Holyoke mayoral forum reaches out to Spanish-speaking voters

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  • Michael Moriarty, center, executive director of OneHolyoke CDC, tosses a coin to determine which mayoral candidate, Michael Sullivan, left, or Joshua Garcia, will be asked the first question at a Spanish language forum held at the Flats Community Building in Holyoke on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke mayoral candidates Joshua Garcia, left, and Michael Sullivan chat before the start of a Spanish language forum that was live-streamed from the Flats Community Building on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke mayoral candidates Michael Sullivan, right, and Joshua Garcia, standing background, attend a meet-and-greet with about 20 Holyoke residents downstairs at the Flats Community Building before heading upstairs for a Spanish language forum held there on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke mayoral candidates Joshua Garcia, right, and Michael Sullivan, seated left, attend a meet-and-greet with about 20 Holyoke residents downstairs at the Flats Community Building before heading upstairs for a Spanish-language forum held there Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke mayoral candidates Joshua Garcia, left, and Michael Sullivan chat before the start of a Spanish language forum moderated by OneHolyoke CDC Director of Community Services Nayroby Rosa-Soriano, far left, and live-streamed from the Flats Community Building on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2021 9:47:20 PM

HOLYOKE — For Lissy Arroyo, political debates in her city are sometimes difficult to follow. They are exclusively in English, not taking into account the large portion of the city that speaks Spanish.

But Thursday was different. Arroyo was sitting at a small table inside the Flats Community Building on North Canal Street, taking part in a meet-and-greet with mayoral candidates while waiting for the city’s first-ever Spanish-language mayoral forum to begin. For her, it was her first chance to ask both candidates questions, and to hear them make their case for election in the language she prefers.

“Today, I feel included,” she said.

The Greater Holyoke Chamber and OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation sponsored the debate, which began with an hourlong opportunity for residents to mingle with the two candidates for mayor: Joshua Garcia, the town administrator of Blandford, and Michael Sullivan, an at-large city councilor.

Both candidates moved through the room, approaching potential voters at their tables and talking to them about the issues. Taking a pause from talking to voters in both languages, Garcia said the event was important for the city.

“It’s making the political process inclusive,” he said.

Sullivan’s Spanish “isn’t great,” as he told city residents Daisy Serrano and Rosa Gonzalez in Spanish. But he nevertheless sat down with them, pushing through gaps in understanding and awkward pauses to introduce himself and listen to their issues.

Serrano and Gonzalez, who both speak Spanish, told the Gazette that dealing with dilapidated apartment buildings and improving housing assistance for residents are important issues for them. Thursday was the first time they had heard from either candidate, and they were excited about the opportunity.

“It’s a change for the better,” Gonzalez said of the Spanish-language focus of the forum. “I hope everybody votes — that nobody stays home.”

During the debate, the candidates answered questions in English, with a professional interpreter typing swiftly throughout their answers, waiting until they concluded their remarks before interpreting them in Spanish.

“That was very impressive,” Garcia said after interpreter Katy Moonan, a professional interpreter and translator by trade, interpreted his opening remarks nearly word for word.

Interpretation aside, the debate felt like any other forum Sullivan and Garcia have participated in. Nayroby Rosa-Soriano, OneHolyoke CDC’s director of community engagement and resident services, moderated the event, asking questions in both languages.

Following introductions, Rosa-Soriano asked how the candidates planned to keep homes affordable in Holyoke, given the fact that property values and taxes are rising. Sullivan said that he would make cuts where possible in order to keep the budget in control while working to expand the city’s housing base.

“For me, that’s the key right there,” he said. “Managing our finances … and attracting new residents to the city.”

Garcia said that the city wouldn’t necessarily have to make budget cuts, but should keep close oversight of the budget while looking for ways to make services more efficient.

“This is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Garcia said — management of the city. He vowed to use his experience as a town administrator to improve the city’s management.

Both candidates said that they support the creation of a city-owned fiber-optic internet system run by Holyoke Gas & Electric. Sullivan said that coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, could be used to speed up that project. Garcia said that Blandford is implementing locally owned broadband, and that if Holyoke commits to doing so it should stick to that commitment for the long term.

Garcia and Sullivan traded barbs at times — exchanges that bilingual audience members got to experience twice.

Asked how he intends to deal with panhandlers making some residents feel unsafe, Garcia said he hears about the issue often when knocking on doors. He said his administration would not tolerate harassment of citizens, but he added that that’s different from people who are actually struggling with homelessness. He then noted that in a 2017 City Council meeting, Sullivan urged people not to give panhandlers money by saying: “Don’t feed the animals.”

“I don’t think that’s the best policy to handle this structural problem that people who are struggling with are currently dealing with,” Garcia said, stressing a more “human” approach. “We have to be sure that as mayor we collaborate with the necessary stakeholders to tackle the issue around mental health, issues around addiction, so that we can help lift the population that are going through these struggles.”

Sullivan said that his past “inappropriate remark” was born out of his frustration seeing nothing done about the issue. He said people are coming to Holyoke for cheap access to heroin, and that the city has to take citizens’ safety and security into mind while also working to get people into support programs and treatment.

“We need more feet on the street from our police force. And we need code enforcement,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to see children that are not safe walking to school, I don’t want to see businesses suffering because people are afraid to come downtown.”

Sullivan, in turn, took aim at Garcia’s town administrator experience, which Garcia has often touted as what differentiates him in the race. Sullivan noted that he has spent six “difficult” years on the Holyoke City Council, saying that experience dealing with municipal finance and learning about the city’s departments separates him from Garcia.

“Blandford is a lot different from Holyoke,” Sullivan said. “It has no fire department, it has no police department, it has no public schools. It is a very small town, it’s out in the country away from a lot of the problems we have here.”

Blandford shares a police department with Chester after the two towns merged their forces in 2019 after Blandford’s three part-time officers and its chief quit suddenly in 2018. The town has a volunteer fire department and its students attend Gateway Regional School District.

Garcia dismissed the comment, saying that managing a town of 1,200 constitutes more experience than “volunteering” on Holyoke’s City Council. He said small towns have to be creative and flexible to maintain quality of life, and that all municipalities are held to the same state laws.

“I think he and I agree on issues when we talk about economic development, public safety, when we talk about schools,” Garcia said. “Nevertheless I think our management style and values are very different.”

Other topics discussed Thursday evening ranged from how the candidates plan to use a second round of ARPA funding next year — Sullivan highlighted infrastructure projects including water and sewer lines, while Garcia pledged merit pay to first responders and local business aid — to how they plan to deal with property owners who are years behind on their taxes.

The debate was streamed live on Holyoke Media’s Facebook channel and will be available afterward on Holyoke Media’s other platforms, such as YouTube, and will also air on television.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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