When Jim Santiago was a child, his family moved from upper Manhattan’s El Barrio—also known as Spanish Harlem—across the Hudson River to Jersey City. That city, Santiago said, had a lot in common with his adopted hometown of Holyoke.
Both are once-thriving factory towns that suffered greatly as manufacturing jobs disappeared, middle-class residents fled and poverty and crime levels rose. Santiago recalls being dragged into abandoned buildings as a young kid and robbed of whatever he had on him. “I’ve had knives to my throat,” he said.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, Santiago said, makes it easy for him to understand the challenges faced by Holyoke’s struggling residents; having risen beyond his own early circumstances, he also knows what it will take to help those residents and their neighborhoods move forward. And it’s his eagerness to use those experiences to help Holyoke, he said, that have inspired him to run for mayor.
“I saw how hard it was,” he said. “I always said I wanted out of the ghetto. I always pushed myself.”
Indeed, as Jersey City has undergone a revitalization in recent years, so, too, can Holyoke, Santiago said: “I just want to see the city blossom. I know it can be done.”
Santiago, a Democrat, kicked off his mayoral campaign quietly last fall. Late last month, he submitted nomination papers, formally entering the race. He’ll face the incumbent, first-term Mayor Alex Morse, on Nov. 5. (Other candidates are also expected to enter the race; last week, former Mayor Danny Szostkiewicz told the Springfield Republican he’s thinking about running as well.)
On a recent morning, Santiago talked about his campaign over coffee at El Rincon Boricua restaurant in downtown Holyoke. Gesturing out the window to Lyman Street, he spoke of his desire to see that part of the city regain the vitality it once knew, with stores and ethnic restaurants, representing all the groups that make up the city, filling now-empty storefronts, and plenty of people on the streets.
To get there, he said, city officials need to market Holyoke’s strengths, from its architecturally beautiful downtown buildings to its relatively low utility rates, thanks to the hydroelectric power generated by the city’s canals. Holyoke, Santiago said, should be a “green showcase,” built around environmentally oriented businesses such as wind-turbine manufacturing.
“Holyoke is a manufacturing city. It’s always been a manufacturing city,” Santiago said. As mayor, he would push tax incentives and grants for green projects to attract new business and seek funding to clean up brownfields, creating jobs in the process. He calls for training programs in which students would gain valuable skills rehabbing old buildings, and programs to help young girls find alternative paths to their futures, other than early motherhood (Holyoke has the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state).
He’d also like to see a heavy emphasis on science and technology in the city’s schools to prepare students to enter the workforce.
Santiago speaks of his frustration at seeing so many people in Holyoke reliant on public assistance. “These people should be working. They shouldn’t be out on the streets,” he said. Rather, he’d like to see the city offer the kind of support that can help people help themselves. “People can change if you give them the opportunity,” he said.
Santiago is one of 12 children in his family; neither of his parents, who moved to the States from Puerto Rico, finished elementary school. “I saw how hard it was. I always said I wanted out of the ghetto. I always pushed myself,” he said. “I stood in front of mirrors talking for a long time, until I didn’t have an accent, so they couldn’t pick on me because I had an accent.”
Santiago was the first in his family to graduate high school, he said. He began working and taking college classes, but when his girlfriend became pregnant, he left school and joined the Air Force to support the family, spending five years on active duty and another 12 in the reserves. He came to Western Mass. in 1993 and worked in engineering and sales for two local companies, Gretag Imaging and, later, Source Two. Then he became a realtor. He’s currently unemployed, after being laid off from Kool Smiles, a national company that operates dental clinics in low-income neighborhoods.
Finding a new job has been challenging; while he traveled widely and gained strong experience during his time in the military and at his later jobs, he said, his prospects are limited by the fact that he lacks a college degree.
Much of Santiago’s platform—revitalizing downtown, expanding on Holyoke’s growing reputation as a center for “green” businesses—mirrors the issues that Morse ran on and has continued to push during his first term in office.
So what is Santiago offering that’s different from Morse? “Experience,” he answered.
“The mayor is doing a good job. I’m not going to say a bad word about him,” Santiago continued. He did, however, express frustration with what he called Morse’s “flip-flops”: the mayor’s decision to halt the demolition of the Lyman Terrace housing development after initially supporting it; his surprising, and ultimately short-lived, willingness to consider a proposal to build a casino in the city, after running on an anti-casino platform in 2011.
Santiago agrees with Morse on both those issues: he opposes the demolition of Lyman Terrace and believes the proposal to build a casino on Mount Tom, which Morse eventually walked away from, was a bad idea that would have drawn activity and investment away from downtown Holyoke. (Santiago would, however, be open to a casino plan for downtown, he said.)
Still, he said, by changing his position on such important issues, Morse “cut his throat.” And while he doesn’t criticize the mayor himself, Santiago said that supporters who urged him to run for mayor told him, “You’ve got to do something now. This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a kid.”
Santiago objected to a recent article in the Republican that referred to him as a “newcomer to politics.” While this is his first run for office, he said, he’s been politically active for years. Prior to moving to Holyoke in 2009, Santiago lived in Springfield, where he was a member of the Democratic City Committee and worked on numerous local and state campaigns, he said. He belonged to the Pine Point Community Council, was a board member of Keep Springfield Beautiful, and is a director of the non-profit Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Mass.
He’s also been active in the campaign to reform the state’s criminal record system, or CORI, to try to ensure that people don’t lose out on employment or other opportunities because of old criminal records.
In Holyoke, Santiago has worked as a consultant with the Latino Chamber of Commerce and spent a year as economic development director for Nuestras Raices, the non-profit organization that works on agricultural and environmental projects. He’s a member of the South Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative and speaks highly of Police Chief James Neiswanger. “He listens. He’s out there. He’s not hiding. He’s really doing something,” said Santiago, adding that he’s seen a remarkable turnaround in the downtown neighborhood where he lives thanks to the HPD’s community policing program.
If he’s elected mayor, Santiago said, his top priorities would include reducing crime and improving the city’s schools and infrastructure. “I’m doing this from my heart. I’m not doing this because I want the title or the power. I want to get things done,” he said. “If you want someone who’s really got his heart in Holyoke, I’m your man.”•