Next month will mark ten years since I stood on the steps of City Hall and declared my candidacy for mayor of the city of Holyoke.
What a day that was. Weeks shy of my twenty-second birthday, I stood in the freezing cold, surrounded by family, friends, and my earliest supporters, and I made my case. It was the beginning of the most improbable, challenging, and wonderful journey.
The case I made was simple, and, in retrospect, it had surprisingly little to do with me. After all, I couldn’t claim years of political experience or institutional knowledge. It was really all about you. It was about the people of Holyoke.
We love our city, we believe in our city, and we are fierce in our defense of it. So, I argued, why shouldn’t our politics reflect that same passion? Why shouldn’t we aim higher?
When I reflect on these past ten years, I can see that that’s exactly what we’ve done. Together, all across the city, we’ve aimed higher.
Think about what we’ve been able to achieve. Think of the neighborhoods that have seen record levels of new investment. Think of the parks we’ve renovated and the new parks we’ve built, and the families who now get to enjoy them. Think of all the new housing completed and in progress. Think of the Holyokers from all different backgrounds and walks of life who got involved in the civic life of our community for the first time.
Today, buildings that were once vacant are home to restaurants, housing, and artist spaces. Our population is growing again, and so is our tax base. We’ve empowered local entrepreneurs to create their own businesses. We’ve improved educational outcomes for our students and we’ve made the city safer than it’s been at any time in a generation.
We fought to open a needle-exchange program, reducing overdose deaths and the spread of disease. We reduced our carbon footprint and closed the state’s last remaining coal plant. We welcomed the burgeoning cannabis industry, boosting the local economy, and taking a stand against the war on drugs. In the face of federal pressure, we maintained our status as a sanctuary city, and made our whole community safer as a result.
But what I’m most proud of is the spirit of community we’ve nurtured – the way we’ve opened doors to people and communities that long felt shut out and left behind. We built a government that reflected and represented everyone, and not only those who traditionally had access.
For ten years, we’ve worked together – not always agreeing, sometimes arguing, but ultimately finding ways to lift the city up and move us forward. And I am so deeply honored that you voted to send me back to Room One time and time again. All the hopes I had on that cold January morning have been vindicated, and then some.
When I was first elected, I expressed the desire to serve for ten years at most – enough time, I thought, to get some key goals across the finish line, and to secure a legacy we could be proud of. I firmly believe that our democracy works best when we create space for more voices and perspectives to influence the public sphere. So, with a municipal election year almost upon us, I feel it’s important to let you know that I will not be seeking re-election.
I intend to use my remaining year in office to build on our progress, to help us navigate this public health crisis, and to leave the city in the strongest possible position for my successor. I am eager to continue this work.
In important respects, the city’s next mayor will govern a city that is stronger – more prosperous, more decent, more just – than it was ten years ago. But challenges do lie ahead. In my most recent inaugural address, I talked about the threats to democracy we’ve seen throughout the country. A rising nativism that deems some people to be more American than others. A contempt for facts, reason, and science. Mean-spirited rhetoric directed at our most vulnerable. An erosion of trust between our fellow citizens.
In Holyoke, we have not been immune to these trends. But I argued then, and I still believe now, that local government is uniquely positioned to resist them. In many ways, the work of protecting our democracy begins right here at home.
We are not enemies. We are friends and neighbors. We can stand on each other’s doorsteps and have the conversations we need to have. We can refuse to caricature each other. We can insist on each other’s common humanity, and build a community where everyone feels that they belong. These are the values that I’ve fought for over the past ten years, and I will continue fighting for them, right by your side, long after I’ve left the mayor’s office.
Of course, there will be more time in the year ahead to discuss policies and politics. I’ll be happy to lend my voice to the discussion, and I’m looking forward to hearing what future candidates put forward. For now, I’d like to close on a personal note.
It’s only natural, as I look back, to take the measure of my time in office. How has the city changed? What progress have we made? But I am also finding myself taking the measure of my own life. And, when I look at the pictures from my January 2011 announcement, I can’t help but think about the people who are no longer here. Over the course of my time in office – in the midst of all the political back-and-forth, all the policy debates, all the campaign events – I lost my mother, my grandmother, and, most recently, my brother Doug. Some of my closest friends and supporters are gone now, too. If I’m honest, I still don’t think I’ve fully processed these losses. I’m not sure I ever will.
What I do know is this: I’m a different person today than I was when this journey began. I’ve grown and changed, and I’ve come to understand, in a deep way, how precious our time together is. It’s a lesson I learned from the loss of family and friends, yes, but also from witnessing the people of Holyoke.
People who lost everything in a fire, finding the strength to look out for each other. The kids I met at Kelly School and the War Memorial, whose homes the fire destroyed, who were all still laughing and playing, still finding joy in life. The police officers and firefighters who risk their lives for their neighbors, and the protesters who summon us to higher ground. The teachers who never give up on their students, and the parents who teach their kids to be resilient. Somehow, in the face of everything, you have all found ways to be generous and unafraid.
So, to all of you, I want to say thank you. Every single step of the way – through every hill and valley, every moment of sadness and moment of joy – I’ve been lifted up and sustained by you. Through all the calls and cards, the kind words at the grocery store, the encouragement to keep pushing for what I believe in, and to keep fighting for a better Holyoke – you’ve helped me get up each day and keep going.
In these ways, and so many more, you’ve brought great joy and satisfaction to my life. With every story you’ve shared, you’ve helped me see that my time as mayor has meant something to you. Please know, from the bottom of my heart, that it’s meant the world to me.