Poll Question 4 — which aims to reverse a state law passed earlier this year that allows those who cannot prove legal residency in the United States to obtain a driver’s license — has emerged as a problem in the state Senate race highlighted the district of Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester.
Republican William E. Johnson, a former Granby Select board member and longtime owner of a towing company and auto repair shop, said he voted no to the bill and supports efforts to get it repealed.
“It’s no use,” Johnson said. “All it does is reward bad behavior.”
His opponent, incumbent State Representative Jacob R. “Jake” Oliveira, D-Ludlow, voted by a majority in the House of Representatives to pass the bill and declines the ballot question that could reverse the bill.
“First of all, I would say it’s a public safety issue,” Oliveira said.
Several law enforcement officials have supported the licenses because they will see records and have fewer unlicensed and uninsured drivers, Oliveira said.
“These people live here in our communities and drive on our roads. That’s the reality,” Oliveira said. “We must acknowledge this reality and find ways to improve public safety.”
Oliveira, 36, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2020, replacing Thomas M. Petrolati, who is retiring. He highlights his experience as a district member of the Ludlow Town Meetings from the age of 18, followed by 12 years on the Ludlow School Committee during which he was elected President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
State Senate members are elected every two years and earn a base salary of $62,000 per year, which is adjusted every two years. Oliveira and Johnson are seeking an election for the seat, which will be vacated by Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who is leaving office. He did not seek re-election and ran unsuccessfully in the primary for lieutenant governor.
The issue of licensing choice isn’t the only issue Oliveira and Johnson disagree on.
Johnson said he voted to suspend the gas tax in Massachusetts, as neighboring Connecticut did until November. He said consumers need a break from high energy prices.
Oliveira said he opposed the move when it came up on Beacon Hill earlier this year because removing the 24-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax means just a few cents-a-gallon rebate at the pumps.
“It’s a rebate for traders and oil companies,” he said. It would also mean less money in state funds for road and bridge repairs.
The district has been redrawn since Lesser last won it two years ago. The new borough, redrawn after the 2020 census, includes all or part of 13 towns in the counties of Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester. It includes parts of Springfield, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, parts of Chicopee, Ludlow, Palmer, Warren, Belchertown, Granby and South Hadley. The population of the district is approximately 167,000 people and is 83% white according to government figures.
According to state records, Johnson spent $59,600 on his campaign in the most recent reporting period. Oliveira spent $24,000 but had spent $27,000 in the pre-race reporting period in the Democratic primary.
Johnson faced no major opponent. The 65-year-old said he bases his campaign on the concept of transparency, citing his 15 years as a special board member at Granby. He said he helped the city streamline budget processes so departments would have to justify spending during the annual budget presentation.
Johnson previously ran for the House seat, now held by Oliveira, in 2000, losing to Petrolati. Oliveira was chosen in a race that followed Petrolati’s decision to retire.
Johnson said he had already made the decision to hand his auto business over to his sons when the Senate seat came up. He has served on the city’s Conservation Commission and on state boards and commissions, including those overseeing professional licensing. He was a member of the Granby Conservation Commission and is a long-standing board member of the Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical School.
Johnson said it’s important to change perceptions of VET among parents and teachers to remove the stigma and encourage more students to study a trade.
He is also on the board of directors of Springfield Technical Community College, a position to which he was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, who endorsed him.
Oliveira, recently endorsed by Lesser, is touting his time in the legislature and says he is the main sponsor of $17.5 million in spending during the recently concluded legislature. That includes $6.38 million in direct aid, more than any other incoming House member, and $11.2 million in bonds, he said.
He cited work on projects such as the Belchertown State School redevelopment, the ongoing redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills project, and the east-west rail.
Oliveira said the state is on the cusp of getting more frequent east-west passenger rail service through western Massachusetts. He and other supporters believe this would connect western Massachusetts residents to job opportunities in the eastern part of the state, and people in high-priced eastern Massachusetts could access housing opportunities here.
Johnson is skeptical. “I think it’s a very interesting concept,” he said.
But he said he was concerned about costs and wanted more evidence that ridership was high enough to make rail a priority. “Our streets are crumbling,” he said. “We have water and sanitation projects throughout the district.”