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Cookouts and cash: Sheriff Nick Cocchi raises big money to run unopposed

“I don’t worry about people trying to influence me because it can’t be done.”

By Dusty Christensen

LUDLOW — When election results rolled in Tuesday evening, Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi comfortably won reelection. After all, he was the only candidate on the ballot, facing no opposition for a second six-year term running the county’s jails.

But you wouldn’t know that looking at all of the campaign cash that poured into Cocchi’s reelection bid. In 2022, Cocchi has raised nearly $190,000, according to state campaign finance data. That’s more than any of the other 17 sheriff candidates on the ballot across the Commonwealth, even those facing competitive elections. Cocchi has received more campaign contributions than all but three candidates running for district attorney in 2022, too.

And that’s just this year. In 2021, Cocchi outraised every single countywide candidate in the state — sheriffs and DAs alike. Since August 2021, when Cocchi first announced his reelection campaign at his annual cookout, he has raked in $288,757 and spent $185,411. In a race that was never contested, Cocchi wielded an electoral machine unmatched by any other sheriff candidate in the state.

As sheriff, Cocchi is in charge of jailing in Hampden County. With an $88.6 million budget in fiscal year 2022, the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department runs the county jail in Ludlow, which incarcerates an average of 900 men, and a women’s jail in Chicopee, where 130 people can be locked up. The department also runs social programs in local communities, a residential treatment facility in Springfield and one of the state’s controversial “Section 35” facilities at the Ludlow jail, where those facing addiction can be involuntarily committed and forced to undergo treatment.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Cocchi said that he began his reelection campaign the day he was sworn in six years ago and that he never planned to take any constituent’s vote for granted. In recent weeks, his campaign has held large standouts in cities across the county. On Nov. 5, he held a rally in Springfield for Maura Healey’s successful gubernatorial bid, which was attended by some of the region’s most powerful politicians.

“When you have money, it shows strength,” Cocchi said. He added that campaign contributions demonstrate that his office has supporters who believe in its mission. “And that’s something we always want to show.”

But others have alleged that contributions to sheriff candidates represent possible conflicts of interest and a powerful political network that can dissuade others from running for the office.

The groups Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability released a report in December 2021 that analyzed a decade of campaign contributions to 48 sheriffs across 11 states. The group alleged that 40% of contributions to those sheriffs came from “incarceration-specific businesses, as well as other businesses and individuals that may stand to benefit by doing business with a sheriff’s office.” That included $396,604 in allegedly conflicted donations to Hampden County sheriff candidates.

Cocchi, however, dismissed that report as a “low blow” that found no impropriety. He said that the state has strong laws in place governing campaign finance and bidding for public contracts.

“I don’t worry about people trying to influence me because it can’t be done,” Cocchi said.

Campaign War Chest

The biggest group of donors to Cocchi’s campaign was, by a large margin, his own employees. Hampden County Sheriff’s Department staff contributed $84,840 to his war chest during the 15-month period The Shoestring scrutinized. Of that, at least $13,700 came from superintendents and other top brass at the sheriff’s department. Everyone from supervisors to rank-and-file correctional officers also gave to Cocchi’s campaign.

Some recent sheriff candidates in the state have questioned the integrity of taking donations from department subordinates. For example, in her unsuccessful run against Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins in the Democratic primary this year, Tompkins’ senior aide Sandy Zamor Calixte pledged not to take any campaign cash from sheriff’s department employees, who have long been sources of political support for their bosses in the state.

Cocchi said that he can only assume his staff contribute to his campaign because they’re proud of the work the department has done under his command. He said his campaign doesn’t solicit donations from Hampden County Sheriff’s Department staffers.

“There’s no pressure put on anybody,” Cocchi said. His mindset, he added, is that campaign employees’ contributions are a compliment to him. “That’s an affirmation of the work being done and the leadership qualities I’m displaying.”

Other large contributions to Cocchi’s campaign came from prominent local businesses and nonprofits.

Top executives at Baystate Health, for example, gave $2,700 in total campaign contributions during the period, including $1,500 from CEO Mark Keroack. The leadership of USA Hauling & Recycling gave $3,000 in total. 

Other big-money donations to Cocchi’s campaign include: $1,550 from attorneys at the prominent Springfield law firm Bacon Wilson; $1,500 from former Springfield city councilor and political consultant Anthony Ravosa; another $1,500 from Hub International New England insurance executive William Trudeau; and many more from powerful businesses and political figures in the region.

Every politician loves a cookout

It’s hardly new that a sheriff raised big money running unopposed in Hampden County. 

Before Cocchi was elected in 2016, Michael Ashe served 42 years as Hampden County sheriff without once facing opposition after his initial election in 1974, when he won a six-man race running on a reformist agenda. During his tenure, he built a formidable campaign fundraising operation, according to state data.

When he retired in 2016, Ashe handed off his well-oiled political machine to Cocchi, who by that point had worked in the sheriff’s department for more than two decades. Ashe had endorsed Cocchi when he announced his campaign two years prior, after which Cocchi went on to raise and spend roughly a half million dollars to win election to the seat, according to reporting from The Republican.

