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State Rep. John Velis Wins Western Mass. Senate Seat In Special Election


Democratic State Rep. John Velis has won a special election in Massachusetts to fill a vacant State Senate seat last held by Don Humason, who is now the mayor of Westfield.

It will be the first time in 25 years that a Democrat will represent the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire District. Velis received about 65 percent of the vote to best Republican John Cain, a local business owner.  For analysis of the election, WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with Matt Szafranski, Editor-in-Chief of Western Mass Politics & Insight.

On the one hand Velis’ victory is immense, but it's also not surprising given the reputation he's developed in Westfield, but it's still a historic win for the Democratic Party. He carried all but four or five of the eleven communities in the district. But he most importantly, he won the biggest prize of the day, which is Westfield itself. It's the city that probably is the closest thing to a swing community in the whole district. You've got some really Republican, some really Democratic towns in the district, but Westfield can go either way. And John Velis won it two to one, and that really powered his victory yesterday.

Now, it's going to be a rematch apparently, in November. Both Velis and Republican John Cain say they intend to run for the full two year term. What were some of the issues that were brought out during this campaign?

You know, despite the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, it didn't change the issues so much just kind of changed the urgency. John Velis, as a state rep has really emphasized a lot of local issues within Westfield. And he promised to do that as a state senator as well, particularly with the budgets of the municipalities there. Cain had emphasized having a small business background, and, you know, getting people back to work, job training, those kind of things. Neither of those issues changed as a focus with the outbreak, but they started talking about them in a much more urgent sense. Also, as a result of the outbreak, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home I think was something of an issue that made a huge impression as well because it is in the district. And both of them promise to pursue truth as to what happened and what reforms are needed going forward.

Yeah, the pandemic may not have changed the issues, but it certainly changed the campaigning. There was no door to door campaigning, no visibility standouts, no events to attend, no debates were held. How did these two campaign during this very unusual time?

Yeah, I mean, yesterday was like one of the first time that any of them were able to be out in public at all because, you know, with a few standouts, you know, socially distance at the polls. But before that, I mean, the campaign was almost entirely, I say more on the phone. I mean, there's definitely digital because both campaigns had ads for them on Facebook. John Velis was on television as well. But I mean, I think a lot of this campaign just came down to phone banking, reliable voters, and for the most part, it does seem to have worked.

And turnout was about 15%. How was the How was turnout affected by the by the health concerns?

I'm not sure that it was affected at all, I think what would probably made a big difference was there were lot of mail-in votes in Westfield, East Hampton. I know that the Mass Live had reported that Holyoke was getting like 1- 200 requests a day. So I mean, there was definitely a lot of interest in this election, so much so that it actually turned out ultimately in broad numbers end up being about the same as it was for the last special Senate election that was held Massachusetts back in 2017, up in Fitchburg and Leominster. Roughly the same number of people voted in both yesterday's election and that election three years ago. So clearly the outbreak did not depress turnout that much.

Yeah, I believe the Secretary of State's office reported that there were about 4,000 absentee votes cast in this in this election and turnout was around 16,000. So not quite a fourth of the votes cast came through the no excuse absentee system. Might that foretell what we're going to see in the September primary and the general election in November, depending on what the legislature does in terms of modifying the voting procedures?

Yes, I think that it will certainly give a sense of the interest to take advantage of this for individuals who probably have concerns about going out in public with the disease still out there. That said, I do think it's important to emphasize that, obviously, a lot of people still will vote in person. And, again, in the context of a special election when turnout is lower, in a number of the places I visited, I heard that turnout was fairly steady. I mean, everybody was wearing masks. The polling places did appear to be prepared for the some of the difficulties that the disease presented. Because I think that no matter what happens, we're going to hold something of an in person election, one way or the other in September and November and this could prove to be a very important dry run for Massachusetts to figure out how it's going to hold that election even under these conditions.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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