Voters in some western Massachusetts communities will go to the polls next Tuesday to fill the state senate seat formerly held by Republican Mike Knapik. Republican state Representative Don Humason of Westfield is facing Holyoke City Councilor David Bartley, a Democrat. For Massachusetts Republicans, this is basically a must-win election.
Since 1995, Mike Knapik held this seat for Republicans, until he left for a better paying job at Westfield State University in August. The stakes are high for Humason and his party in this special election.
“Right now, if I’m fortunate enough to be elected to this seat, there will be 36 Democrats in the Senate, and only four Republicans,” says Humason. “If Councilor Bartley wins, it’ll be 37 Democrats, and three Republicans.”
That’s right. Just three or four Republicans in a 40-member Senate. And they have just 29 seats in the 160-member House.
Massachusetts is known for being liberal, despite electing a string of Republican governors prior to Deval Patrick. But the Democratic Party now has a strong grip on state government. Don Humason says some voters he talks to say they’ll vote for him, but they want to keep that a secret.
“I jokingly say that I have a Naval campaign here, a lot of my support is in submarines, but they say they’re going to vote for me, and I’m happy about it,” Humason says.
Humason says he’s not sure why some voters don’t want to go public with their support, but he has his suspicions.
“I think there’s a sense that there’s a large Democratic machine out there, and that they don’t want to either offend their Democratic neighbors, or let people know that they’re voting for me as a Republican,” says Humason.
“Machine” or not, Humason’s opponent David Bartley is embracing his party affiliation as an asset. With the Democrats in power, he says he can work better with Senate leaders to bring state funds to western Massachusetts. Bartley also has family ties to the Democratic establishment: his father was speaker of the house in the late 1960′s and early ’70′s. But Bartley claims he’ll break from the party line.
“I intend to be my own person,” says Bartley, “I am my own person right now, and I’m going to be the guy from western Mass. representing and arguing on behalf of the people that I really love for a region where I’ve made my life.”
Bartley says he’s taken a few positions against most Democrats: he says he opposes the reinstated tolls on the western end of the Mass. Pike, and claims he was against the controversial “tech tax.” That’s the tax Democratic legislators and the governor supported, then repealed earlier this year after backlash from the technology sector. Republicans spoke out against it before it passed.
“It’s a strong reminder that the folks that are here serving as members of the minority party in the legislature are not irrelevant,” says Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester. “In fact, by making compelling arguments, [we] can carry the day as we did on that issue, even though it took longer than we originally wanted it to.”
The Republican voice in the legislature used to be louder. Back in the early 1990′s, there were as many as 16 Republicans in the senate. Even with Republican governors in office from 1991 through 2007, the party never had anywhere near a legislative majority. Tarr says being a small minority makes it difficult to do basic legislative work.
“Right now, the average Republican senator is serving on somewhere between 10 and 12 committees depending on the individual,” says Tarr, “and given the fact that a lot of committee hearings happen on the same days, it’s very difficult to have members be able to cover all of their committee assignments as it is.”
Tarr says just one more Senate Republican will help spread out the work. But to exert real influence, the Massachusetts GOP will need far more seats, which means they’ll need more voters on their side. In the last twenty years, the share of registered Republicans has declined from 13 percent to just over 11 percent. But Democrats’ numbers have also declined, leaving a solid majority of Massachusetts voters unenrolled in either party. Bruce Tarr says it will take more grassroots volunteers for the GOP to pull voters to their side.
“That’s one of the most precious things you can have today in politics is having folks that are willing to give an hour or two on a phone bank, on a street corner holding a sign, or checking a poll on election day,” says Tarr. “So, we’ve got our work cut out for us in that regard.”
Some people who are giving their time showed up at Humason campaign headquarters last Saturday, but it was fairly quiet.
The office is filled with stacks of lawn signs and flyers, boxes of donuts, and a phone bank that’s having some technical issues. Volunteers are preparing a little over a dozen college students to go out and knock on doors. The students are getting paid by the state GOP.
Unpaid, but still putting in her time is Jane Mulligan of Westfield, a volunteer campaign advisor for Humason.
“It’s the person, not the party. It’s the person that’s going to get things done for the community they live in,” says Mulligan. “And as it turns out, probably for the last 30 years in Westfield, it’s been Republican, so I stay Republican with the local guys.”
Mulligan says her affiliation doesn’t carry over to the national Republican party, or really any national politicians.
“We need more of those people that are going to go the middle, vote what their constituents want, and vote what’s the right thing, not what the party leaders tell them to do,” Mulligan says.
Massachusetts Republicans, typically moderate compared to other states, could serve as an example to the national party, says Don Humason. Particularly after the recent government shutdown.
“Here in Massachusetts, when we disagree with each other, we still pass our budgets on time, we still keep our government open, and we certainly don’t run up a $17 trillion debt,” Humason says. “So I think other parts of the country could probably take a lesson from what we do here in Massachusetts as Republicans and Democrats together.”
But the Massachusetts GOP is hardly on the national radar these days, and has its work cut out for itself locally. If Humason wins, that’s one more Republican in the senate, but an empty house seat his party would have to defend in another special election.
Photo courtesy of The Republican and MassLive