Democrats Seek Garlick’s Successor

July 10, 2024
• For the local Democratic candidates vying for state office, this election was a matter of good timing.

Rep. Denise Garlick, D-Needham, will complete her 14th and final year as a state legislator this year, and with her seat open, several Needham residents pulled papers to replace her. The 13th Norfolk District comprises Needham, Dover and part of Medfield.

And like Garlick, all three Democrats on the ballot — as well as one resident staging a write-in primary campaign — reside in Needham. The primary election filing deadline was May 28. No Republican candidates are running for the seat. Bill Dermody, a Needham resident and Realtor, is running unenrolled, meaning he will appear on the November ballot with whomever wins the Democratic primary in September.

With the stage now set, Needham Local spoke with the Democratic candidates about their platforms, experience and approach to policy if elected to the State House.

Patrick Gatto

Patrick Gatto’s family planted its roots in Massachusetts a long time ago. A fifth-generation Needham resident, he owns Gatto Agency, a 75-year Needham-based real estate and insurance group he runs alongside his father Richard, who himself ran for state senate in 2004.

Candidate Patrick Gatto (Stephan Sherman / Courtesy Team Gatto)

Having grown up in Needham, Gatto moved back to town in 2020 from Washington D.C., where he worked for MA Rep. Katherine Clark — that involved constituent services, federal legislation and lobbyist meetings, Gatto said. He also worked for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign in Lawrence and volunteered for the campaigns of several officials from Massachusetts, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Gov. Maura Healey.

From ghost writing legislation — on reproductive rights and data privacy — to political consulting, Gatto said his “Democratic record of success and experience” in the field sets him apart from the other candidates.

“Experience counts for a lot,” Gatto said, “and we need to send people out there that can continue doing the good work that’s been done and expand on it.”

Gatto previously served as a Town Meeting member for a year and on the Finance Committee in Millis. He currently sits on the Needham Democratic Town Committee and on state Sen. Becca Rausch’s Small Business Advisory Council.

As a self-described progressive Democrat, Gatto said the climate crisis is a principal concern, and with a career in real estate, he also expressed optimism about the Affordable Homes Act, an effort that would potentially devote about billions of dollars to the development of thousands of affordable housing units.

“I’m always first and foremost a climate guy, which I know isn’t always very sexy on the doors,” Gatto said, “but what good is having all these affordable units if we’re all fried?”

His upbringing was foundational to his current-day politics — when he was born in Baltimore, his dad was organizing tenants’ rights. As state representative, Gatto said he would work to be constituents’ voice on Beacon Hill by pursuing policy the district’s voters care about, all while also trying not to step on local leaders’ toes.

He grew up in “old school politics,” he said, which means lots of door-knocking, occasionally with his children in tow. Those efforts will continue over the next few months before the primary.

“Public service is always a sacrifice,” Gatto said, “but we’re in it to make the world better for kids like them.”

Ken Ruetenik

Young voters don’t often always vote in state elections, let alone run in them, but Ken Ruetenik wants to change that.

Candidate Ken Ruetenik (Ben Braun / Courtesy Ken Ruetenik)

As the youngest candidate in the race, Ruetenik, 24, aims to use his platform to drive youth civic engagement — whether they vote for him or not. His candidacy, he said, is an opportunity to show his peers what’s possible.

“My generation, people my age, at some point, are going to inherit not only this town, this state, but this country and this world,” Ruetenik said, “and so, we need to be prepared to take on positions in government.”

That starts with his own campaign team, including his 21-year-old treasurer, who Ruetenik said has never voted in an election before. Other campaign volunteers are also young, all in an effort to encourage their age demographic to turn out to the polls.

Ruetenik’s bid for office follows a similar one in 2018, when Democrat Ted Steinberg — then 23 years old — challenged Garlick’s reelection.

But for Ruetenik, he wouldn’t be running if Garlick wasn’t stepping down. He commended Garlick for her service, adding she “holds a lot of political clout on Beacon Hill” and that it’s important Needham is still well-represented when her term expires.

He sees his youth as an asset, as he won’t be sacrificing family obligations for important policy work, he said.

“I’m not missing piano recitals, I’m not missing games. I would be available, I would make myself available 24/7 because that’s the legacy that Rep. Garlick is leaving,” he said. “And so I think that whoever takes this, if they don’t have that same mindset, it’s sort of a disservice.”

Ruetenik has called Needham home for nearly his whole life — his family moved from Stoughton in 2002. He graduated from Needham High School in 2018 and studied finance at UMass Dartmouth. He works at a Boston-based consulting firm.

Climate and housing comprise Ruetenik’s core campaign platform. He, as well as other recent NHS alumni, can only afford to live in Needham if it’s under their parents’ roof, he said. The MBTA Communities Act will be just one part of solving the housing crisis, he said, but officials need to figure out how to retain young and elderly residents alike.

