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In Holyoke, candidate could become city's first Latino mayor

Joshua Garcia and Michael Sullivan are running for mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. If Garcia were to win, he would be the city's first Puerto Rican mayor in the city's history.
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Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Joshua Garcia and Michael Sullivan are running for mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. If Garcia were to win, he would be the city's first Puerto Rican mayor in the city's history.

For the first time in a decade, residents of Holyoke, Massachusetts, will pick a new mayor this Election Day. The race is between former business owner and City Councilor Michael Sullivan and Joshua Garcia, a veteran of municipal government who is currently the town administrator in Blandford, Massachusetts.

If Garcia were to win, he would be the first Puerto Rican mayor in city where about half the residents identify as Puerto Rican.

Sullivan and Garcia are both lifelong residents of Holyoke. They differ in professional experience and style, although on the surface their campaigns don’t differ too much when it comes to policy.

One agreed upon priority is to get Holyoke Public Schools back under local control. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has had oversight of the district since 2015, due to low student performance.

In one of several candidate debates, Sullivan said when it comes to school oversight there is no better “form” than local control.

“Local people know what we need to do,” Sullivan said. “We have a different community than many cities throughout the state.”

In particular, Sullivan sited changes at Dean Technical High School as among the biggest failures of the state receivership. In 2018, Stephen Zrike, then district receiver/superintendent, made the tech school part of the high school campus.

“We need to bring back Dean Tech as a functional school,” Sullivan said.

Ending the receivership is also a priority for Garcia. He said he would work collaboratively with Holyoke’s school board and the state to make the transition.

“That means understanding what the benchmarks are between the next three to four years,” Garcia said, “so that as we proceed forward, we are hitting targets on the path for that transition back to local control.”

Over the past few months Garcia and Sullivan have both talked about shoring up existing infrastructure and attracting new industry to the city, developing Holyoke’s energy needs, and addressing the city’s opioid crisis – which has contributed to a crisis of poverty and homelessness.

After years of growth among Holyoke’s Hispanic population, the Census in 2017 reported the city had become majority Latino. If elected, Garcia would be Holyoke’s first Latino mayor.

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, said he finds it curious the city has not yet had a Puerto Rican mayor.

“The Bronx is majority Hispanic,” Vargas-Ramos said. “It’s over 50% Hispanic and they have had borough presidents since the 1990s that have always been Puerto Rican.”

New York City has yet to elect a Hispanic mayor, Vargas-Ramos said, but the Hispanic population there has never exceeded 30%.

Hartford, a larger city with a Hispanic population of about 45%, has elected two Hispanic mayors in the last 20 years.

Holyoke’s past mayors have been Polish, French Canadian, Irish. (If Michael Sullivan wins, he would be the second Michael Sullivan elected this century.)

At one point, the Irish were the largest migrant group to a city that needed workers in its paper mills. Puerto Ricans began migrating to Holyoke in the 1950s, in waves in following decades. At first the tobacco industry offered gainful employment and housing in Holyoke was affordable.

Statistically, Vargas-Ramos said, the election of an Hispanic mayor is overdue.

“The fact that you have a limited representation in the [city] council,” Vargas-Ramos said, “also speaks volumes.”

Several factors contribute to the Hispanic population’s limited political participation, he said, specifically when it comes to Puerto Ricans living in New England and Massachusetts.

“[They] tend to be the poorest Puerto Rican population in the United States. They are also the youngest,” Vargas-Ramos said. “They’re also the ones with a larger proportion of Spanish speakers, which correlates to being fairly recent migrants from Puerto Rico.”

Overall Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics tend not to be asked to participate in the political process to the same extent as other groups, Vargas-Ramos said.

In the Holyoke mayoral race, that topic surfaced during the WWLP debate.

“About half of Holyoke’s population is Hispanic or Latino. But the majority of the city’s elected officials and other office holders are white,” debate moderator Rich Tettemer said. “As mayor, what would you do to increase representation and elevate the voices of the city’s Latino population?”

Garcia replied that equity and inclusion are important, but he wanted to make it clear that he would be a mayor for all. 

“I’m a Holyoker,” Garcia said. “We’re going to do what we can to be sure that whether from west Holyoke or south Holyoke, that people are part of the decision-making process.”

Sullivan said he didn’t think there was much he could do as mayor to elevate the diversity of voices. 

“I don’t believe that it is [a] representative problem in our form of government. I think the city itself in its hiring practices is very diverse,” Sullivan said.

To some, Latino representation, especially in their mayor, is key to what happens for the next generation, including Tonia Colon.

“My parents are from Puerto Rico. My husband is Cuban, so my kids are half Cuban, half Puerto Rican,” Colon said.

Colon, who works in Holyoke’s fuel assistance office, said she thinks – at least theoretically – a Latino mayor would benefit Latino residents. 

“He can relate to the people. [I’m] not saying that the other candidate cannot because he can have the same empathy as the first candidate,” Colon said. “But when you are born Latino, raised Latino, live, eat and breathe Latino, you know how to cater to your city and to your people.”

Jason White is a Springfield resident, African American and a security guard at the Holyoke Health Center across from City Hall. He thought otherwise.

“To me, it doesn’t matter what the mayor [is] — what race or color or anything like that – it doesn’t matter at all,” White said. “It matters if the mayor is a good mayor, what his intentions are.”

But if Holyoke did have a Puerto Rican mayor, White added, maybe it would encourage more people to vote.

“They may feel more at home, and … happier, because they have someone representing them personally,” White said.

On Election Day in Puerto Rico, about 80% of Puerto Ricans participate in most elections, according to researchers at the University of South Florida.  

When Puerto Ricans move to the mainland U.S., they vote at much lower rates.

“Because we’re always hoping to go back, sometimes we don’t tend to understand that while we are here, we must participate,” said Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former Mayor of San Juan.

Cruz now teaches at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, and she spends a fair amount of time just across the Connecticut River in Holyoke. 

The election of a Puerto Rican mayor in the city would be historic, Cruz said, but she tempered that potential moment with the reality of the job. 

“You are the mayor for those that voted for you, as well as for those that didn’t vote for you,” Cruz said. “Proud as I’m sure Mr. Garcia is of his heritage, people are running on a platform that is inclusive and that really speaks to the aspirations in general, and to the pain of people in general.”

There are evident cultural divides between people in Holyoke. Divides are intrinsic in cities, Cruz said, adding that elected officials need to work on shrinking those divisions, no matter which candidate wins the race.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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