A Political Resurrection Sends Saunders to Boston at Last…
BELCHERTOWN—Eight years ago, Aaron Saunders never got the chance to campaign with a US Senator. He had been eliminated in the state senate primary, from which both Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren steered clear until the general. Warren would join Democratic nominee Eric Lesser for a big rally at his campaign office to whip up support ahead of a tough general election.
Flash forward to the Saturday before Election Day this year that, until its actual end, had looked rough for Democrats. Markey was on hand to rally the troops here, a crucial town for the House district Saunders was running in and the state Senate seat outgoing State Rep Jake sought. Fate would have it that Belchertown and its northerly neighbors would heed Markey’s words.
“He’s arriving on the floor of the Massachusetts State Legislature, it will be like he’s starting his second term,” Markey said. “He already knows how to do it up there.”
In his own remarks, Saunders praised the team of public servants in town and closed simply on his and State Senate candidate and outgoing rep Jake Oliveira.
“I have one modest ask. Send us back,” Saunders said.
A cheer rose up. A horse somebody brought to the town green brayed in apparent approval. Voters concurred four days later.
After that 2014 campaign to succeed his former boss, now-retired State Senator Gale Candaras, it had looked like Saunders was done. He had come in fourth behind Lesser, Springfield City Councilor Tim Allen, and fellow Ludlowite and later GOP opponent James “Chip” Harrington.
Eight years is a long time for a political resurrection, a fact apparent even in Saunders’s own life. When he ran for Senate, his household included only a pooch. Today he is married with three kids and living in Belchertown. Once a youthful policy nerd in local Democratic circles, a greying goatee mutes his boyish features. Then working in telecom, he has gone on to join a comms consultancy and co-found a brewery.
“I think having some more time has allowed some reflection,” he said in an interview after winning. “Having children certainly can refocus priorities. At the risk of sounding really cheesy, it puts things into perspective.”
Saunders will take office in January as the rep for the reconfigured 7th Hampden District. Originally spiraling out from Ludlow, the district now includes all of Belchertown and Ludlow as well as New Salem, Pelham, Petersham, Shutesbury and Wendell.
Speaking to WMP&I at a Ludlow Dunkin the Sunday after the election, Saunders in his understated way, looked ahead to the session. A former Select Board member in Ludlow, he had his first events officially as a dignitary again on Veterans Day. Bill-filing deadlines will come enough and Saunders said he is having conversations about legislation he will sign on to. He is eyeing bills to arrest clear-cutting of forests for solar and to address opiates and fentanyl to say nothing of Oliveira’s House docket.
Blunt, soft-spoken and subtly humorous, Saunders acknowledged the distance from his last electoral foray in 2014.
“I like to tell folks that I ran one of the worst campaigns in modern politics eight years ago. And, you know, there was a variety of factors that contributed to it,” he said.
Yet, he insisted that the same desire to do some good animated him then as now. Though he still plugged his familiarity with Beacon Hill’s dark arts, in 2022 he kept his ears open more.
“This time around, I did a lot more listening and looked for the interests of the district to shape what I was going to prioritize in the campaign early on,” Saunders aid. “And just from the get-go, I think that changed an awful lot.”
While the final results were not especially close, the counts by town show how crucial the district’s various pieces were to either side.
Harrington, a dogged if frequent contender for the legislative seats in the region, would claim Ludlow as he had against Oliveira in 2020. Governor Charlie Baker campaigned for Harrington, evidencing the relationship the two had developed after the latter’s Republicanization. A Baker-affiliated SuperPAC spent money for Harrington, too.
Saunders needed not only his adopted hometown, but the small but active towns to the north to prevail. They delivered, electing the first resident to representing them in House in decades.
“People in Belchertown turn out to vote,” Oliveira told WMP&I after the rally before the election. “And looking at the early vote numbers that have come out of Belchertown, particularly in the two northern most precincts is really heartwarming, because those are very much solidly blue precincts.”
Oliveira romped in his race, but Harrington’s raw vote in Ludlow outstripped Saunders’s in Belchertown. It was the dictator-like margins Saunders racked up in Pelham, Shutesbury and Wendell that put him firmly over.
Being a Democrat might have generally been enough, but the 7th Hampden’s various towns have distinct needs. Having worked for Candaras and now residing Belchertown, certainly Saunders knew Belchertown’s. Part suburb, part rural town, there are working farms and families like Saunders’s.
Candaras, who had come to the Belchertown rally to support Oliveira and her former aide, observed that the town’s swift growth brought it prosperity, but also challenges. Then there was the former State School. The town administrator told her back in 2006 had been dumped on the town.
“Fortunately with a great deal of help from the delegation, I was successful in making the state come back in and reengage with the town of Belchertown and start the remediation work here,” she said.
Although $10-12 million had been allocated for redevelopment before she retired in 2014, far more investment will be necessary. It has remained a top priority for Lesser, Oliveira and now Saunders.
In the sprawling towns that blossom northward and hug Quabbin Reservoir, the issues become unique and idiosyncratic. After the election, Grace Bannasch, the town clerk of Shutesbury, tweeted out a thread on her town’s issues with dirt road and Sunderland State Rep Natalie Blais’s work on the issue.
@aaronlsaunders Very Important Dirt Road Politics Tip: paving dirt roads is an EXTREMELY controversial and emotional topic and should not be the go-to solution to dirt road problems 😉
— Grace Bannasch (@GraceBannasch) November 12, 2022
Some of the towns Saunders will represent had, until this year, been in Blais’s district, among them Shutesbury. Of the town’s Saunders will represent, only part of Belchertown and Ludlow were in Oliveira’s current House district.
Saunders agreed there will be a learning curve, given how rural the northern towns are. Yet, he said as part of his campaign he was contact with Reps Blais, Mindy Domb of Amherst and Susannah Whips of Athol. All three have towns now that will be Saunders’s district next year. Blais and Domb in particular advocated for Saunders in their outgoing towns. But redistricting, he said, could be a plus once he gets to Boston.
The #1stFranklin district is changing as a result of redistricting. I am 💔 not to have the opportunity to continue to work alongside partners in Shutesbury but it was wonderful to see so many friends at the Shutesbury Athletic Club supporting @elect_saunders for State Rep! pic.twitter.com/UsQqClcx0k
— Re-Elect Natalie M. Blais, State Representative (@BlaisForMA) September 18, 2022
“When a new rep comes in, it’s usually because somebody else is leaving, whether they’re choosing to or not,” he said. “Here the opportunity is that three women who represented different parts of the current 7th Hampden are all going back to the State House, and I’m going to be able to not only work with them, but also learn from them” about the towns’ various needs.
Saunders will be going back to a Beacon Hill much transformed, as politics nationally has transformed, from the one he might have entered eight years ago. Although people in Baker’s party ridicule him as a Democrat he has not actually governed as one. If anything, he has presided over an ossification in the commonwealth, one that favors the politically ingrained more than anybody else.
Whether Governor-elect Maura Healey can move beyond that remains to be seen. Still, the actual D next to her name suggests some shift on Beacon Hill.
Saunders intuited a subtler change. When asked how entering this political environment could differ, he did not immediately highlight having a governor of his party. Rather, he noted this was the first time in well over two decades that nobody from Central or Western Massachusetts held a statewide office.
While Saunders believes in Healey, he also had a plea for her when he last saw her.
“I asked her to keep Western Mass in mind and not only in word but in deed,” he said. The region will need a seat at the table. “Healey has an opportunity to draw on the deep expertise and talent of a lot of folks in Western Mass to serve in some of the key positions in her administration.”