Becoming a career politician is not on Ruetenik’s radar, and while the legislative process can be slow, he said he strives to make change from within.

“I’m hoping this authentic self and this genuine self is something people receive well and understand,” Ruetenik said.

Josh Tarsky

A principal, attorney and military service member, Josh Tarsky hopes to acquire another title: state representative.

Candidate Josh Tarsky (Courtesy Josh Tarsky)

Tarsky, who leads about 650 students at Holbrook Middle High School, said his varied career comes down to one common attribute: “a commitment to public service.”

“As a father of three, I want to make the district, the commonwealth, the country, better for those generations who come after us,” Tarsky said.

In his sophomore year of college, Tarsky witnessed the 9/11 attacks and felt called to action. After graduating with a degree in theater studies, Tarsky “gave up the dream of becoming a Hollywood anything” and joined the U.S. Army Special Forces. During his deployment in Afghanistan, he worked to build schools where education opportunities were sparse.

In that work, Tarsky “fell in love with education,” he said. He first taught English and ESL in Lawrence.

“It’s a big job, an important job that’s super rewarding, and I enjoy it a lot,” Tarsky said of being a principal. “It’s a labor of love.”

As a school principal, Tarsky and other educational leaders see an increased need in mental health support for students, especially since the pandemic, he said. Cell phones play a key role in that, he said, leading him to recently outright ban phones at his middle school and ban them in high school classrooms — discipline and bullying have decreased since, he added.

Other issues will also be on the ballot come September, Tarsky said.

“We’re in crisis mode with a lot of things, cost of living increases, a lack of affordable housing options,” Tarsky said. “There’s issues with mental health, our education systems… And then on top of all that, there’s a climate that’s heating up faster than ever. They’re all interconnected and have to be addressed as such.”

Tarsky moved to Needham three years ago, and had Garlick sought reelection, he said he wouldn’t be running. However, “when an opening like that comes up, I felt there was a need to answer the call,” he said.

Tarsky’s family is also along for the ride — his brother is his campaign manager, his wife is the treasurer and his brother-in-law designed his website.

With voters left to choose between three names on the ballot, Tarsky pointed to his lived experience.

“I’ve led classrooms, I’ve led soldiers, I’ve led schools,” Tarsky said. “Those pursuits turn you into something. They teach you, they mold you, they prepare you for leadership.”

Write-in: Bhuren Patel

While not officially in the Democratic primary, Needham resident and small business owner Bhuren Patel hopes to secure residents’ vote in September.

Candidate Bhuren Patel (Courtesy Bhuren Patel)

Patel is running as a write-in candidate, meaning voters would need to write his name on their ballots. He meant to run as a Democrat and filed paperwork to change his party affiliation from Independent to Democrat, but that paperwork apparently was lost in the shuffle, causing him to miss the primary filing deadline, he said.

He was left with two choices: run as an Independent, which he says doesn’t align with his values, or stage a write-in campaign.

“I have incurred higher, bigger challenges before,” Patel said. “I’m not afraid.”

As an international student from India, Patel attended the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, supporting himself along the way — “a typical first-generation immigrant story,” he said. Twenty-five years ago, Patel founded Community Pharmacy, which has since rebranded into Pelmeds, located in Waltham and Fitchburg.

When the pandemic hit, booking a vaccine became difficult, especially for those most vulnerable. That included people with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, who Patel’s pharmacy serves.

Patel recalls making daily calls to state agencies “begging and pleading” for vaccines for those clients. In doing so, he said he recognized the inequities within the health care system.

“We’re in Boston. We have some of the best health care in the country, and yet folks have such limited access,” Patel said. “It’s quite frustrating.”

Those literal calls to action inspired Patel to consider a future run for state office, so when Garlick made her announcement, his decision was made. With Garlick’s nursing background and advocacy work for people with disabilities, Patel said he feels a connection with the legislator.

As state representative, Patel said he’d like to address the lack of primary care physicians that lead to long waits for appointments and the high health care costs that pose a concern for both small businesses and patients.

Patel said Needham and its representatives should also incentivize big business to plant roots in town so as to gain property tax revenue that drives improvements.

“I just look at our center of town. It’s pizza shops, banks, nail salons,” Patel said. “That’s great. It supports local communities. We support them, they support us, but that doesn’t bring us the revenue we need.”

Patel, a Needham resident since 2005, said he hopes to stand out among the other candidates.

“I bring health care, I bring small business, I bring first-generation migrant,” Patel said. “I bring a different perspective.”

The Democratic primary is Sept. 3. Needham Local will profile the winner and Bill Dermody later this fall. The Needham Channel will also feature interviews with the candidates in the coming weeks.

Bill Dermody is the vice president of the Needham Community Television Development Corporation, the board that oversees the Needham Channel and Needham Local. The NCTDC did not contribute to the reporting or editing of this article.

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