Mix of hopefuls seeks at-large council seats in Holyoke  

  • Holyoke at-large City Council candidates, clockwise from top left: Israel Rivera, Rebecca Lisi, Howard Greaney, Joseph McGiverin, James Leahy and Nelson Lopez. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

  • Holyoke at-large City Council candidates, clockwise from top left: Israel Rivera, Rebecca Lisi, Howard Greaney, Joseph McGiverin, James Leahy and Nelson Lopez. SUBMITTED PHOTOS





  • Holyoke at-large City Council candidate James Leahy. SUBMITTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2019 3:34:59 PM

Holyoke will fill six at-large seats on the City Council when voters go to the polls Nov. 5. This is the second election since voters decided in 2015 to reduce the number of at-large seats from eight to six.

There are 12 candidates on the ballot competing for those seats, though only 11 are actually running; candidate Michelle Trousil has said she is withdrawing from the race but did so too late to have her name removed from the ballot. Among the 11 candidates are five incumbents after current Councilor Daniel Bresnahan opted not to run for re-election. Yesterday, The Gazette published profiles of five candidates, and today we are running profiles of the remaining six.

Israel Rivera

Israel Rivera, 33, grew up in the Flats neighborhood and has been involved in community activism since he was a teenager — organizing neighborhood cleanups, coaching basketball and mentoring young people, for example. Last year, the state Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus honored him for that work.

Rivera is a program manager in the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at UMass Amherst, where he is working on his master’s degree in public policy administration. He serves on the Parks and Recreation Commission and has worked as community engagement director at OneHolyoke Community Development Corp.

Rivera said he has overcome many barriers — he was raised by a single mother in subsidized housing, for example, and spent five years in prison. Since he was released in 2012, he said he has countered stereotypes of ex-felons. He said he wants to give a platform to people who feel like “they don’t have a voice or their voice doesn’t matter.”

“Having gone through all these experiences, I feel like I can speak to a variety of people within the community of Holyoke overall, not just a portion,” he said. “At-large city councilors — or incumbents — come from one part of the city, and the reason why I’m running at large is to try to break that.”

Rivera said an idea he wants to bring to City Council is the creation of a grassroots quality-of-life committee composed of community members from all walks of life. 

“The idea for me would be to help them learn how to just gain ownership of their community,” he said. “Stake their claim to where they live instead of pushing it off to someone else.”

He said that his community organizing experience and connections in the city will help him build relationships, whether with new businesses looking to set up shop or with everyday people. He described himself as “the common, everyday guy in Holyoke,” and said that many people feel inspired that he can run for office and possibly win.

Rivera said it is time to hold to account elected officials — some of whom have been in office for many years — for problems in Holyoke. He said he wants residents to get active in city government, and to hold him accountable, too.

“That is one of the most important things for me: getting people involved that have never been involved,” he said.

Rebecca Lisi

Rebecca Lisi, 41, is a native New Yorker who moved to the city in 2003 to work for the group Clean Water Action. Lisi is a doctoral candidate in political science at UMass Amherst, and she said she teaches as an adjunct professor at UMass and other area colleges.

Lisi has been an at-large city councilor since 2008. She said her initial campaigns were run on a vision for downtown revitalization — a focus she said she has carried through different city administrations. She said Holyoke has made progress on that vision, but there is still work to be done.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “I think we really want to bring more housing and manufacturing into the downtown area to fill in some of the vacancies that we presently have.”

Lisi said the city has done well by attracting cannabis businesses to the city, adding that she thinks Holyoke should continue to bring in those businesses and other “emerging indoor agricultural ventures” that could make use of the city’s low water and electricity rates. 

She also said she supports affordable housing initiatives in the city, and is “all in” on the ballot question asking voters to approve a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to build two new middle schools. New schools will provide needed educational opportunities to children, and will also bring new businesses, residents and investment into the city, she said.

“I think we need to demonstrate that we’re on the rise, and the schools are really going to be a signal to not only ourselves but the outside world that we are moving on up,” she said.

On the topic of public safety, Lisi said she will advocate for a more community policing-oriented model. She added that currently the police department does not have enough money in its budget to accomplish those reforms. 

Because she is a native New Yorker, Lisi said she brings “fresh eyes” and an even-handed approach to city government, without preconceived notions about issues. 

“I think that what sets me apart from the other folks, additionally, is I have really taken it upon myself to have a social media and web presence where it’s very easy to find me, ask me questions, get information back,” she said. 

Nelson Lopez

Nelson Lopez, 40, is the special projects assistant to the dean of students at Holyoke Community College, where he was previously the executive assistant to the president. He is secretary and treasurer of the Greater Holyoke Council for Human Understanding and is on the leadership team of the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative’s basketball league.

A lifelong resident of Holyoke, Lopez graduated from HCC and then UMass Amherst with a business degree. He said he came back home and works at HCC because he wanted to “be that person my adviser was for me.”

“I grew up experiencing a lot of the issues that our residents face,” he said, noting that he has a humble background: Brought up by a single mother in a low-income household, he was a first-generation college student. Education has given him opportunities, he said, and he wants to help others experience the same.

Lopez said he is building his platform by talking to people across Holyoke. And as someone who has lived in five of the city’s seven wards, he said he knows the problems different neighborhoods face.

At a recent meeting in the Flats, Lopez said he heard from residents about their parking troubles. At a neighborhood watch meeting for Wards 3 and 5, he heard concerns about recent car break-ins. 

