Millennials A-Massing: A Taste of the West…
Welcome to the Sunday Feature: A new effort to bring you lengthier, more in-depth stories on some Sundays.
This is the second of a two-part series on a two-part series on younger candidates in Massachusetts politics.
HOLYOKE—Could Holyokers entrust a young, energetic native son with their city government on Tuesday? Some may think that they have already done so, but in fact they could do it again and place a millennial on the City Council in addition to one already in the mayor’s office.
Were Mark Riffenburg to win on Tuesday and score one of the body’s eight at-large Council seats, he would outdo Mayor Alex Morse in terms of age and join the Council at the age of 20.
“It is so easy to sit back to complain,” Riffenburg said of the political situation during an interview several weeks ago. “People are just kind of tired. Same names, same face, same yard signs” and “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Riffenburg is only one of several younger people seeking public office in the region this election cycle. He joins Morse, of course, seeking reelection to Holyoke’s top job, Adam Lamontagne in Chicopee Ward 1 Council race, and Ernesto Cruz and Salvatore Circosta running for Springfield City Council at-large and in Ward 3 respectively. Springfield Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton is also running for reelection unopposed.
In somewhat contrast to the situation out east, the Western Mass seems to have a slightly better track record electing young people in its larger urban cities, where it can be difficult to organize or jump ahead of other, older pols. Eastern Mass does have, however more younger women running like Boston’s Michelle Wu, running for Council at-large.
Riffenburg, for his part, got the jump even on many incumbents announcing his very early in the year despite admitting, “It’s not a hip gig,” especially for folks his age he said during an interview in the small office space he uses behind an old church in the city.
A student at Holyoke Community College, he works security at the Holyoke Mall and was among those that fought an effort to place a Wal-Mart in Holyoke. Riffenburg has also worked on campaigns since his early days in high school and had a fellowship for President Obama’s campaign last year. Riffenburg would first cross paths with the city’s future mayor Alex Morse during the campaigns in 2010.
That year, Morse had already decided to take the plunge and run for mayor. “I was focusing a lot of my time back in Holyoke,” Morse said, which took a toll on some of his relationships in Providence, where he attended Brown University. Indeed, it came at the cost of job searches and applications for grad school.
Morse’s first term in office has had its successes, but also its share of rocky parts. While his youth had been portrayed as a liability in 2011, an unprepared Elaine Pluto fell to the better organized, more energetic Morse effort. Some had painted Morse as a total cipher when he came home to run, although he had served on the city youth commission, and, worked in the Providence mayor’s office, a city with challenges not unlike Holyoke‘s.
As the incumbent though, he has a record and the youth complaints are resurfacing. At the same time, Morse has also gotten support from a several councilors, Rep. Aaron Vega (who is now completing his final term as a councilor), city Treasurer Jon Lumbra and former State Democratic Party Chair John Walsh.
Speaking to WMassP&I at his campaign headquarters tucked behind a jewelry store on Route 5, Morse admitted he made mistakes, but portrayed them as admission of that he is imperfect like all people. On the casino, arguably the most fraught of Morse’s decisions, he described it as irresponsible not to listen to Eric Suher’s proposal.
“A new proposal had come to me last September,” Morse said, but after hearing from residents halted further consideration. Morse also said that those often screaming loudest about his political immaturity are his longtime political opponents. “The message is coming form people who did not support me, and continue to not support me,” he said, many often upset they were not reappointed to commission seats they had long held. Indeed, his allies, who were among the most upset have largely returned to his side.
Opponents complain Morse takes credit for projects began before him. Morse did not deny he inherited projects, but adds “I didn’t stop construction when I took office,” either. Whether projects began or were approved before his time, he now must administer them. Moreover, his campaign does take credit for expansion of community policing and efforts to redevelop properties like the former Holyoke Catholic high school.
Juxtaposed against these complaints are long held concerns about the city‘s ability to raise revenue under its levy ceiling. However, the city has not actually hit its ceiling and nobody can say for certain when or whether it will. In a statement, the Morse campaign added that the mayor’s budget have actually cut spending while maintaining city services
As mayor, Morse would inevitably face scrutiny, but nevertheless down the road in Springfield another young person got into elective office and has remained unchallenged despite upsetting the political status quo.
Mike Fenton, the Ward 2 Councilor in Springfield, says he owes his political career less to any long term buildup and more to perfect timing. Like Morse, he was wrapping up his final year at college in Rhode Island (across the capital city at Providence College) and had been accepted at a number of law schools. Back in Springfield, the city was about to engage the most radical remaking of city government in half a century.
“At that moment in my life, it was the perfect timing. There were a lot of things that could have changed that, Fenton said during a phone interview. “There was this open seat, if I went to school at WNEC, I would be in a great position,” he added.
