SPRINGFIELD—Only two major similarities exist between Melvin Edwards’s run for Senate in 2012 and his bid for the House this year. In both races, the primary will effectively decide the election and in both races Edwards is a candidate. Then things diverge considerably.
While primary day is still several weeks away, Edwards, the Ward 3 City Councilor in the city, appears better positioned now than in 2012. Fresh off reelection to the Council in 2013, Edwards may be in a dominant position to fill the seat formally held by Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera. In comparison, his 2012 challenge to Senator James Welch nearly killed him.
Edwards is one of three Democrats competing for the 10th Hampden House seat, a district that runs along Sprinfield’s western edge from the North End, through Downtown and the South End. Parts of Maple Heights and Forest Park, most notably the precinct that includes the park itself, are also in the district. Edwards is facing Latino Chamber of Commerce head Carlos Gonzalez and community and labor and community activist Ivette Hernandez.
Edwards announced for the seat shortly after Coakley-Rivera resigned to take a job in the Clerk of Court’s office. He said Coakley-Rivera gave him a head’s up a day or so before her announcement, but his decision did not take long.
“It was the most obvious thing to do,” Edwards said in light of his political career thus far and attempt at the senate two years before.
Taking on Welch, an incumbent with strong Chicopee support and whose family goes way back in West Springfield would be a herculean task for anybody. It would require a massive war chest and on-the-ground organization, neither of which Edwards had that year. Tactically, it might have made sense as Welch had only been elected to the senate in 2010. Yet even before Edwards’s health problems, he never fully articulated why he was superior to the affable Welch.
Running in an empty seat, there is no incumbent to overpower, but even so, compared to 2012, Edwards seems more focused and seasoned. Last year he easily defeated Salvatore Circosta, a former café owner, who ran a campaign on city issues more than Edwards’s record. Circosta’s bid left no bad blood between the two. After briefly considering a House run himself, Circosta endorsed Edwards’s bid for the 10th Hampden.
Normally, in a district that skews Latino as much as it does, overcoming the identity politics for Edwards, who is black, could be nearly impossible. Although the councilor for an incredibly diverse ward, Edwards could find it difficult to expand his vote into the Latino communities in Wards 1, which includes the North End, and to a lesser extent in Ward 6, which covers Forest Park. However, the presence of two Hispanic opponents leaves those identity votes divided while Edwards has a foothold in Forest Park.
Edwards’ campaign manager, Paul Martin, is an activist in Ward 6, specifically the more affluent precinct that was added to the 10th Hampden in 2010 redistricting. With support in the newest part of district and some help among Hispanics, which given the field is somewhat subtle, Edwards could have a decent chance at victory. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, while not taking an active role in Edwards’s campaign, told WMassP&I that she is supporting him because she has seen how hard he works on the Council.
Speaking to WMassP&I at the lunching spot in the former Sovereign Bank building, Edwards was philosophical about his 2012 loss, which came a couple of weeks after blowing out both of his knees at a charity basketball event. Edwards’s message rested heavily on Springfield needing a resident state senator to address its problems, but the city was not only the community in the senate district.
“I won the city of Springfield,” Edwards said, “but my message did not resonate when I went into Chicopee and West Springfield.” Running for a House seat only in Springfield, Edwards said he can focus on the issues that are particular to the city and need attention on Beacon Hill.
Solving Springfield problems is personal for Edwards. While his home and a number of others around his are in good shape, some of the city’s rockier neighborhoods are close. “I feel those urban challenges,” he said and, “I am trying to disrupt things the way they are.”
Ideologically, Edwards has not changed much since his 2012 run. However, several issues, many of which are not necessarily new to urban politicians like him, have risen to the top of debate in Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley like drug addiction.
Edwards prefers rehab beds over prison and see many crime problems are as much a health problem. “When we talk about public safety, why are we not recognizing that the silos exist need to be broken down,” he explained, adding how education is cheaper than incarceration.
He cautions that “how” money is spent for programs is more important than “how much.” Sometimes social service programs have too much overhead. “The first money that comes off is the director, then the office assistant…” Edwards said emphasizing the money needs to get to those it is intended to help.
“If you see problems that are not being solved, you have to look at where the money goes,” he continued. Edwards cited other areas he has seen this like throwing money at crime or homelessness (housing them in hotels), “I need to see at the end of the day that you have accomplished something.”
Edwards also wants to take a look at school funding. Although Springfield by most metrics receives perhaps the largest amounts of education funds, Edwards also referred to school transportation reimbursements. Currently, the state only reimburses for busing in multi-community regional school districts, despite promises going back years for urban districts.
Regardless of which funding line is in play, Edwards’s point was developing better schools. Admitting he is not a fan of charter schools, he said, “If you had better schools, you would not have such a clamor for charters.”
Edwards faces headwinds that run deeper than just what, if any identity politics disfavor him. After all, he has some Latino support and can reach out to that community by virtue of his ward’s diversity and his seat on the board of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. His opponents also have strong advantages. Gonzalez is very well connected and Hernandez will likely have a small army of volunteers available to knock on doors.
Edwards said he would pitch his service to the community and indeed, he is the only one with a political record to analyze. He highlighted his work with the Springfield Preservation Trust and the HAP Housing program, which draw from crowds as diverse as Ward 3 itself.
“I think he is a very effective councilor,” Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, who has endorsed Edwards, told WMassP&I in regard to his’s colleagues record.
Going back to the beginning of his council career, Edwards supported the repeal of the biomass permit. There are other initiatives just since 2012, too. Central Street, devastated by the 2011 tornado, has new homes under construction, which Edwards helped shepherd through the Council.
“That required a collaboration to get neighbors together,” Edwards said.
There was also the new Elias Brookings School, but Edwards said he has been pushing to make sure the school is available for community use outside of school hours. Edwards—who has taken up historic preservation as a cause—had a role in the demolition delay ordinance and pushed for the reestablishment of the Police Commission. But, as a “Staunch supporter of Barbieri as commissioner,” a reference to top cop, John Barbieri, Edwards said he is “looking forward to working for him.”
However, it may be his community work that could be the sell in this race. Edwards has been the board president of Keep Springfield Beautiful, a group that works to combat blight, dumping and. Via KSB Edwards has engaged with neighborhoods far and wide including heavily Latino quarters in the North End. “How can I help clean your neighborhood?” he says is how he approaches any community and has said he has helped Luna on projects in her ward.
“Judge me on my ability to do,” Edwards said, addressing the identity politics. “That is a fair criticism if I fail [to deliver],” he continued.
The split in the Latino vote, however, does give Edwards the opening he needs and indeed the edge he might have, although he is clearly not eschewing that segment of the vote. While some Latino groups are under pressure to support one of the two other candidates, Edwards will need to maintain and grow his support in Hispanic community. Were he the nominee and thus, the rep for the district, Edwards could quickly become a target of a primary challenge himself in 2016.
“Some folks imply the seat should be a Latino seat,” Edwards said, “If we are still electing candidates because of their race, culture or background, how sad is that?”