The Qualifying Round…
LUDLOW—In the race for Hampden County Clerk of Court, John DaCruz has been running longer than anybody else. His campaign predates incumbent Brian Lees’ decision to retire and as the primary has become crowded, DaCruz has tried to argue he fits all of the office‘s qualifications. That assertion and belief animates and drives a huge part of DaCruz’s campaign.
DaCruz, a former Ludlow Selectman and an attorney in private practice is one of four candidates for the Democratic nomination for Hampden County Clerk of Courts. As no Republican or third party candidates have filed for this office, the Thursday September 6 primary shall effectively decide the election.
Like his rivals in the primary, educating the public on the nature and responsibility of the Clerk’s office makes up a sizable amount of DaCruz’s pitch. The reason is simple. It allows DaCruz to argue his qualifications fit the job best.
Sitting in his office conference room, DaCruz related what a friend said about the race. “Ashe has the hammer, Laura has the pliers, Linda has the screwdriver, you’ve got the toolbox,” he said referring to his opponents in the race.
DaCruz, like Laura Gentile, the other attorney in the race, breaks the job down into its political, legal, administrative and managerial components. He argues that his term in politics and experience practicing law both for the District Attorney and in his own general law practice make him best suited to be the next Clerk.
During a recent interview at DaCruz reflected on some of the town’s recent accomplishments. He noted that the Ludlow Mills, a large former factory on Chicopee River is in the process of renovation and that the construction projects around his office were a part of a broader redevelopment near the mill.
Born in Springfield to the children of Portuguese immigrants, DaCruz’s family moved to Ludlow when he was four. DaCruz graduated from Ludlow High School and then received his undergraduate and law degrees from Western New England.
The Board of Selectman, which DaCruz left earlier this year at the expiration of his term, is the executive branch of Ludlow. The Board, a five member body and Town Manager, run the town. DaCruz, along with the other selectman, wrangled with the town’s $50 million dollar budget and worked with state agencies to get money for town projects.
It was “good background into the legislative process,” DaCruz said drawing a connection to advocacy for the Clerk’s office during the budget-writing process.
In his practice, DaCruz says he draws experience for the other dimensions of the Clerk’s office. DaCruz joined the District Attorney’s office after Law School, but after three years opted to open his own practice where he has worked for about fifteen years. In that time, DaCruz has added office staff including an associate.
He says his practice has taken him across the County, meeting a diverse swath of legal professionals and lawyers and working in several different courthouses. Between receiving service from the Superior Court and managing employees, DaCruz believes he has an idea how the Clerk’s office should operate and how to manage the assistant clerks.
“I believe I am the one person who has the new ideas to make the Clerk more efficient.” Efficient is a watchword for DaCruz as he describes his plans for the Court. The Clerk’s Office follows a rich tradition of utilizing primitive technology for Hampden County Offices. Until the election of current District Attorney Mark Mastroianni, only the Registrar of Deeds had any meaningful digital presence.
The registrar’s electronic system, which DaCruz himself uses in his practice, could be a model for Superior Clerk of Courts Office. “Government is too compartmentalized,” DaCruz said noting the irony of the Registry using cutting-edge technology while the Clerk’s Office one floor away is trapped in the stone age. “Why can’t we have the same software,” he continued.
DaCruz held out printed screenshots of the online presence of the Hampden County Clerk’s office. It shows only the most basic information such as the Courthouse’s hours. However, DaCruz also showed a screenshot of the much more comprehensive Hampshire County Probate website. The difference was striking and even more so given the much larger docket in the Springfield-based Clerk’s office. Arcane court websites do appear to be a problem across the Commonwealth.
DaCruz calls for putting a myriad of information from the Clerk’s office online, including a case’s position on the docket. He noted that that information can change quickly causing needless delay and inconvenience for lawyers and their clients. DaCruz proposed an online database similar to the federal PACER system. The federal system charges for access to some information and requires registration for virtually all of it.
Were Hampden County to do the same, DaCruz argued, it could return revenue to the court system and improve efficiency. While prepared to hound legislators to approve this, he said that may not be needed. The system could begin to pay for itself, were DaCruz successful. “It cannot get much better than that,” he said. Moreover, Clerks would not need to use precious time to respond to every information request personally.
When asked if he was proposing if all of the information would essentially go behind a pay wall, DaCruz did back down a little bit. He said some information would be available for free. This concern was also on the mind of Laura Gentile an assistant clerk herself, who raised it during last week’s Clerk forum at Central High School.
In the qualifications race, DaCruz seems to see Gentile as his toughest competition. It was easy to distinguish himself from Springfield at-large City Council Tom Ashe and Linda Stec DiSanti, a legal administrator from Chicopee as neither are lawyers. Pointing to the job qualifications of an assistant Clerk, DaCruz suggested that being a lawyer is critical to fulfilling the top Clerk’s job. He added the Clerk needs to know the rules of Superior Court and the courts both inferior and superior to it.
However, he only obliquely answered how he could be distinguished from Gentile, alluding to the political experience he has in Ludlow and its helpfulness in running the office. This race is Gentile’s first foray into elective office.
Pushing back against the cost of some of his plans, DaCruz notes that Hampshire County, which receives money from the same pot as Hampden County, has been able to make such advances. He also argue that many changes, like regular meetings wit the Chief Judge of the Superior Court, the District Attorney, and other court officials do not cost anything and could help in improving operations at the Hall of Justice.
DaCruz has also been in discussions with Mastroianni about establishing a Gun Court in Hampden County, an idea raised in the Springfield City Council earlier this year.
The Thursday election for the Primary makes the outcome of the election almost impossible to guess. However, DaCruz appears to have a strong base in Ludlow where signs for his campaign abound form Indian Orchard to the turnpike on-ramp. That support appears to spill out into Springfield and down Parker Street as well. In other words, turnout could be critical to the election.
On the conference room wall, DaCruz has posted turnout numbers for 2010’s District Attorney Democratic primary. Stephen Buoniconti, DaCruz noted, won the nomination with less than 11,000 votes in a five-way race. Turnout was minimal in 2010 because few major state races had contested primaries, and the situation is only slightly different now. Only the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional race could draw out more voters with an unknown impact on down ballot races.
Either way, DaCruz noted, marshaling his supporters in Ludlow and new ones elsewhere could change the arithmetic in a race which will likely be won by plurality.
Although politics are not new to him, the size of the electorate is 10-20 times bigger than in Ludlow alone. Still, DaCruz has enjoyed the campaign so far and the opportunity to meet people at community events across the County. He has also had the chance to build upon relationships he has established after 18 years of legal practice.
In the end, for DaCruz this race appears to be about getting the system to work right. He says he sees a system go through a cycle of administrations and not make any progress and wants to change that. “I see a lot of waste & I think we can do better,” he said.