Fiscal Records Ripple out to a Rep Race & Mass House GOP…
Can a race in the general election for state rep or more accurately about twenty of them connect to a intraparty fight within the GOP? That appears to be a serious question as Republicans challenge Democratic incumbents in the Pioneer Valley and across the commonwealth.
In particular, this may be playing out in the contest between Rep Angelo Puppolo, the Democratic incumbent in the 12th Hampden House district, and his Republican challenger Robert Russell, a Wilbraham Select Board member. Puppolo, along with many colleagues like Mike Finn in West Springfield, has been the subject of a mailing campaign operated by Mass Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group that, in the eyes of some, has been misrepresenting reps’ records ahead of the elections.
But many see Russell as an odd choice for the GOP to offer as its standard bearer against Puppolo. In 2011 Russell filed for bankruptcy ultimately walking away from hundreds of thousands in debt in credit card and mortgage debt.
The 12th Hampden District consists of portions of the Forest Park and East Forest Park sections of Springfield, the northern periphery of East Longmeadow and all of Wilbraham. Puppolo, a former Springfield City Councilor, has served in the seat since 2007.
The race itself is somewhat typical. Russell accused Puppolo of mismanagement of the commonwealth’s finances. Puppolo replies that Massachusetts is in great condition compared to many states. The talking points Russell has used abound among GOP candidacies, but are somewhat detached from reality. The state boasts a sterling bond rating and complaints about waste and fraud boil down more to ideological differences over what the state should spend its money on and not whether doing so has bankrupted it.
Puppolo has maintained a centrist profile over the years in the legislature. For the most part, he has resisted calls from the left to pursue a more progressive agenda. He has generally speaking opposed higher taxes, but is close to House leadership otherwise.
Nevertheless, Russell has leveled charges of shoddy fiscal stewardship against Puppolo. At a candidate forum at the Springfield Public Library last month, he claimed that Puppolo had bankrupted the commonwealth and as a city councilor bankrupted Springfield.
The reference to Puppolo’s term as a councilor was an apparent swipe at the city’s takeover by the Finance Control Board in the summer of 2004, at which time Puppolo was a City Councilor. Puppolo supported the request for state aide at the time, even if it meant a control board. Four of his colleagues on the then 9 member Council also agreed.
However, as might be accused of other councilors and is the thrust of Russell’s charge, Puppolo was not fiddling while Springfield burned. That fiscal conflagration has historically been laid at the feet of former Mayor Michael Albano. Other’s blame Boston’s cuts to local aide. The Springfield City Council was certainly not scrutinizing the municipal budget enough, either. Some councilors, have been praised for at least speaking out. Yet only Puppolo, voting records show, cast dissenting votes against budgets immediately before the Control Board’s arrival.
In both 2002 and 2003 when the budgets came up for final approval, they passed 8-1. Puppolo voted no both years, complicating Russell’s charge about the city’s finances.
“Prior to the Control Board, I was concerned about the direction the city was heading so I could not support budgets that I felt were not balanced and could not be sustained,” Puppolo said in an email to WMassP&I. He characterized the votes as not easy, but were the fiscally prudent thing to do. He added, perhaps in a subtle jab at Russell, “I feel strongly that public officials and candidates must be responsible in their spending and must live within their means.”
Generally speaking neither Puppolo and more recently the Democratic party have been taking Russell’s charges lying down. After Masslive reported during the summer that Russell had filed for personal bankruptcy, both Puppolo and the party have called Russell a hypocrite for complaining about Democrats money managing while his own finances needed Chapter 7’s liquidation provisions.
On Masslive and in public debates, Russell attributed the bankruptcy filing to the failure of his businesses 60 Minute Photo and Russell’s restaurant formerly of Boston Road.
Russell and his wife, a principal in an Agawam school filed the bankruptcy petition in 2011. The case ended in 2013 when the last debts were discharged. The list of debts discharged seemingly included those for stores for ostensibly non-business related firms.
The timing of the discharges also appears to be the genesis of an ethics complaint against Russell as well. WMassP&I obtained a copy of the complaint and an apparent certification of receipt from the Ethics Commission with the name of the complainant redacted. The Ethics Commission by statute can neither confirm nor deny a complaint had been filed.
On his Statement of Financial Interest filed with the state Ethics Commission, the complaint alleges, Russell said no debts of his were discharged in 2013. That would appear to conflict with Russel’s bankruptcy case, ended in 2013 and seemingly cancelled debts that year. A spokesman for the Ethics Commission told WMassP&I that as a general matter, discharges of debt through bankruptcy should be reported on the SFI.
In a brief interview Russell confirmed that he had received notification from the Ethics Commission about the complaint, but rather nonchalantly disputed any error happened. “They got the facts wrong,” he said, adding that publicity of his bankruptcy more broadly has been inaccurate.
The broader question of whether Russell should be calling out the commonwealth’s fiscal management obviously grates on him. It would appear a fair question, though, in light of his own history and that his hyperbole about Springfield’s finances and Puppolo does not seem to hold up.
There is a sense that this might run a little bit deeper. At the Springfield Library forum, Russell also blamed the City Council for denying the special permit a potential buyer demanded before buying the property on which Russell’s Restaurant sat. The buyer, a gas station, needed a special permit from the Council for the pumps. The Council denied the request before 2006, when Puppolo was still a councilor.
Contemporary press accounts of the denial, namely Judge Constance Sweeney’s ruling upholding the Council, paint a rather typical picture of Springfield’s permit-granting process. Sweeney’s ruling, according to The Republican, cited concerns the Council and residents of Pine Point had that increased traffic would have a deleterious impact on the neighborhood.
The timing of the denial also complicates the financial timeline Russell has offered. He has suggested the failure of his businesses and the subsequent inability to sell its property precipitated his bankruptcy. However, Russell did not file until five years after a court upheld the permit denial. Though, he told Masslive he probably should have petitioned for bankruptcy 3-4 years sooner.
Most GOP legislative candidates are broadly attacking Democratic control over the budget, perhaps hoping Charlie Baker will have enough coattails to get them across the threshold. However, candidates like Russell are also running against incumbents Mass Fiscal has targeted. Mass Fiscal is run by Rick Green who vied to be the Massachusetts GOP’s executive director, offering a more conservative vision for the party. He lost out to party elder favorite Kristen Hughes.
Concurrent to this is a brewing fight within the House Republican caucus over its leadership. Brad Jones, the current Minority Leader, is viewed by many GOP activists as insufficiently conservative. They would prefer either Reps Geoffrey Diehl or Shaunna O’Connell. Turfing Jones is easier said than done. Growing the GOP caucus with Republicans more sympathetic to a leadership coup might be one way to do it.
For his part, Russell brushed off such Beacon Hill intrigue. “I’m focused on my election,” he told WMassP&I. House leadership is “a decision that gets made after I win.” Russell said he had not had any discussions about caucus leadership in Boston, but he did not seem completely unaware of the politics either.
By contrast, Nathan Bech, who is challenging Finn in West Springfield, seemed legitimately surprised that he might be viewed as a potential part of a leadership fight in Boston. “I have not give it any thought,” Bech said during a brief interview.
News accounts of Russell’s select board election in 2012 do not indicate his personal financial issues came up. However, Wilbraham watchers have suggested that his financial issues have given some residents pause about his fitness for office (Russell’s term as a Selectman—2/3 of a term—have been largely uneventful). Whether it hurts his brand in his hometown remains to be seen.
Puppolo could lose Wilbraham and still win the district, if not as comfortably as in elections past. Russell in comparison cannot win this election if he cannot win Wilbraham—and win it by a healthy margin.