2013 An Election Odyssey: Jimmy Eat World…
UPDATED 9:41PM: For grammar and minor edits.
This is the third post in a series analyzing the results of the 2013 election.
SPRINGFIELD—In retrospect, at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera may owe his political career to chance. When former State Senator and later clerk of courts Brian Lees retired in 2006, he set up a cascade of retirements that led to a vacancy which Ferrera filled. But after that, it was all on Ferrera to keep the dream alive.
Last month after surviving three intervening election cycles, Springfield voters ended the dream and booted Ferrera from office. His time on the Council and as President from 2012 to 2013 was fraught with tension among colleagues and city bureaucrats, criticism from the media and voters and jokes at his expense. Ferrera did, however, maintain a dogged loyalty from an eventually too-small base. Whatever their view, supporters, opponents and observers largely declined to comment on this story.
In the hours and days that followed his sixth-place finish and defeat for reelection last month, many were still mocking Ferrera, his wacky ideas and his pronunciation of the City of “Shpringfield.” On top of losing as the sitting Council President, it was a less than dignified end to a political career that owed itself greatly to serendipity and then terminated by frustrated voters who never saw the change Ferrera once seemed to embody.
Ferrera owes his loss to a series of miscalculations over the past year or two, many of which are enumerated below. Quick blasts of press visibility as a substitute for substance were a huge part of his campaign and likely part of why he sought another term as president. Unfortunately, his positions often angered people as much as won them. Campaign spending reports show he relied too heavily on broadcast for TV ads and not cable stations where voters could be micro-targeted. More to the point, what allies he has proved unable to move the needle in his favor.
Ferrera began his quest to get into politics in 2005, the year he placed 10th in the City Council then all at-large election. A graduate of Cathedral High School and AIC, as a youth he is said to have long had an interest in politics but he was also described as an outsider. That 2005 campaign projected a perhaps over-eager, but otherwise outwardly earnest person living his dream of a political career. His campaign finance reports that year concurred, lacking the powerful names often seen donating to Springfield pols.
When Councilor Puppolo resigned his Council seat in 2007 to take a seat in the Massachusetts House of Reprentatives, Ferrera exercised his right to fill the vacancy. Ferrera, then 25, joined the Council amid some high hopes that some youthful vigor might shake-up a body then neutered by the Control Board and partly to blame for the city’s fiscal woes. When that attitude soured is difficult to pin down, but tension certainly rose as the Council changed under ward representation and suddenly Ferrera had more competition for both passion and ideas.
Ferrera gradually discarded any semblance of an eager do-gooder and increasingly assumed a demeanor and agenda that oozed either a naïve ignorance or cynical political calculation. His campaign warchest relied more and more on the familiar names. Not an indication of anything itself, but eyebrows rose as those contributions coincided with a vote to sustain the biomass permit or The Boston Globe’s placement of him on a list of politically connected and suspect Probation employees.
Ferrera had his moments with many councilors, but his most frequent foil became Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton. Nabbing Ferrera’s “baby of the House” title and prone to better allocution, Fenton often did battle with Ferrera at meetings. Others, like Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards would dress Ferrera down at times and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen often marshaled facts and better arguments against Ferrera. Yet, the youngest councilors’ rivalry was obvious, if not exactly evenly matched.
Allen and Fenton would later experience Ferrera’s heavy-handed approach to politics in 2012 when Ferrera left the two ward councilors with few if any committee assignments, a slight without precedent. Despite insisting to The Republican the selection was “not a political process,” Ferrera handed out assignments to councilors who had supported him early on.
The backlash was severe, attracting three days of attention not just from blogs, which have shown Ferrera little mercy, but from The Republican too. Neighborhood groups condemned Ferrera, and he and Fenton seemed to make up. Ferrera avoided the same mistake his second year as president. Both Allen and Fenton chaired committees. Other appointments Ferrera made were applauded, but yielded debatable results.
Before the committee dustup, Ferrera had long been a target for criticism and snark from the city’s blogs. Other media was little better. As President, Ferrera gained more attention, but from a public relations standpoint, if he hoped for positive coverage, the result was hit or miss.
Ferrera did not respond to a recent request for comment on an earlier version of this story’s billed as an evaluation of our press coverage of him. It ultimately transformed into the present retrospective. However, going back at least a year, if not longer, WMassP&I made attempts to solicit Ferrera’s input on any story in which he might be criticized. Anecdotally, Ferrera has referred to WMassP&I’s Editor-in-Chief, as a “punk,” in reaction to the usually tough coverage of Ferrera and his actions. Still, if he makes comments to others, it implies he and his family are avid readers of the blog.
As for WMassP&I’s fairness, a political insider who requested anonymity emailed, “Frankly; [WMassP&I] is the only place that actually calls his ‘antics’ what they are; ‘antics.’” The insider added that Ferrera is often unchecked by media or his colleagues, “it is refreshing to actually see a publication delve into why the President does what he does and 9 times out of 10 it is for purely political reasons.”