During his time in office, Ashe held a yearly clambake fundraiser that drew politicians from across the state. In 1996, for example, then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry and former Gov. Bill Weld, who were both running for the Senate seat, reportedly took to picnic tables at the event to debate each other. 

Since taking office, Cocchi has continued the tradition as a cookout. Governors, senators and a range of other politicians — big-shots and wannabes alike — continue to attend the event, which in 2021 The Republican described as “one of the premier political schmooze-fests in Massachusetts.”

(Cocchi’s guests enjoy “Cocchi’s Jailhouse Homebrew” at the cookout. Source: 22 News.)

A large chunk of the campaign cash that Cocchi spent from August 2021 to November 2022 was on the two cookouts he held during that time period. Of the more than $185,000 his campaign spent, $63,370 was spent on those cookouts. Cocchi’s campaign also spent more than $60,000 on his annual golf tournament that accompanies the cookout, as well as tee and hole sponsorships for other golf events.

Cocchi told The Shoestring that although his campaign does do fundraising at the cookout events, they’re largely about building relationships with policy makers in Boston so that when Cocchi calls, they pick up the phone or call back. (During the interview, Cocchi said that Healey called him. He’d call her back, he said.)

“It’s about making sure we have access,” Cocchi said. He said it’s important that “western Massachusetts is getting what’s due to them,” and that the events bring out the local community and Boston alike to rub shoulders and seek solutions together.

Cocchi has also spread his campaign cash to politicians across the region and state. 

Since 2015, Cocchi, his political committee and his wife have given more than $12,000 to politicians and political committees, according to The Shoestring’s analysis. That includes $5,000 to the Democratic State Committee, $650 to state Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, $575 to Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, $450 to Rep. Brian Ashe, D-Longmeadow, and hundreds more to local Democratic committees, western Mass politicians and statewide leaders. 

Many of those same political figures appear prominently on Cocchi’s slick campaign website, which touts endorsements from mayors, lawmakers and other influential local politicians. One of them, Wagner, praised Cocchi for having “seamlessly continued the legacy of great work that our Sheriff’s office has come to be known for throughout Massachusetts and across the nation.” 

“His efforts to establish the first Section 35 substance use treatment center in western Massachusetts, along with being on the front lines in assisting communities with COVID relief efforts, serve as examples of Nick’s exemplary public service on behalf of the residents of Hampden County,” Wagner said in his endorsement of Cocchi.

Not everyone has glowing reviews of Cocchi’s tenure, however.

The state’s Section 35 program has come under fire from advocates and elected officials who say addiction is an illness to be treated in a health facility, not a crime to be incarcerated for. Cocchi has vigorously defended the program.

In 2019, Prisoners’ Legal Services, the nonprofit providing civil legal assistance to those incarcerated in the state, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 10 men who were civilly committed to a Section 35 prison in Plymouth. The lawsuit alleged widespread, traumatic mistreatment in the program and gender discrimination because the state no longer allows involuntary commitment to prison for women. The lawsuit also alleged that civil commitment violates the plaintiffs’ due process rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

A Shoestring investigation in 2019 found that Hampden County corrections officers’ use of pepper spray had been among the highest in the state, having doubled over the previous 15 years despite a decrease in inmate population. In many cases, the investigation found, the chemical agent was used on those either expressing suicidal thoughts or actively harming themselves — incidents that a Prisoners’ Legal Services attorney told The Shoestrong were “extremely alarming.”

A sheriff’s department spokesperson said at the time that pepper spray is a safer alternative to other use-of-force scenarios and is only used “in situations where an inmate’s behavior necessitates that the staff enter the cell to prevent self-harm to the inmate and others, and the inmate has refused to cooperate.”

“‘Thank yous’ to every contributor”

Looking at his recent campaign events, though, Cocchi certainly has the support of the region’s power players. His appearance with Healey ahead of Election Day, for example, drew appearances from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno and a range of state representatives and senators.

That political support can also be seen in his campaign finance ledger, too, where contributions from city councilors from across the region appear next to a $500 donation from the political action committee of Alkermes, the global pharmaceutical company with its U.S. global headquarters based in Waltham. The political committees of several local labor unions appear there, too, including Iron Workers Local 7 in Boston, Laborers’ Union Local 999 in East Longmeadow, and Springfield’s UFCW Local 1459. 

With his reelection, Cocchi will continue to work as Hampden County’s sheriff for another six years.

“Check the box next to Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s name to support the great work he’s leading in corrections and in the community,” he wrote in an Election Day social media post. “Vote like your future depends on it, because it does.”

Asked about his political fundraising, Cocchi said that he doesn’t take “one dollar of a contribution for granted.” He said that he often sits down on the weekend to show his appreciation to those who have helped his campaign coffers swell.

“I write ‘thank-yous’ to every contributor,” he said. “I’m just grateful they’ve recognized the work of this office and the work of me and my staff.” 

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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