A family affair: Newly elected state Rep. Jake Oliveira ready to roll in 7th Hampden District


  • Jake Oliveira, 34, of Ludlow will be sworn in on Jan. 6, 2021, to represent the Massachusetts House of Representatives 7th Hampden District. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jake Oliveira, 34, of Ludlow will be sworn in on Jan. 6, 2021, to represent the Massachusetts House of Representatives 7th Hampden District, which includes three of Belchertown’s four precincts as well as parts of Ludlow, Chicopee and Springfield. His predecessor, Thomas Petrolati, held the seat for 34 years. Photographed outside Belchertown Town Hall on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Newly elected 34-year-old state Rep. Jake Oliveira lives on East Street in Ludlow right next door to his 95-year-old grandmother Lena Oliveira. Her parents came to America a century ago penniless from a small village in Portugal.

But now, the path that she and the rest of her family paved follows with her grandson, who will be the first person of Portuguese ancestry in the town to represent more than 42,000 people in the 7th Hampden District.

“She’s very excited to see this,” the Ludlow Democrat said. “She’s lived in Ludlow her entire life. Being 95 and being part of the Greatest Generation, she was part of this service generation that we all recall — those people who grew up and were shaped by the events of the Great Depression and then World War II. She worked in a mill during World War II. She was one of the first in her family to graduate from high school.”

Oliveira will represent most of Belchertown, parts of Chicopee, Springfield, and the town of Ludlow at the State House after he’s inaugurated come Jan. 6. He’ll be filling the shoes of 34-year state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, D-Ludlow, who decided not to run for another term of office this year.

“He’s transitioning out after 34 years. He’s built up a staff over time and so he’s been terrific to work with on a lot of these unemployment cases that are coming before us right now,” Oliveira said of Petrolati. “He’s been great about talking about the culture of the building and the State House and talking about some of the priorities and history of the building. He’s one of the longest-serving House members, so he brings so much history with him that he’s been more than willing to share. It’s kind of bittersweet to see him go after so long.”

Oliveira defeated his Republican opponent James “Chip” Harrington in a tight race in November, beating him for the seat by just 169 votes. The final count was 11,262 votes to 11,093. But the victory wasn’t without controversy.

In Belchertown, a human error by Town Clerk Colleen Toothill-Berte led to Harrington initially being declared the victor with a 324-vote lead when the erroneous voting numbers were reported to the Associated Press. The mistake was rectified the next morning by Toothill-Berte and after a hand recount in Belchertown, Oliveira was declared the winner.

“Going into the late hours of the election night, we knew what the results were because they were the ones counted at the polls,” he said, adding that both campaigns had poll runners checking on the votes throughout election day. “As far as reporting to the press was concerned, our town and city clerks and election officers were working 70, 80 hours a week with all the new methods of voting – early voting, mail-in voting, absentee voting. Our elections officers were working round the clock.”

In his first two-year term in office, Oliveira thinks the biggest challenge right now is supporting Massachusetts residents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s first and foremost on everybody’s agenda right now,” he said. “The impact that’s having on our health, economy and families and social and emotional health is so challenging right now. One of my priorities going into the Legislature this January when I take office is number one, making sure that western Mass. gets its fair share of resources to manage this pandemic.”

In Springfield, the Eastfield Mall is a testing site for COVID-19 in which waiting times sometimes take hours, Oliveira said. He’s calling for testing sites to be expanded to ensure regular testing for area residents.

“When the vaccine is distributed, western Mass. should have access to the vaccine,” he said. “The vaccine shouldn’t be isolated and available to folks in the eastern part of the state.”

He also thinks it is important that members of state government work with Congressmen Richard Neal and James McGovern to help secure more federal funding for Massachusetts during the pandemic for municipalities and small businesses.

In the town of Belchertown, one of the larger projects is the revitalization of the former Belchertown State School, which closed 1992 after years of controversy surrounding inhumane conditions. The redevelopment project has been ongoing for decades.

Oliveira said he’s committed to working alongside other state representatives and senators such as state Sen Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, to ensure that the project receives funding from the state.

“Making sure that we partner with the Economic Development Council in Belchertown but also Mass Development, which manages the space and also DCAMM (the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance in Boston) in helping out to make sure that state funding comes in to revitalize that facility,” he said.

Before he decided to run for state representative, Oliveira was a 12-year member of the Ludlow School Committee as well as a past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Those positions in education align with his career since 2009 serving in government relations for a consortium of nine state universities – a job he’s leaving ahead of inauguration day. He holds an undergraduate degree in government from Framingham State University.

“We represent them on Beacon Hill and before lawmakers and the administration and before the Department of Higher Education,” he said. “It’s kind of like a coordinating body, but we work on bills that impact public colleges and universities. We advocate for funding. We organize students. We do collective bargaining for our various collective unions that are on our campuses.”

Oliveira is a champion of “An Act relative to educational opportunity for students” (S.2412) and its house counterpart bill, which would provide $2 billion in additional funding for schools across the commonwealth. He believes that the bill could narrow the gap in school districts when it comes to funding in cities such as Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee and is also calling for more funds for public higher education in the state.

“Two-thirds of students that graduate from public high schools in Massachusetts go to one of our 29 public colleges and universities and unfortunately our public colleges and universities are usually the first to be cut during an economic downturn and the last to be restored during an economic boom,” he said. “So, making sure that we revise our funding formula for our state colleges and universities to contain costs for students and to make sure that there’s a debt-free future for all the residents of the commonwealth that want to pursue any type of higher education.”

After graduating from college, Oliveira was a campaign worker for former state Rep. Pam Richardson who served the 6th Middlesex District from 2009 to 2010. He then went on to work as a legislative aide during a six-month period for state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, who now serves as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Throughout his career in politics and education, his family (most of which live in his hometown of Ludlow) have always been by his side, whether that was holding signs or knocking on doors to inform voters about his candidacy.

“Campaigns are family affairs in my family and we have a close-knit family that’s very eager and making sure that I succeed in my role,” he added. “It has been a great family bonding experience over campaigning. I think I gave them a few more gray hairs though.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.