…And They’re off! Lisi & Sheehan First out of Holyoke’s Mayoral Gate…
by Adam Bass
and Matt Szafranski
HOLYOKE—Two of the top contenders for the open mayoral race have formally declared their campaigns. On Monday, At-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi announced her bid on for Mayor. She was only the second person to formally enter what is expected to be a highly competitive contest. On Friday, at-large School Committee member Devin Sheehan launched his bid.
The current mayor here, Alex Morse, announced in December he would not seek another term after ten years in office. The first truly open race in a decade has stoked interest among many candidates to fill the role of the chief executive of the Paper City. More candidates could yet announce,
After ten years of political battles between Morse and his critics, regardless of blame, residents are ready for something new. While terminology like “New” and “Old” Holyoke lingers, many in this city of roughly 40,000 want to look past them. Given Holyoke’s struggles as a deindustrialized urban center with persistent crime, poverty and housing issues, the appeals of Lisi and Sheehan both clearly looked forward.
“I promise to help build a bridge between old and new Holyoke, one that connects families who have lived in Holyoke for generations to those who love Holyoke enough to make it their home for the first time,” Lisi said in her kickoff remarks.
Dressed to fend off brittle January weather alongside her husband Damian and son Lucian, Lisi laid out her biography and agenda outside the historic front of the Holyoke Public Library. In both English and Spanish, she called for unity and a brighter future for a Holyoke that embraces its history and its diversity.
Originally from Long Island, Lisi certainly embodies the newcomers who have found a home in Holyoke. However, she stressed the value of generational residents, too. Her proposal to establish and bolster neighborhood associations may signal her way to bridge this gap.
“I really believe in the power of the citizens of Holyoke, to help the city grow,” she said in a brief interview with WMP&I on Monday. “And we need to overcome some of these divisions in the city and start getting people working productively together.”
One of her most ambitious goals, if elected mayor, would be to continue her fight for preserving buildings. That fits into what she calls a “green renovation” which has already included redevelopment at the Lyman Terrace Housing Complex.
She also has called for the expansion of the cannabis industry in Holyoke. For example, she supports turning historic paper mills into “cannabis mills” and other work to encourage indoor cannabis growing operations. This would be a continuation of Mayor Morse’s cannabis policy which dates to 2017.
Lisi has served on the City Council since 2008. She has played vital roles on a range of issues while chairing the Council’s Ordinance Committee. A political science doctoral student, her eager dives into the minutiae of policy have become a hallmark of her Council tenure.
Of course, much like the Boston and Lawerence Mayoral races, the Holyoke mayoral race is expected to be quite crowded.
Sheehan, the School Committee member, announced his campaign on Friday. In a press release, Sheehan said that if elected, his focus on mayor would be on the city’s infrastructure. He added that he is, “ready to tackle the challenges of our city infrastructure to improve our finances, support our public safety officials, and promote and push for a locally controlled public school system.”
During a Zoom press conference Friday, Sheehan, speaking in a suit and tie, offered expanded on these themes. Like Lisi, he stressed the pandemic and the broader need for the city to march forward.
“Holyoke needs leadership to continue to prosper,” he said. Later, addressing division in the city, Sheehan added, “That is why we will work closely together to accomplish our goals and overcome our challenges.”
Just as Lisi highlighted her work as a councilor to sell her bid, Sheehan emphasized his work on the School Committee. That, in turn led to a stint as President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). During that time, the Student Opportunity Act, a major overhaul of the allocation of state public schools funding, passed.
Speaking to reporters, Sheehan cited this work as proof he could manage the city’s budget and advocate for its interest both here and on Beacon Hill. Given Holyoke’s myriad needs, funding and policy on the state level has an outsized impact here.
“The role of mayor is to advocate for the city of Holyoke,” he said. “I am willing to fight the hard fight.”
Speaking to WMP&I, Lisi offered a similar promise, but also turned it around into an obligation for the state. “Holyoke does a lot for the state and I think that we really should be better compensated for the work that we’re doing.”
Despite looking ahead, neither Lisi nor Sheehan explicitly distanced themselves from the man they would succeed. Asked about Morse’s legacy, Sheehan acknowledged how “tough” the job is and highlighted some economic development successes.
Where the field develops from here could depend on how much people want to break from the Morse era. Other potential names that could enter the race include City Councilor Michael Sullivan and former Morse aide Billy Glidden. However, more potential candidates could yet surface.