On Senate’s Larger Stage, Oliveira Says He Can Do More for Western Mass…
EAST LONGMEADOW—When asked about being in the fight of his political life, Jake Oliveira projects anything but panic. In fact, he argues, it is not nothing new, pointing to the close races and chicanery he faced since first running for School Committee in his native Ludlow over a decade ago.
Still, as an incumbent state rep from his hometown, he is battling challenger Sydney Levin-Epstein to the last vote for the Democratic nomination to succeed Senator Eric Lesser. His bid rests heavily on his roots but also policy and his emphasis on constituent service. In the Massachusetts Senate, he says, he can deliver even more.
“If you told me that I’d be running for the State Senate right now, I would have said absolutely not,” Oliveira said after feting the job of state rep. Yet, after Lesser opted for a lieutenant governor bid, Oliveira said he could not pass up on the opportunity to leverage his preexisting relationships do even more.
“I know I can do more for the four communities I represent and the and the other eight communities that I hope to represent in our entire region up on Beacon Hill as a member of the State Senate, rather than as a remaining in the house,” he said.
The district’s formal name will be Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester after 2022. From next year, it includes Palmer, South Hadley and Warren but covers less of Chicopee and Springfield. Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Wilbraham remain.
A bevy of endorsements from labor, environmental groups and Planned Parenthood are behind Oliveira. Many are spending money on his behalf. However, Oliveira has lagged Levin-Epstein, a former congressional and campaign aide, in fundraising. While he dismissed being outraised as typical for his campaigns, it is atypical for a sitting rep.
Raw policy differences are few, though Oliveira expressed skepticism of tax incentives to biotech to the district. Levin-Epstein has plugged the industry’s potential out here especially in former mills. He sees mills more as future housing.
Though less than 10 years separates them in age, a schism in style has formed. Oliveira, 36, has emphasized his and his family’s roots in and around Ludlow and leaned on local connections built from a decade in municipal office. Levin-Epstein has leveraged social media and big proposals to court support from untapped corners of the district.
Oliveira brushed off any tightness in the race, observing this campaign is different. Past primaries for this seat featured as many of five candidates. This year there are only two.
“It’s a new and open seat with 12 communities, three of which were added to this new district,” he said. “When you’re running in a race like this, where you’ve had somebody who served for eight years, it’s very different than the dynamics of eight years ago, or even eight years before that.”
Since graduating from Framingham State University, Oliveira has worked in government or quasi-government organizations. He began attending Ludlow Democratic events as a youth, earning early exposure the Valley Democratic breakfast circuit. After a stint on Beacon Hill, he worked for the State University President’s Council, which advocates for non-UMass state colleges. While sitting on Ludlow’s School Committee, he ascended the ranks of the state school committee association, too. When his state rep seat opened up, he went for it and won after a tight battle with a School Committee colleague.
Speaking to WMP&I over lunch here in the center of East Longmeadow, Oliveira’s inner political junkie comes through. He speaks with a matter-of-fact tone, like the chillaxed neighbor in an otherwise zany 60’s sitcom. He attributes his political awakening to his parents, both educators, and the impact New Deal and Great Society program have had on his family.
While he touts constituent services as the lifeblood of a legislator’s work—and electoral success—he delved into policy and the heaving history behind Beacon Hill’s recent breakdowns.
Weeks before, the legislature hit its artificial session deadline. On the cutting room floor was a big economic bill with items many had been relying on. Speaking to WMP&I, Oliveira said legislative traffic jams and inertia partly arose from centralization in the post-Dukakis era of GOP governors. Maura Healey in the corner office could help, but Oliveira pitched something he raised in a debate days earlier.
“A calendar that comes out early, where you can see where you’re in session where you’re not in session, and better position yourself to actually have a timeline that fits in that 20-month timeline that we are doing legislative business,” he explained.
Oliveira does make it seem easy, but he insists that this again where his relationships can matter a lot. He notes that he worked on Senate President Karen Spilka’s campaigns as a college student and the smaller 40-member Senate was more conducive to making these arguments.
