After Hanukkah Gaffe, a Festival of Spotlights on Bud Williams…
SPRINGFIELD—Lighting a menorah on Court Square in downtown, a 35 year tradition, seemed unlikely to make world news. Local rabbis joined city officials, the mayor and US Rep Richard Neal to mark the first of eight days the temple menorah burned with only a day’s worth of fuel. But when one city councilor unexpectedly spoke, it made his name and this city known from Washington to Jerusalem.
That it went viral may be viewed as a natural, even inevitable outcome of Williams’s political style—one dependent on seeing and being seen above all else—meeting the power of social media and the Internet.
Williams, a retired probation officer, has served on the Council for two decades excluding a two year break brought on by an unsuccessful 2009 mayoral bid. After coming up short in the two previous cycles, he first won a seat in 1993.
“He’s been there longer than anybody else,” said Melvin Edwards the councilor for Ward 3, who was elected in 2009 when the body grew to 13 members—five elected at-large and one from each of the city’s eight wards.
Williams artfully sculpted an image of influence and access, honed by political longevity and appearing—often theatrically—at almost any political or civic event. Politicians nationwide employ this tactic, but some politicos complain he practices an extreme version putting a particular premium on quantity of exposure over results. Williams did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
At last week’s start to Hanukkah, which recalls the Maccabees’ revolt against ancient Syrians and the subsequent rededication of the temple and its menorah, accounts differ as to how Williams ended up with the microphone. Either way, no councilor was slated to speak, typifying what some call his almost shameless knack for getting into a spotlight.
While the onlookers were stunned, William’s “clarification” is probably what carried the news across the planet. Asserting correctly, but inappositely, that “Jesus was Jewish,” Williams thought a reference to a bright light 2000 years ago was the birth of Christ, which occurred some 200 years after the events of Hanukkah. Nevertheless, Williams added he thought his words added something to the ceremony.
One rabbi, Noach Kosofsky, who was present, preferred to focus on the eight day celebration itself, which ends tonight. Whether Williams will face political ramifications is unclear.
Springfield’s Jewish population has mostly decamped to the suburbs, but three area synagogues and the Jewish Community Center remain here. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, whose ward encompasses those institutions, said an extant Jewish vote in his ward leaves a potential for repercussions at the ballot box.
Others were less sure, speculating Williams’s felt he had little to lose. “If Buddy was really worried about getting reelected, he would have apologized right away,” one Springfield political source said. The below tweet, if accurate, suggests Williams truly believes there is no bad publicity.
"I don't care what they say about me as long as they mention my name" is also a favorite Bud Williams saying. Well?
— AfAm Point of View (@AfAmPOV) December 18, 2014
As Springfield pitches itself as on the rebound, McCollum said, “Many people view this situation as a setback to that momentum as national articles are shared on social media with negative comments,” about Springfield. Williams gave the story legs ensuring he will be remembered for invoking Christ at a menorah lighting after doubling down, McCollum added. In addition to the biting ridicule of Wonkette and the coverage in The Washington Post & Israeli media, the city’s political classes right up to Mayor Domenic Sarno have mocked Williams’s flub.
While Williams’s comments were shocking, his seeking attention like that is not. Colleagues and Council watchers often sigh with exasperation when Williams finds cause to speak on seemingly every Council agenda item, even the most banal and uncontroversial of things.
“If you listen to his rhetoric, you’d think he has really been a good steward for the people,” a City Hall official who regularly attends Council meeting said anonymously so as to speak about Williams freely.
That record is mixed. A search of 2014 agendas shows little sponsored by Williams except the ill-fated effort to revive the Police Commission. That failed after Sarno appointed John Barbieri, locking in the status quo until 2019. Past years are little better. The City Council’s Human Services committee, which Williams chairs, met only once in 2014. Committees Williams chaired in the past met far more often.
Where Williams claims to be “consistent” is better deemed complicated. For example, according to The Springfield Union-News, The Republican‘s predecessor, he opposed requiring city employees to be residents early in his career before becoming agnostic on the matter. He backed Councilor William Boyle’s mid-90’s revision, which forms the basis of today’s ordinance. Then, last year he voted both for and against limits on waivers to the policy.
Williams, who is black, joined the Council in 1993 after years of campaigning on getting drugs off the streets. He was its only minority member as the late Morris Jones lost reelection that year. He enjoyed heavy support in largely black precincts like those around Mason Square. While still strong there, Williams is not as dependent on those precincts. His political patron today is widely seen to be one-time councilor Francis Keough who has rebuilt his political clout since serving time for embezzlement.
A source close to other minority councilors accuse Williams of fostering the idea that he can “deliver” the Council’s black and Latino votes for permits and other initiatives. As it is, very often he cannot.
Others seeking grant money or other city funds view Williams as a City Hall gatekeeper. This impression persists despite such moneys usually needing the approval or acquiescence of Sarno, with whom Williams is said to have a poor relationship.
Williams has earnest fans, however. Councilor Edwards said he knows people who attest to Williams bigheartedness. One man told Edwards Williams brought his family a bag of groceries in a time of need.
Williams’s relationship with black leaders has shifted, though. The Union-News described Williams and Frederick Hurst, father of Councilor Justin Hurst and publisher of the Afro-American Point of View, as longtime friends. Wife Marjorie Hurst filed Williams’s suit to strike a requirement Probation employees take a leave while running for office. Williams supported Ben Swan’s 1994 bid for rep who in turn backed Williams’s campaigns—for a time.
“We trust each other implicitly,” Frederick Hurst said in 1993 while running Williams’s campaign. In 1988 Marjorie Hurst called Williams “somebody we can all get behind.” Both were speaking to The Union-News. These relationships appear not to have endured.
Swan is said to have put off retirement plans this year—partly at the urging of family and political activists—to keep Williams out of the seat. “Last summer he loved me,” Swan told the Union-News in 2002, when Williams challenged him for his rep seat (Swan crushed him). Williams’s relationship with the Hurst family is said to be frosty even before he and the younger Hurst clashed in last year’s municipal election.
But how Williams sells and projects his image is part of his political success, too.
“Springfield politics is still very old school in a sense. Voters like to know and touch who they vote for locally,” said McCollum. “Bud does excel at being at every event he can get to and working the room to be sure that you know he’s present.”
During a meeting of the Mason Square Health Task Force last month to discuss plans for a supermarket, Williams appeared only briefly—but long enough to be seen by WWLP’s camera. Attendees say he left shortly after the meeting began.
Whether voters were irked or not by Williams comments at the start of Hanukkah, some believe he has grown apprehensive about reelection. His antipathy toward Justin Hurst last year was read as a fear the younger man would supplant him, not unlike how Williams replaced Morris Jones a generation ago.
Despite the risks of sticking to old school tactics, Williams has not embraced social media. He has Facebook and Twitter, but neither are up to date. Ironically, by spreading the Hanukkah story, social media may undermine his political entrenchment.
McCollum believes that in today’s day and age of social media “this [the menorah] issue will haunt Councilor Williams a bit in 2015.” McCollum added, “He is still very well-known and well liked, but I do see this as a vote loser, and in no way a vote gainer.”