“It’s me learning what ails the different wards and neighbors,” he said of his approach. “How can I bring my knowledge and leverage the connections I’ve made through life … to help as many people as possible?”

Nelson said he will bring civil discourse to the City Council. He said a lack of civility hurts the prospects for open dialogue.

Panhandling is also an issue Lopez hopes to address, saying that the city should be pushing panhandlers toward available resources. He added that the city should become more business-friendly, decrying the “red tape” that prevents businesses from easily opening in the city.

“One of the running themes I’ve been hearing when I’ve met with different folks across the community: They want change,” Lopez said. “If you want that change, you have to vote that change in. Take a chance and vote for the new guy.” 

Joseph McGiverin

Joseph McGiverin, 64, is finishing his 40th year on the City Council, where he said he has had a nearly perfect attendance record. He said he rarely even misses meetings of subcommittees he isn’t on.

Currently a state probation officer at Holyoke District Court, McGiverin said that in addition to his decades of experience, he brings a unique approach to the City Council.

“What I like to do is … to learn both sides of the issue before I make a final decision, and I think that’s important,” he said. “When I make a final decision, I think it’s what’s best for the entire city.”

McGiverin said he is a supporter of the business community in Holyoke. A lifelong resident, he remembers when people walked or took the bus to work. The neighborhoods they came back to all had their own mom-and-pop shops, he said. 

“We have to have a healthy business community in order to have a healthy residential community,” he said. “I think it goes hand in hand.”

He is proud of the work the City Council has done to attract young professionals to live downtown, making zoning changes so that the upper floors of buildings in the commercial district can be made into residential apartments, condos or lofts. 

“That promotes ... more demand for our entertainment district, which would mean restaurants and other venues, which would attract other people to come downtown,” he said. “It’s things like that that I would like to see continue.”

McGiverin said education is a focus of his, adding that graduating young people should be able to meet the needs of city businesses so that they can work in the community where they grew up and live. 

On the question of whether to build two new middle schools, McGiverin said he is “in the middle.” He said there are educational and financial reasons for building the schools, but that a tax hike will hurt businesses and that the amount of money the state is putting up for the project is disappointing. 

“I think I have a proven track record, both to be accessible and I certainly enjoy listening to what people have to say,” he said. “After I’ve made up my mind after hearing both sides of an issue, I also enjoy talking about what my position is.”

Howard Greaney

Howard Greaney, 76, spent 35 years working as a teacher and administrator in the Holyoke Public Schools. He then spent eight years as an owner of several Subway shops before retiring.

Greaney served on the City Council before, from 2013 to 2017. Before that, he spent six years on the Holyoke School Committee. He also served in the Marine Corps reserves for six years.

“I always supported public safety — that was always one of my priorities,” he said. “Making sure that the constituents were taken care of as far as their needs with DPW and things like that.”

If elected, Greaney said he will make improving public infrastructure a top priority, from traffic lights to water pipes. He said that early in his term he would file legislation to conduct feasibility studies for projects to improve the areas of public infrastructure that are “weak.”

Greaney also said he would work diligently to return Holyoke Public Schools to local control. He is an opponent of the proposal to build two new middle schools, saying the city can’t predict the costs of the project or what enrollment will look like in the future. And as someone who is “very pro-business,” raising taxes concerns him, he said.

“None of us has a crystal ball and we can’t afford to have businesses leaving the city if they become overtaxed,” he said.

Greaney said that as a city councilor, he would work “to keep people safe, to keep the taxes at a manageable rate, to protect businesses and to protect homeowners ... while making sure that the students are receiving an appropriate and good education for the future.”

Greaney highlighted his experience as a property owner in the city, as a longtime educator, as a business owner and a former elected official.

“The voters pretty much know who I am,” he said, adding that he feels drawn to service as a public official. “I believe it’s a calling and I believe our first duty and obligation is to the citizens.”

James Leahy

James Leahy, 45, is currently serving his 10th term as a city councilor. Born and raised in the city, he is a graduate of the public school system, Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University, where he received a business degree.

Leahy is the assistant director of business development and promotional sales at the Massachusetts State Lottery. He has previously held leadership positions in many local organizations, including chairman of the Westfield State Foundation, president of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame and president of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade.

Leahy said his platform is and has always been quality-of-life issues. He said his major strength as a city councilor is his constituent service, adding that many residents come to him with problems “because I get things done.”

“I’m not one for grandstanding at City Council meetings,” he said. “I’m the person that goes into people’s homes and helps them.”

Leahy said he always views his role as the “checks and balances of the City Council, financially.” But he also said he will continue to make sure the city has good sidewalks and roads, and that the fire and police departments are well funded. He noted that he serves as vice chairman on the Finance Subcommittee.

Leahy highlighted his recent work as chairman of the Public Service Subcommittee. After a fire burned down a historic home on Fairfield Avenue, he said he had officials from the Water Works and Fire Department in front of the subcommittee, resulting in a clear line of communication between the departments, a plan for future fires and conversations about addressing old water pipes.

Making sure the city is as business-friendly as possible is another focus for Leahy. 

“What I think separates me from the other councilors is first my knowledge base, my leadership skills and my ability to work with huge businesses,” he said. “I believe that I’m more involved with this city than any other person on this council.”

As an example of his involvement in the city, Leahy said he sponsors a youth soccer team and goes out to the fields on the weekend, even if his kids aren’t playing.

“People are moving into this community,” he said. “It brings excitement and that’s what I love.”

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

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