Election makes history: Holyoke’s newly elected officials add fresh dynamic to city politics

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


  • Holyoke mayoral candidate Joshua Garcia talks with a supporter while campaigning in Holyoke on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2021 6:58:18 AM

HOLYOKE — As Betty Medina Lichtenstein watched election results come in Tuesday in Holyoke, she said her reaction was one of pure excitement. The majority-Hispanic city elected its first Latino mayor, its first Latina at-large School Committee member and its most diverse City Council ever.

Medina was the state’s very first Puerto Rican woman ever elected to public office when she won a Holyoke School Committee ward seat in 1985. She said community members have worked since then to elect Hispanic candidates in the city. But the extent of the change ushered in on Tuesday shocked many, including Medina.

“It is time. It has been time,” she said. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know if I’d see it in my lifetime.”

The most closely watched race Tuesday was the contest between native Holyokers Joshua Garcia and Michael Sullivan. Garcia, who is currently Blandford’s town administrator, defeated Sullivan, an at-large city councilor, to become the Latino chief executive of the city, where 54% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. census data.

But for journalist Manuel Frau Ramos, the longtime editor of the bilingual local newspaper El Sol Latino, Gracia’s historic victory wasn’t even the biggest surprise of the night. He said the City Council results — the number of liberals and progressives elected, and the election of Israel Rivera and José Luis Maldonado Velez to at-large seats — were what really astonished him.

“Old Holyoke is no longer the power broker in Holyoke,” he said. “There are a lot of alternatives right now who are not necessarily the old guard.”

Ramos was surprised because of the history of Holyoke, which until Tuesday had elected just two Hispanic candidates to at-large City Council seats in the entire body’s history.

In fact, in 1992 a group of Hispanic Holyokers sued the city over the at-large seats on the City Council and School Committee. At that time, no Hispanic candidates had ever been elected to an at-large City Council or School Committee seat. The group — Vecinos de Barrio Uno, or Neighbors of Ward 1 — argued that the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act by diminishing minority representation.

A U.S. District Court judge originally sided with them with regard to the City Council, ordering the reduction of at-large seats, which at the time formed a majority of the body, from eight to two. However, an appeals court remanded the case back to the same federal court, which in 1997 reversed course and ruled against the group, saying that “the interaction of race and the electoral system” did not diminish opportunities for minority participation in local government.

In the nearly 25 years since, only two Hispanic candidates — Alejandro Sánchez and Aaron Vega — were elected to at-large seats, which in 2017 were reduced from eight to six. And no Hispanic candidate had ever held an at-large School Committee seat.

But that was all before Tuesday night. Rivera, who finished just outside the top six in the 2019 City Council at-large race, came in second in the overall at-large voting this year. Maldonado Velez came in sixth in that race by a 200-vote margin. And at the School Committee level, Mildred Lefebvre, who is currently the Ward 1 representative, won an at-large seat in a landslide over opponent Marc Hickey. Nearly 81% of students in the city’s schools identify as Hispanic.

“When the results came in, I couldn’t believe it,” Maldonado Velez said. People had told him to expect the possibility of defeat, and to prepare to run again. But he was confident in the work he and his supporters put into knocking on doors across the city. “Part of the problem of the current City Council is they don’t talk to the people,” he said. “That was what our campaign was about.”

Lefebvre, too, said that some people cautioned her about the possibility of defeat running at large, some suggesting that she “stick to her ward” because she had a better chance of winning there.

“The fact that this actually happened is a huge milestone and a triumph for the Latino community,” she said, adding that the city clearly wanted to see change. “We have to be reflective of our community.”

Voting breakdowns

As is usually true, Ward 7 — which contains the Smith’s Ferry, Highland Park and Highlands neighborhoods — cast by far the most ballots with 1,945. Ward 5 cast the second-most ballots with 1,738. Ward 5 covers much of west Holyoke: the Whiting Farms neighborhood, most of the Homestead Avenue neighborhood and all but the northernmost section of the Rock Valley neighborhood. Ward 3, which covers the entirety of Elmwood neighborhood, had the third-most turnout with 1,422 votes.