The race in Ward 2, Springfield’s historically Irish heart, featured civic association leaders and a the nephew of a former mayor, Thomas Sullivan. Fenton played down his own family’s political connections, but round for round, he should have been politically outgunned. Fenton placed second in the 2009 preliminary behind Sullivan. Grassroots support and better run campaign won Fenton the race.
Another factor helped Fenton make the decision to enter the race at all: the two year term. Councilors have been pushing for four year terms since the mayor’s term was doubled to four years. “I know that somebody like me would never have run if it was a 4 year term,” Fenton explained. The commitment would have been too great at that point in his life, not knowing where he would be in life at the completion of his studies at WNEC.
Like their counterparts in Boston, the younger folks seeking office in Western Mass have drawn their peers into a process that they likely would have otherwise ignored. “My personal friends are an incredibly strong asset,” Riffenburg said, “It is not just a campaign thing, it is something enjoyable,” noting that his friends are often up for helping out.
Although a supporter of Morse’s, Riffenburg seemed to highlight his longtime activism (as described above) to avoid the criticisms that continue to be lobbed at the mayor. He laid out a platform of ideas that reflected his experience, but not necessarily his age.
“It is a shame when you go to school with kids and they have children,” describe classmates of his. He highlighted the work of faculty and staff at the public schools, from teaching to just being someone to whom a student could vent.
Closest to his heart was the Wal-Mart fight. At the time he spoke to WMassP&I, the retailer had yet to cancel the project due to environmental concerns with its proposed site. Still, breaking down the numbers in incredible detail, he noted a net loss of tax revenue and jobs while not creating the living wage jobs he and his peers need to get ahead in life.
Morse has not had an explicitly youth oriented platform during his two years in office, but he has seen more interest in Holyoke from his peers. Lots of younger folks (and all manner of others) are expressing an interest in moving to his city and often from nearby communities. “Its no longer gloom and doom,” he said.
But why are more young people actually running? Some have been drawn into it over the course of their lives like Cruz, running at-large in Springfield. Many have decided to roll up their sleeves and dive in as Riffenburg has. However, Fenton has a bit more nuanced and a less highfalutin view than some have of this generation.
“I don’t think it is a sense of purpose for the Millennials,” in cities Fenton explained. Rather, young people who love the places they live and yet see all their friends, their communities “professional youth” moving away. “That is leading to this participation.“ and “Motivating these kids who really care and want to stay to do something.” More to the point, Fenton added, the electorate agrees with and embraces them.
He cited a candidate like Justin Hurst, an attorney and business owner running for Council at-large. Voters “know this guy is the type of talent we want to retain.” Hurst, like Orlando Ramos running in Ward 8, falls just outside the 30 and under metric WMassP&I used for this story.
Politics is changed by their presence, too, if slowly but surely. Fenton, who works full-time at the firm of Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, is on Facebook and Twitter, but updates both sporadically, citing his busy schedule balancing his job as attorney and councilor.
Morse has said that his use of social media has been “A whole new way of doing things.” Both in the current and prior campaigns, it was a means to rally voters and send them information. That applies even as mayor, helping to leverage grassroots support for his initiatives before the City Council or other bodies.
Constituent services and responsiveness have changed, too. Morse said he was “constantly responding to constituents” that are “posting on my Facebook.” “The accountability almost didn’t exist a few years ago,” Morse said adding that it has encouraged more public participation whether by attending board and commission meetings or residents responding to his calls for applicants to those bodies.
Social media has been key to the Riffenburg campaign, too. However, “Everybody could see every single post since I was in eighth grade,” the baby-faced candidate said. “You kind of have to learn how privacy restrictions work,” adding “People don’t need to know everything about your life.”
Riffenburg said there was nothing particularly bad or embarrassing. Nevertheless he drew criticism in the maw of the masslive forums for a posts and background photos involving Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the rock band The Killers, both of which dated back to Riffenburg’s high school days.
Entering politics at such a young age carries sacrifice as well. Fenton, who has also had opportunities working for Treasurer Steve Grossman and the state Democratic party, said it was worth it. “No doubt about it. It has been one of the greatest opportunities of my life so far.” “From 22-25 was I the best brother, son, friend, maybe not,” Fenton said, but, “I feel like I am have expanded my pie,” rather than having to sacrifice any share of it to enter politics.
Morse, who had mentioned that some relationship have suffered when he first ran, “I’m getting a good return on the investment, it has been an incredible experience,” he said adding that he looks forward to helping the city progress is reelected.
As for future generations getting involved, Morse offered, “You really have to set the stage and build those life connections.” He noted that the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes belies what some people may perceive campaigns to be. “I want to see more young epople willing to put the work in that’s needed.” It’s “much more than posting something on Facebook.”