“It’s about kind of that advocacy internally, whether it’s in the Democratic caucus or within the full legislature,” he said.
Though a first-term rep, Oliveira has touted the bounty he has brought back to the 7th House district.
This does not surprise those who have known him for a long time. Devin Sheehan, a former Holyoke School Committee member, entered office within a year of Oliveira joining Ludlow’s school board in 2009. He said Oliveira knows his way around state government, which helps on the House floor and addressing constituent issues.
“Nobody talks about the nitty-gritty, which is the constituent work,” he said. “Knowing the right people to call.” Reps are often on the front lines of constituents needs—especially during a pandemic—and they only one staffer. But, Sheehan went on, Oliveira’s “constituent service is like no other.”
That constituent work has won the plaudits on the municipal level. Gary Brougham, town administrator in Belchertown, said he has worked with a dozen legislators in his time. He and Oliveira hit it off right away. Brougham pointed to Oliveira’s work on the town’s big concern as well as showing up when a beaver dam failed, flooding parts of town.
“I have worked very closely with Jake throughout his time in the House of Representatives. In my opinion he’s the real deal. He’s very accessible,” he said.
Brougham said that the big issue in his town is redevelopment of the former State School. Upon closure in 1992, the state was to turn it over to the town quickly. Well over a decade later, the deed finally changed hands. By then, deteriorating buildings had become an environmental disaster. Starting with Senator Gale Candaras, a series of legislators have worked to secure grants to ready the land for development, Brougham explained.
“He’s worked at trying to bring economic partners to Belchertown to invest in that site,” he said of Oliveira.
Colleagues believe he can maneuver the different needs within the district. Fellow frosh Pat Duffy, Holyoke’s State Rep, said their first-year colleagues formed a tight-knit group, partly after being sworn in during a pandemic. One area they have worked on together is fulling funding the Student Opportunity Act. If elected to the Senate, Oliveira would represent communities like Granby and Warren, whose educational needs differ greatly from Springfield. However, Duffy was confident Oliveira could handle that.
“He knows what the different needs and of course he will serve each part of the district and of course he knows what schools in urban districts and rural districts need,” she said.
As he currently represents Chicopee and Springfield, he and Duffy are also active in the Gateway Cities caucus. The group advocates for mid-size cities that have both persistent economic and social challenges but also potential.
“The Gateway City Caucus which is a really amazing forum and is a really great way to make sure we’re reminding Boston to remember that we have different special needs,” Duffy continued.
Oliveira made a similar point, discussing advocacy for the region. For example, he said there are regular meetings on rail service from Boston to the 413. Bigger coalitions become necessary sometimes, too. He pointed to the mental health bill, which seeks to address a shortage of beds. However, the problem is acute out here—and in other further flung parts of the state.
“I think the conversation that we have as legislators is much more pulling that coalition of disaffected areas of the Commonwealth together to be a strong voice for areas that are outside of the 128 belt,” Oliveira said. He wryly noted his old boss, now-Senator Michael Rodrigues, represents the Fall River areas, one such disaffected region.
It certain does not hurt to have ties to the second most powerful member of the Senate. Yet, Oliveira’s supporters keep coming back to the value he would bring to the whole region.
“I think he’d be great for the district and great for us in Western Mass. This delegation is really tight and I want to keep him in the delegation,” she said. “We’ll miss him in the House but we really think he’d be the right fit going into the senate.”
Sheehan said Oliveira’s advantages date to his work in municipal government.
”I think people who go from local government service into the legislature definitely go into the legislature with the upper hand,” Sheehan said.
The fate of the region is an overarching theme of this race. Despite redistricting, there are relatively few contests in Western Mass this year to see this play out. An open seat provides a space for that conversation. For Oliveira, that partly means taking advantage of shifts in post-pandemic work without upending the region’s assets like open space.
“I’ve also been pleased to find out that there are a lot of people that have moved to Western Massachusetts, over the last two and a half years partly due to the future of work,” he said. “I think we have an enormous potential right now, for our region that we didn’t even have pre pandemic.”