight to rehash the issues of 11 years ago, but we’re here to talk about the future of this district and legislature.” Rather, he assured he would use his partnerships in Boston to get results for the district.
Dobbs’s first question of the debate concerned economic development. He asked both candidates what kind of legislation they’d support to grow the district’s economy if elected.
Harrington spoke about the importance of state-funded redevelopment projects such as the Ludlow Mills and the Belchertown State School. In his answer, he touted endorsements from Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, claiming that his ties to them would help him bring back funds to the district.
Oliveira wasted no time stating his support for state-funded development projects. Yet, he critiqued Harrington’s campaign pledge to never vote to raise any taxes at the state-wide level should he win the election. Oliveira rounded out his answer by airing support for the Fair Share Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would raise taxes on those making over $1 million a year.
Harrington happily doubled down on his anti-tax pledge in rebuttal. He then pivoted to the differences between his life experiences and Oliveira’s. Harrington said he understood what it was like to be a small business owner since he has worked long hours at a local family-owned variety store since 2003. He claimed Oliveira learned about the economy through political science classes, not “real-life experience” like himself.
Oliveira shot back by querying Harrington how he would pay for investments in the 7th Hampden District without raising revenues. He pushed back on Harrington’s claim about “real-life experience” by highlighting the value of his experiences on Beacon Hill and touting the endorsements he’s received from both of the district’s State Senators, one of whom Harrington ran against in 2014, and 2016.
Dobbs then asked how the candidates plan to deal with the pandemic if elected.
Oliveira complimented Baker on the state’s response to COVID-19. He also spoke about his hope that the federal government would pass a new relief bill after the election, mentioning his support for the HEROES Act which passed the House in May. He also talked up how the state could make it easier for local businesses to operate during the pandemic.
Harrington focused on thanking frontline workers and then the Baker administration for its policy of fiscal conservatism. Specifically he highlighted the state’s rainy-day fund, which he credited Baker for building and which has provided Massachusetts with some financial lee-way during the pandemic so far. Harrington ended the segment by trying to empathize with the difficult position of small business owners all across the district.
During his reply, Oliveira concurred on Baker’s conservative budgeting. He praised the administration for tapping the rainy-day fund as state revenues fell, too. Yet, he also countered Harrington by crediting Democrats rather than the Baker administration for building up the fund.
As the debate wore on, it grew more heated. Harrington painted Oliveira as a hypocrite for supporting both the Fair Share Amendment and conservative budgeting. He tried to answer Oliveira’s earlier question about funding local projects by claiming that he would trim wasteful spending and reprioritize the budget.
The 7th District consists of all of Ludlow, most of Belchertown and slivers of Chicopee and Springfield. Alluding to this, Dobbs asked the candidates how they’d balance the priorities of the district’s rural, suburban, and urban areas.
Harrington emphasized what bound the district together. He stressed economic development, infrastructure investment, and public safety as the three shared priorities in the district that he would advocate for in Boston.
By contrast, Oliveira stressed the diversity of the district. He pointed to Chicopee’s innovation with municipal broadband and transit needs. Oliveira stressed that urban areas of the district should not be cut off from the rest of their cities.
Oliveira again hit Harrington on government finance saying, “you haven’t answered the question of how you’re actually going to raise the funds to pay for it”.
A seemingly annoyed Harrington replied, “Yeah, I actually did answer the question.” Harrington continued, “You reallocate funds, we don’t have a shortage of funds, we have a spending problem.”
Oliveira interrupted, asking “[Funds] from where?” Harrington ignored this and spoke about his supports for state-wide investment in fiber optic infrastructure.
However, Oliveira did not let up. He repeatedly called on Harrington to say specifically how he would fund these projects. Oliveira again spotlighted the Fair Share Amendment, which he claimed would raise about $2 billion in revenue if enacted.
Dobbs also asked the two school committee members what were the most pressing issues schools face that the commonwealth could alleviate.
Oliveira spoke about his experiences as a school committee member and the former president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. He took credit for work he did helping the state revamp its Chapter 70 formula. He pivoted to policy and assured viewers he would work to ensure that the state would fund its commitments under Chapter 70. Oliveira added that he strongly opposes using property taxes to fund local schools, since property taxes are applied so inequitably.
Harrington echoed many of his opponent’s sentiments, stating that he too supports the current Chapter 70 funding formula. He promised to ensure the state meets its commitments to the district’s schools.
In rebuttal, Oliveira didn’t criticize any of Harrington’s points but emphasized his support for vocational schooling. He pointed to his experience as a board member for the Lower Pioneer Valley Collaborative Career Education Center, which has such programs.
Switching to higher education, Harrington critiqued Springfield Technical College for cutting technical classes from its curriculum. He would work to restore those classes if elected.
Dobbs closed with a question on the partisan divide in the United States today. He asked both men whether they could work in a bipartisan manner if elected.
Harrington used the question to define himself. He termed himself “a fiscally conservative, socially progressive” candidate who “votes the person, not the party”. He called Baker a role model on whom Harrington claims to model his own Republican candidacy. Harrington omitted any mention of Donald Trump.
Oliveira asserted his own bipartisan chops by bringing up his experience working with conservative, southern members of the National School Boards Association while on its board of directors. He stated that he will work with whoever to benefit the district.
However, Oliveira noted, “the legislature is a partisan body and that decisions are made within the Democratic caucus before they go to the full house”. Oliveira vowed to use his status as a Democrat and member of the majority party to hit the ground running.
Harrington replied with a critique about the progressive part of the Democratic party and playing up his own support for labor unions. “As a very moderate Republican, I’ll work with everyone,” he said.
Oliveira countered that he has been endorsed by more unions that have waded into the race thus far, including the state AFL-CIO. He also proudly boasted of his endorsement from numerous Democratic politicians and The Republican. He finished with a quote from its endorsement, which said. “We believe Oliveira is best positioned to effectively support the residents of the seventh Hampden.”
Dobbs then thanked both candidates for being polite and obeying the rules before moving to closing statements. He might have spoken too soon.
Oliveira went first. In his statement, he implied the race was one between an unqualified candidate and someone “who can actually get things accomplished.”
Continuing he said, “When people are applying for a job, a lot of times they use the term life experience when they don’t have the qualifications for the job that they’re applying for”. He ended assuring he could do more for the district if elected.
Harrington seemed stung by Oliveira’s comments and in his close, he tried to reverse the narrative. Harrington claimed Oliveira is, in fact, the unqualified one. He circled back to endorsements and mentioned a grade school teacher whose job he claimed to have saved. That, he argued, shows that endorsing organizations (like teachers’ unions) are not monoliths.
Oliveira interjected in the middle of Harrington’s closing statement, telling Harrington, “You’ll have to get the money for that Chip. You’ll have to get the money to fund those second and third grade positions.”
The debate then devolved into a mess of cross-talk with Dobbs struggling to restore calm. Losing patience he eventually said “You guys are out-of-control right now.”
That comment seemed to work, but Harrington was not able to finish his closing statement. Dobbs ended the debate without further comment from either candidate.
Neither candidate presented himself as an extreme partisan, yet there are substantial differences between the two. Oliveira came across as a relatively moderate Democratic Party insider who hopes to use his connections to bring resources home to the district.
Meanwhile, Harrington presented himself as a moderate Republican who would try to govern in the Charlie Baker mold, if elected. Yet, Baker or no Baker, in a legislature dominated by Democrats, Harrington may struggle to make himself heard.