Those results were similar to the preliminary election in September, and Wards 3, 5 and 7 were the ones that propelled Sullivan to first place among that seven-candidate preliminary field. Those wards are the city’s wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods, according to U.S. census data.

But on Tuesday, Ward 7 came out strongly in favor of Garcia, handing him a 209-vote victory there. In Ward 3, he lost to Sullivan by only eight votes. In Ward 5, Garcia lost by 240 votes.

Garcia scored huge victories in the city’s more Hispanic neighborhoods. He won by 282 votes in Ward 1, which contains the Flats and downtown neighborhoods. Ward 2 — representing Churchill, Springdale, Ingleside and South Holyoke, where Garcia grew up — handed him a 208-vote victory.

Garcia’s biggest victory was his 312-vote margin over Sullivan in Ward 4, which contains parts of downtown, Churchill and the Highlands. He also carried Ward 6 by 242 votes. Ward 6 contains the Oakdale and Jarvis Avenue neighborhoods.

Similarly, Rivera and Maldonado Velez came in first and second in both Wards 1, 2 and 4. In Ward 6, Rivera won a big victory and Maldonado Velez came in third behind Tessa Murphy-Romboletti. Lefebvre, meanwhile, won every single ward against Hickey, who had made his opposition to what he called “critical race theory” a central plank in his campaign.

But although voters removed two incumbent at-large councilors — James Leahy, an 11-term councilor, and Howard Greaney, who had served for six years total — other incumbents fared better.

In ward races, incumbent David Bartley and Juan Anderson-Burgos won comfortable victories in Wards 3 and 6, respectively, and incumbent Linda Vacon squeezed out an 18-vote victory over challenger Guy O’Donnell. At-large incumbents Peter Tallman and Joseph McGiverin finished third and fourth, respectively. And another member of the so-called “old guard” ultimately came out on top of the at-large race.

Kevin Jourdain, who served 24 years on the council before stepping away in 2018, received the most total votes in the at-large race after scoring big victories in Wards 3 and 5, as well as strong showings in other wards. Jourdain said city residents like to be asked for their vote and that the election results have a lot to do with who campaigned the hardest.

“The public elects its people that they want,” he said. “In this case, you had these fresh perspectives and they got out there and the people have spoken. I look forward to working with these new candidates.”

In particular, Jourdain said that he was encouraged by Garcia’s focus during his campaign on the themes of unity — Garcia often said he was a Holyoker first and foremost and would represent everyone “from west Holyoke to South Holyoke” — and the city’s fiscal health. Jourdain said if Garcia is going to be a “strong fiscal hawk,” he’ll have Jourdain’s backing.

With six incumbents and Jourdain coming into office, there will be six total newcomers to the City Council. McGiverin, who has spent 42 years as a city councilor or alderman, said it hasn’t been since the 1970s that the body has seen a change of this magnitude. He said the change is good for the city, and that council veterans intend to show newcomers the ropes, just as members of the then Board of Aldermen did for him when he first took office in 1980.

As for whether the turnover on the City Council will result in immediate changes in city policy and functions, McGiverin was more cautious.

“I’ve heard so many people over the decades say, ‘We can do this better, we can be more efficient,’” he recalled. “You get inside those swinging gates in the council chambers and then you say: ‘Oh, this is how this works.’”

But for many, they’re already seeing immediate change.

Longtime Ward 1 City Councilor Gladys Lebrón-Martinez, speaking at a victory party for Garcia and Rivera, said the results will open the door for other Hispanic candidates who had previously been too apathetic or afraid to run. Maldonado Velez said that this year only two Latino candidates ran for at-large seats and that he hopes at least half the at-large field will be Hispanic in two years.

As for Lefebvre, she and fellow Latina School Committee member Irene Feliciano-Sims are currently attending the Massachusetts Association of School Committees conference in Hyannis. Lefebvre said that, buoyed by their own successes in Holyoke, they’re already looking for other Hispanic candidates to run in other parts of the state, where state education department data show that 22% of students identify as Hispanic.

“History was made for our beautiful city,” Lefebvre said.


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