Elsewhere in the media, The Valley Advocate, while more diplomatic, has not exactly been an ally. The Springfield Intruder, a more conservative enterprise, has rarely held back, and Bax & O’Brien, the irreverent DJ’s of WAQY, rarely missed an opportunity to lampoon the councilor.
But it was likely the drama on the Council undermined Ferrera’s reelection most. Ferrera’s relationship with his colleagues was complex and as were his bids for president. Still, sources on and off the Council, as insufferable Ferrera’s antics were, credited his constituent services (even if he checked voter registration first), typical courtesy and willingness to back colleagues’ other endeavors. He had close allies, too, like Councilors Bud Williams and (inexplicably) Zaida Luna. His absolutism on issues proved to be a problem, even if it earned him outside plaudits as well.
The hardliner stance helped bring down efforts to establish a Police civilian review board. Shepherded by Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, the proposal could not restore full disciplinary powers without breaching Police Commissioner William Fitchet’s contract. Yet Ferrera refused to back anything less than that, contract law be damned.
During another fight involving contract law, Ferrera’s stubborn approach was on display again. Despite appointing Fenton to chair the special Residency Committee this year, he undercut the reforms that emerged. After the Council sustained Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto of one ordinance, Ferrera released his own proposal that would eliminate all existing residency waivers, which was ridiculed by City Hall denizens as the “fire everybody” bill.
Council records show Ferrera never attended Residency Committee meetings and he failed to show at the meetings that followed the introduction of his ordinance. At a debate for at-large Councilors before the election, Ferrera tied himself up in knots explaining how he never attended the committee’s meeting, but nevertheless the committee was to blame for not approving his proposals.
Other clashes were more subtle. He contributed to a steady increase in the use Rule of 20 and other dilatory maneuvers that privately irked longer serving members like rules maven Kateri Walsh. A lack of consultation with his colleagues did not help, as when Ferrera used Rule 20 to delay approval of the casino deal (a prompt special meeting later granted approval). Many also took a dim view of Ferrera’s sanctimonious and nasty badgering of city officials.
His most recent clash was with Tom Ashe who sought pawnshop reforms this year. Reforms included more comprehensive reporting requirements, and returning the holding period for pawn goods to the 30 days it had been prior to 2011. Indeed, Ferrera himself had sponsored an increase in the holding period as recently as last year. This year he pulled out all the stops to kill any changes.
The issue came to a head Ashe sought to bring up the issue again after a high profile press conference. Ferrera did not contest Ashe’s vote to remove the item from committee. Instead, he gutted the ordinance by amendment and Ashe withdrew it. Days later, Ferrera cashed a $500 contribution from the wife of a retired pawnbroker, just one of many that attracted the attention of WGGB. Through it all, Ferrera hung his hat on a ban on new pawn shops. Victims of theft were unimpressed.
If Ferrera, a Democrat, had few fans within the city’s reform community, his standing in the establishment was little better. He openly flirted with endorsing Republican Scott Brown in last year’s US Senate race. The leaked date between the Council President and Brown proved not to be a match made at Murphy’s Pop Shop (likely a rare smart move on the part of Brown & Company). It certainly rankled Democrats and supporters of US Rep. Richard Neal, who had aligned his reelection efforts with Elizabeth Warren. Nor was it quickly forgotten, as Ferrera remained persona non grata among Neal’s people as they aided Ed Markey’s senatorial bid this year.
Proof as to who mentored Ferrera in politics is not conclusive. Rumors swirl of connections to the city’s shadier, felonious figures, but circumstantial evidence exists tying him to the city’s disgraced ex-mayor, premier political showman and current Governor’s Councilor Michael Albano. The apparent evidence is odd since Albano usually stays at arm’s length from his henchmen. Moreover, as quickly as an insider would say Albano and Ferrera were in cahoots, word came around Ferrera was on the outs again.
One such example came about when Ferrera offered a resolve to mark the death of Mafalda “Muffie” Albano, the mother of the former mayor. Putting aside that Mafalda’s work was largely in Longmeadow, a proclamation may have been more suitable. The resolve passed, nevertheless. Another earlier paean to Albano may have been Ferrera’s stillborn anti-prostitution ordinance, which seemingly echoed one Albano pushed as mayor. Albano’s proposal ran aground when women’s groups called it misogynistic. Ferrera’s measure did come to a vote, but failed 11-1.
The arc of Ferrera’s tenure may be a familiar one both in American politics and human tragedy. If he was the subject of derision, even bullying, as a youth he may not have ultimately learned the right lesson over time in his approach of both his colleagues and city officials. At the same time in tracking Ferrera’s progression, he may be more of an Othello, led astray by darker forces looking out only for themselves. But sympathy has its limits. Ferrera cannot have always acted with his eyes wide shut.
Having had a taste for politics and of power, Ferrera has almost certainly not exited the stage yet. It is unclear what his next step will be, but he will almost certainly return if an at-large vacancy opens. For now, come this January, Ferrera will be exactly where he was eight years ago—on the outside looking in.