By G. Michael Dobbs
The local focus of this year's election cycle was on the man whose decision not to seek election to his own seat caused a domino effect across the area.
When State Senator Brian Lees announced earlier this year he would not run for re-election he set off a domino effect that was concluded with the election on Nov. 7. His announcement opened his Senate seat and State Representative Gale Candaras' decision to run for it opened her seat in the House.
Few people could have guessed at the time that Lees would be in contention for a different elected position Hampden County Clerk of Courts late in the cycle.
His narrow win against Democrat James Goodhines on Tuesday showed the power of his name and goodwill after 18 years in office. It was a victory of brand over background.
Lees will have a sharp learning curve when he begins his six-year term as he is not an attorney and has no background in the court system.
Usually by 10:30 or 11 p.m. on Election Night, local candidates know whether the drinks in the hands are celebratory or comforting. That wasn't the case at the Lees district office in Indian Orchard. While supporters stood around with beers in their hands, the mood was pensive.
The vote was slow to arrive and for about a half-hour with 92 percent of the votes in, Goodhines was maintaining a slender lead. One volunteer was refreshing an Internet page with the results every few minutes to see if an up-date was imminent while others carefully watched one of the two television sets to see if local stations were declaring a winner.
Lees stayed sequestered in his inner office with only close aides and colleagues such as State Senator Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) and State Representative Donald Humason (R-Westfield) going in and out.
After 11 p.m. Lees finally came out of his office. Standing on a folding chair, he announced that with 97 percent of the votes counted he was "cautiously optimistic" that he had enough of a lead to declare victory.
Amid cheers, Lees addressed the critics who had said his lack of qualifications for the position meant he was running on his name.
"Of course I ran on my name," he said.
He apologized for staying in his office, but he wanted to make sure he was accurate in whatever announcement he made. He noted that this election year had been "a tough one for Republicans."
He congratulated Goodhines for the campaign and said he knew the vote would be close.
He noted that he only had 10 weeks to run his own campaign and the challenge was not easy in a "place as big as Hampden County."
Once off of the chair which he said was the same one he stood on at his victory announcement in 1988 when he defeated Frank Keough for the State Senate Lees urged his supporters to grab a beer.
With the local newscasts showing footage of Deval Patrick's victory speech in the background, I asked Humason and Knapik about the future of the Republican Party. Pundits on National Public Radio had been commenting earlier that evening about the "death" of the Republican Party with Lt. Governor Kerry Healey's defeat.
Knapik thought the obituary was premature and said there was no doubt the party needed re-building.
He said Healey's campaign message did not concentrate on what the Romney-Healey Administration accomplished in reducing the deficit, restoring lottery aid to cities and towns and other government reforms.
Healey was also a victim of the national wave of anti-President Bush sentiment, Knapik added.
While he congratulated Deval Patrick on his "historic campaign," he said he's not sure what Patrick intends to do.
"I don't know where he stands," Knapik said. "The devil is in the details. When is Deval going to give us those details?"
"We've been counted down before, but we're not out," Humason said.
He agreed the anti-Republican groundswell made it difficult for Republican candidates this election, but he added that polls indicated the public shared many of the positions on issues that had been part of Healey's campaign.
Despite the ideological agreement, many of those voters cast their ballot for Patrick, Humason said.
Humason said he intends to work with the new governor "because it is part of my job as an elected representative."
If the Brian Lees brand was enough to attract enough Democrats and Independents over to his cause, it wasn't enough to put his aide Enrico "Jack" Villamaino into his old Senate seat.
The numbers on charts hanging on the wall of the Candaras election party site told the tale: Villamaino carried only his hometown of East Longmeadow. Candaras prevailed in Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, and Granby.
Despite the fact that Villamaino had Lees' endorsement, he didn't benefit from his boss' popularity.
"I think Senator Lees' endorsement or any endorsement might count for a point or two," Candaras said that evening. "People are going to vote for a proven leader with a record of accomplishment."
Candaras had the endorsement of Congressman Richard Neal and Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, among others.
Much of her Senate district is new to her and Candaras said she has already started getting to know her new constituents. She is planning small town meetings to learn about issues and will be asking people to host coffee hours in their homes. She intends to do as much as she can while still completing her term as a state representative.