Mike Fenton Seems to Be Everywhere, but Where Is He Going?…
UPDATED 3/8/15 7:34PM: For grammar and clarity.
SPRINGFIELD—Mike Fenton might have never joined the City Council.
In early 2009, Fenton had a tuition-free offer from Western New England’s law school, but his choice was BC Law, even though he would incur a six-figure debt to finance his legal education there. Then Fenton’s cousin told him Springfield was reviving ward-based seats. Always more interested in politics than he likes to admit, Fenton made a fateful choice.
Fenton says it was a “selfish” decision, not born of altruism, but rather to save money, meet people who could help him get a legal job and run a race he would “probably lose.”
But he won, becoming the city’s youngest city councilor ever and the first of the Millennial generation to gain an elected foothold here as the councilor from Ward 2 along the Chicopee border. This past January Fenton, 28, began his second year as Council President.
“It has been one of the greatest thrills and honors of my life,” Fenton said reclining in his chair during an interview, framed by a commanding nighttime view of the Campanile. But with Springfield’s mayoral election this year, is the Council the only thrill in store for Fenton? “When political destiny taps you on the shoulder, you know,” he said coyly.
While he contemplates challenging Mayor Domenic Sarno, Fenton has built up profile in the city and beyond. “He has professionalized the Council,” Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs of changes to the Council’s agenda and procedure Fenton instituted.
“I turned to Mike again and again and again,” former Massachusetts Treasurer Steve Grossman said, referring specifically to his campaigns for treasurer and governor. “I have never asked him to do something for me when he has not come through.”
Fenton, the oldest of five children, has the pedigree for politics here. He graduated from Cathedral* and has roots in both the Italian South End and Irish Hungry Hill. His uncle served as city solicitor and his grandfather’s cousin was chief of police.
Yet as a part of Springfield’s next generation of young professionals, he emphasizes his legal career over politics. “The more important but less publicized passion of mine is my legal career,” Fenton explained.
Ellen Freyman, a partner at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, a boutique business law firm where Fenton works, said his familiarity with the city’s powers that be adds to his value. “I think he has a great reputation and people like working with him,” she said. “He’s a well-rounded respected kid. We wanted him and he wanted us.”
Still Fenton is not tamping down speculation and has been visiting neighborhood groups citywide. Last month the Council President was the Forest Park Civic Association’s featured speaker at its annual potluck, meeting residents who may not know him beyond Masslive stories or snarky political blog posts. Fenton dismissed this as indicative of anything other than focusing on the Council.
Fenton’s relationship with Grossman adds another dimension to the Springfield pol, implying substantive cachet and connections few Springfield officials (actually) enjoy.
In 2010 Grossman was looking for a Western Mass field director for his Treasurer campaign and asked Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe for advice. Ashe recommended Fenton, a freshly minted councilor neck-deep in his first year of law school. “You can give a busy person another job, and know they’ll do it really well,” Grossman joked.
After Grossman won, Fenton took an active interest in projects (like the tornado-ravaged Brookings school) before the School Building Authority, which the treasurer chairs. Grossman also introduced Fenton to prominent members of the state legal community.
“I always urged Mike to also use his legal and business acumen that he had developed in a way that would give him a good substantive and long term career trajectory,” Grossman added.
In addition, Fenton said he met some of his closest friends via Grossman’s campaigns, many spread throughout government and beyond. “When you are in the trenches with people like that, that’s when you forge true relationships,” Fenton said.
On the Council, Fenton has a generally good rapport with colleagues, despite numerous 12 to Fenton votes. Indeed, he celebrated how the body functions despite, perhaps because of its disparate views.
Some weeks ago he welcomed a group of Iranian students to City Hall. Fenton said the diversity of the Council animated them the most. The students were intrigued that something like councilors’ religion didn’t matter and they worked together despite differences in race, backgrounds and other identities.
When asked about the significance of being Springfield’s first openly-LGBT Council President, Fenton paused and eventually replied, “You’re the first to ask.”
For several years, Fenton has mentioned his boyfriend, Jon Berthiaume, at public events and they attended last year’s state Democratic convention together as Grossman delegates. Confidantes say he has applied empathy to LGBT constituents’ issues and has invoked the need to combat homophobia during civil rights discussions like last year’s police leadership debate.
Fenton returned to the students from Iran and a similar visit of Ukrainian students. In those countries, he observed, homosexuality is either illegal or otherwise persecuted, but here, voters and his colleagues have placed their trust in him in the Council chamber based on his ability.
“To say that I was a 28 year-old gay man in charge of that room, they’ll take that back home and talk about it,” Fenton said.
As for the Council’s work product, there are successes like casino ethics, pawn shop reform and revised zoning rules as well as incomplete, but significant battles over biomass and residency for city employees.
Fenton has cultivated a rep as a strident fiscal hawk. Many 12-1 or 11-2 votes on which Fenton dissented are financial items. In 2011, he considered not running again to keep his career options open, but that was also when he chaired the Finance Committee.
“That’s when I fell in love with Springfield city government,” Fenton said. He sought reelection.
Without a doubt, his closest Council ally is Ward 7’s Timothy Allen. Both were elected in that first ward election and often vote together, particularly fiscal matters, one of several interests they share.
Allen noted that they did not always agree, but when an issue splits them, “it never breaks the trust.” Allen underscored Fenton’s willingness to talk issues through and to listen.
As for Sarno, sometimes he and Fenton seem locked in a battle of wills, grudgingly respecting each other’s abilities. During a brief interview Sarno approvingly remarked Fenton “works hard to see every angle of an issue” and “comes from a good family.”
Though Fenton praised Sarno’s political abilities, particularly to connect with voters, and progress Springfield has made, he asserted the city lacks a clear vision.
“We are justified to celebrate those achievements amid more heartache and financial uncertainty than any administration in recent memory,” he said. “But if we want to be the city that we want to be that our residents deserve, we need a vision for where we’re headed and plan for how to get there.”
Sarno rejected the suggestion there was no vision and offered a litany of endeavors undertaken on his watch, many slated to be featured March 24, the same day as MGM’s groundbreaking. “We’re hitting on all cylinders,” the mayor insisted. “There’s plenty of vision in this administration.”
As both acknowledged, democracy yields disagreement and can be “messy” or “noisy.” Wherever Fenton wants to be on this year’s ballot, the back and forth will continue.
Fenton and Berthiaume, an analyst at Deloitte, bought a home in tony Atwater Park in 2013, not too far from the neighborhoods where they grew up along Springfield’s northern edge. “I am invested in this community,” Fenton said. Fenton frequently invokes, as perhaps the most hopeful signs for the city, how he and Berthiaume and childhood friends are buying homes and starting their lives here.
Freyman, the partner at Fenton’s firm, observed “There is always a risk, he could still decide to move on.” But, she added, “As he builds his practice here, hopefully he enjoys it.”
Grossman, who has long taken an interest in Springfield, said the city was on the brink following the 2011 tornado. Now it is poised for a rebound and hopes Fenton will continue to play a role in its future.
“Mike is a guy with a lot of assets,” he said referencing Fenton’s legal and political career. “I think the city needs Mike Fenton—and more Mike Fentons.”
*Disclosure: WMassP&I Editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski graduated from Cathedral with Fenton in 2005.