Does the Council Rooke Before it Leaps?…
SPRINGFIELD—The Dean of the Springfield City Council may have summed it up best himself.
“I think people are still trying to figure me out,” at-large Councilor Tim Rooke said, contemplating his place in the city’s politics.
Rooke, who has served on the Council since 1995, is seeking his tenth term on the Council, extending a political career that has confounded insiders, delighted journalists and both frustrated and encouraged reformers. Reared in the political nursery of Richard Neal’s mayoral and congressional offices, Rooke has cultivated an image, if at times viewed with suspicion, as a thinker, a thoughtful questioner and maverick.
During an extensive interview at his office at AXIA Insurance where he is an account executive, Rooke answered questions on an array of topics. A favorite of the press, his answers were refreshingly candid, but carefully phrased. He may not have a full-time political career, but he knows the game.
Rooke met Neal when the latter was a teacher at Cathedral and became involved in his campaigns. Under the tutelage of a Tom Shea, who even arranged for the bus from high school to stop in front of Neal’s campaign HQ, Rooke learned the political ropes. He continued working on campaigns through college.
“My college search consisted of a six minute car ride to STCC,” Rooke said. He said he paid this way through STCC and then AIC working as a security guard at the former. After graduating with a degree in criminal justice his said his father took him aside and said, “‘Please don’t become a cop.’” Laughing, Rooke remembers replying, “Why he didn’t you ask that favor three years ago?”
Upon graduation, Rooke would begin a career working for city government. He held jobs in the Council office and then, upon his election, Neal’s administration. When Neal was elected to Congress in 1988, Rooke stayed behind to ease transition for acting mayor Vincent Dimonico and then Mary Hurley, who beat Dimonico in the 1989 special mayor election. Around 1990 he moved over to Neal’s congressional office.
Rooke’s job throughout his government service was constituent services and he boasted that he had one of the highest case resolution rates in the office. Of that time, he said he learned from Neal, Shea, Saco Catjakis and Jim Leydon, Sr., Neal’s now-former district director, the importance of constituents services.
It did not take long for Rooke to seek his own seat and he challenged then State Senator Brian Lees in 1992. Asked as to his reason for challenging the well-liked moderate East Longmeadow Republican, Rooke replied “Piss and vinegar!” “”I got my ass kicked by Brian Lees,” said admitting that at that time he was all hat and no cattle.
Partisan politics would not ultimately be in Rooke’s future (a later attempt at Governor’s Council also floundered), but he was able to build from his 1992 senate campaign to win a Council seat in 1995. Since Bud Williams has not served continuously since first being elected in 1993, Rooke is now the body’s most senior member.
Rooke received accolades from this blog and other outlets for his apology on behalf of the Council early in the Control Board era for not being vigilant enough during the excesses of the prior administration. Asked if he had received any blowback from that comment, Rooke said no, if anything, there was gratitude. People called him the, “First guy to acknowledge that nobody was running the ship.”
Asked about that fairly famous statement, Rooke said the city’s fiscal problems were a revenue problem borne out of Beacon Hill local aide cuts. At first he resisted to lay blame at the feet of the Albano administration, but when pressed he said, “There were things in the mayor’s office, that we should have been asking more questions.”
Whatever the reasons, Rooke supported the arrival of the Control Board and said, “Dialogue was more open during the Control Board than it was under any other administration.” Things got done, Rooke said and were not lost the swamp of parliamentary antics and executive smokescreens. Rooke was Council President for one year during the Control Board’s tenure and thus served on the Board at one point.
A number of initiatives of his got more traction during the Control Board era that had languished for years in City Hall. Rooke lamented how meetings often slow down to crawl as his colleagues take up time asking questions that could be answered by simply reading their packets.
Part of the problem he suggests is institutional. Among the council, mayor and city agencies, Rooke said, there is a sense that initiatives must come out of the corner office or no where at all. Ideally, he continued, the three would engage each other and collaborate.
Asked why he was seeking reelection to what would be his tenth term, Rooke said, “”I enjoy it,” and like his colleagues, “There are some things that I look forward to take an active role in.”
Rooke mentioned vast untapped real estate potential of the Riverfront. He described a trip to Tennessee where he saw how cleaning and restoration of a riverfront preceded development and construction transformed and improved the landscape. Like many of his colleagues he mentioned encouragement of the arts, “When the city become a quote unquote cool place to live,” more people will move in and support market rate housing.
However, many of these ideas are not necessarily new and yet have only gotten off the ground in recently years, if not months. Many cities in the Valley have begun to move toward the creative economy more successfully than the region‘s capital down the road. Asked why Springfield has never been able to move there, Rooke sighed and said officials are “Reluctant to think outside the box.” “[The] same people serving on the same committees over and over again,” he explained saying the city needs a game changing experience to shake things up. The casino could be it, but it may not be either.
On policy Rooke scored a long term goal recently when the mayor’s salary was increased $135,000 from $95,000 after languishing in neutral for years. The increase brought the salary to roughly where it would have been be had it risen with inflation. He wanted to peg it to inflation thereafter, “That’s what I thought would be a logical step.” However, the Law Department intimated that this was not feasible under state law.
Rooke also touted other programs like senior tax credits, which are paid for out of the property tax overlay account. Rooke also noted a license plate recognition system that has the potential to reap revenue for the city from cars that have outstanding tickets or taxes owed. These ideas were Rooke’s, but as with others, Rooke claims, “I don’t care who takes credit.” He says he wants the policy more than the accolades.
Programs like the license plate recognition system came about because the legislature approved a law that gave the necessary city authority. Although many councilors promise to bring the fight to Beacon Hill, on that issue at least, Rooke has apparently done so.
“Unfortunately we have a reputation of being a corrupt city. Springfield has something of a black eye,” Rooke said. Still, he said that leaders seemed to respond positively to seeing city officials, including councilors in the flesh to lobby for Springfield. “I think the most valuable lesson is that they knew that you cared,” he said of meeting legislative leaders in Boston.