In Familiar Election, Lysak Seeks More Time to See Initiatives Out…
SPRINGFIELD—The battle for Ward 8’s council seat is a familiar one. Incumbent John Lysak is seeking reelection and the challenger is Orlando Ramos, whom Lysak beat twice, sometimes very narrowly. Even if the race may seem like rerun, the players are anything but conventional in a city known for its family-name politics.
Lysak, who is and seeks to remain, for another term, the first Ward 8 Councilor in a half century, does not see this as a position he will hold forever. Nevertheless, he is seeking another term this cycle because, in his words, “I enjoy doing what I am doing” adding that he has some things like infrastructure projects in the ward he would like to see to fruition.
At his election in 2009, Lysak gained notoriety for being the Council’s sole Republican, a distinction that Bruce Stebbins before him enjoyed. But “Republican” does not define him accurately either literally or even philosophically. He left the party last year to vote for Melvin Edwards in the Hampden Senate Primary last year and has not returned.
Lysak’s positions hardly typify Republicans—either the conservative zealots in Washington or the ruthless and often self-serving inside baseball of the state party. Indeed, by almost any measure, Lysak, despite his critics, is hardly the most conservative member of the Council, having held out against biomass and encouraging a discussion about taxing housing with more than six unit’s as a commercial property. It was he, at the request of former Councilor Amaad Rivera, who helped kill a settlement that would weaken the city’s foreclosure ordinance, buying time with a Rule 20 invocation that ultimately led the full Council to vote down the change.
Speaking to WMassP&I at Hannah’s Diner and Deli in Indian Orchard, Lysak laid out how the 34 year-old got hooked on politics. Born in Springfield Lysak is tall and, quick to crack a joke about his weight, has a large figure. His father was a German immigrant with an Eastern European background. His mother was born here. His parents split up when he was young and his family shuttled between Florida and Springfield over the years.
Lysak’s mother worked a number of jobs, but one of them was at a retirement home where an ex-mayor Florida mayor noted the young Lysak’s proclivity to talk about all manner of things and recommended a path in politics. That sparked an interest in him to tune into presidential addresses like those Reagan and Bush the elder.
Needless to say, the presidential addresses, coming from Republicans of his youth, drew Lysak to that party. He did have a few stints in the City Committee’s leadership and ran against Ben Swan in 2004, but ultimately, as he says he now takes a pox on both houses approach to partisan politics. “Party means absolutely nothing,” he said.
Lysak turned to municipal politics after that. He ran in the two elections that preceded the reintroduction of ward representation, failing to nab a Council seat. Obviously, a ward seat offered Lysak a better chance. He had lived in the ward sporadically throughout his life, but his grandparents house, which he now owns and lives in with his children, was there as well. Like many 2009 ward contestants, Lysak came from second place in the preliminary to score victory.
The 2011 campaign was a bit nastier and scrambled by weather. While Lysak denies it, Ramos supporters point to impact of the late October snowstorm which knocked out power to much of the city and produced more debris than the tornado earlier that year. However, the election came about in the context of a public airing of Lysak’s divorce which left a bad taste in many voters and observers’ mouths anyway. Whatever the claims, voters dismissed them as Lysak, a father of three, won.
Last year, Lysak waged a campaign for Council president that kept the identity of the Council president unknown until mid-December, a rarity for Springfield.
This election, while more like 2011 than 2009 with Lysak as the incumbent, is in its way a new one with no mayor at the top of the ticket. Lysak, who says he holds no grudge against Ramos for his persistence, goes as far to say everybody should have a challenger.
While not marching into dissent alone as often, if ever, as his colleague in neighboring Ward 2, Mike Fenton, Lysak has a reputation for rocking the boat. “They are afraid of what may come down and bite them,” he said of his colleagues less willing to (rationally) raise objections. Lysak pointed to his votes against the budget this year. His reasons were the closure of the Pine Point Library, which affects his ward and the inclusion of revenues that did not yet exist in the budget.
Lysak also challenged a line in the budget to fund the casino consultant beyond the voter referendum. Mayor Domenic Sarno seemed to threaten by implication projects in Ward 8 could be delayed (some accounts say cut). Although the casino consultant line was not eventually slashed, the response from Sarno was probably a blunder as now any pullback on projects like those on Boston Road would become Exhibit “A” in claim of political retribution.
But it was biomass that probably endeared Lysak to some, particularly in the environmental and public health communities. The proposed plant, which had been slated to burn construction waste and then wood chips, was to be located in his ward near I-291. During the Council’s deliberations on repealing the special permit, Lysak was among the most vehement opponents saying at one point, “no amount of money was worth the risk” and going toe to toe with David Callahan, the man behind the project, and his lawyers.
But not all of Lysak’s efforts have not always bore much, if any fruit. His proposal, actually a resolve calling on the legislature to allow municipalities to tax housing properties with more than six units at the commercial rate died in committee.
Another resolve, one calling for a suspension of the gas tax during a period of high prices, did pass. However, nothing came of it and state officials dismissed the idea saying it would cause the state to default on bonds that are financed with the tax. Resolves in Springfield are nonbinding.
Aside from policy, however, Lysak has a reputation for not being, as some feared with ward representation’s return, provincial. “When the South End is doing well, Pine Point is doing well,” he said. He claimed to receive calls from residents throughout and the city and not just his ward.
While this claim cannot be independently verified, it is true that Lysak has appeared at events around the city, including those that are distinctly not citywide affairs. Indeed, he and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, who share a friendship if not always the same opinion of politics, have often traveled to events together.
Their friendship appears genuine, too. When Edwards was severely injured last year and when Edwards’s wife was attacked by a dog, Lysak was on hand to help. Not everyone on the Council holds Lysak in high esteem. However, while not thrilled with all of his votes, the most serious members of the body do respect him and his input.
As universal as Lysak can be, he like many of his colleagues and challengers like Ramos agree that ward representation has greatly helped. Lysak noted that improvements to the intersection of Front, Main and Worcester Streets in Indian Orchard dated back to the 1990’s and only got into gear (and completed) in the last few years. Whether these improvements are due to Lysak are more difficult to confirm or deny, but the need of these projects is indisputable.
Policy aside, it does appear that Lysak is into the constituent services aspect of the job. After the interview, Lysak said he was due to pick up a constituent and help her settle an issue with a city agency. During a brief pause in the interview in which Lysak went to his car, a man driving stopped and told Lysak about a dangerous condition involving overgrowth up the road. Lysak told him that he would check it out and send some pictures to Al Chwalek, the city’s DPW chief.
Lysak also says he does a lot of work on zoning, partnering with the Police Department’s flex squad that keeps an eye on violations and trying to correct them to improve neighborhood quality of life.
Responsiveness to constituent needs can and may very well win Lysak the election. But there are other considerations as well. Lysak has routinely criticized the city’s inability to accept credit cards for payment of certain fees. He calls the city website “clunky” a criticism shared by other younger at-large challengers in this year’s election.
Unsurprisingly, the key issue for his ward and for the city is jobs. Certainly improving the Boston Road retail corridor is part of that, including bringing in some bigger name chains, a notion echoed by city finance officials.
Cultivating those jobs, Lysak suggests, is not as simple as dropping an employer into the middle of the city. “We need to work with schools, parents, churches” and “get people on one page” to address issues. One part of the equation is reducing not just crime itself, but the perception of it. “People need to work together/report things.”
“We need to think outside the box,” he says, whether on crime, city efficiency or jobs. “Springfield has a long way to go, but we can really change the city for the better.”