Afterglow 2015: At-large and Still In Charge in Western Mass…
WESTFIELD—Election Day across the Pioneer Valley had its share of surprises and disappointment. Yet, despite some cursory similarities among six Hampden County cities that held elections, very little wisdom can be confidently drawn from this local cycle with one exception.
While the Whip City featured spirited ward races, why one candidate or the other prevailed could differ radically from ward elections in nearby communities. The at-large contest, however, shares something with Westfield’s sister cities: incumbents’ resounding success seeking reelection.
Along with Agawam, Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield and West Springfield, Westfield held elections earlier this month, including for at-large council seats. Holyoke and Westfield had one and two at-large seats open respectively, but all at-large incumbent sought reelection elsewhere. Only in Agawam did one and only one incumbent lose.
At Rep John Velis’ fundraiser earlier this month, Westfield politicos were everywhere. At-large candidates for the City Council, both the successful and not, were well-known to this crowd. Outside such events though, newcomers struggled with name recognition.
“So many people didn’t know who the challengers were,” said Steven Dondley, who ostensibly earned one of Westfield’s open at-large Council seats.
Felling incumbent at-large councilors is not unheard of, but it is rare. Pittsfield ousted an at-large councilor. In Boston, Annissa Essaibi-George’s dynamic campaign bested longtime councilor Stephen Murphy. However, Murphy also carried a burden few at-large candidates faced anywhere: bad press.
The Boston Globe ran stories about Murphy’s poor Council committee attendance, frequent visits to Florida and office budget. That scrutiny ran concurrent to criticism of the Council’s attempt to raise its own pay.
Though candidates across the region sensed voters’ mistrust of government, almost none—incumbent or challenger—were subject to negative attention Murphy received. Springfield’s Bud Williams faced questions over his actions regarding the proposed biomass plant, but MGM’s shrinking plans proved to be a gift for the longtime councilor. The issue was tailor-made for his theatrical, if decidedly vague, politicking, which Williams advertised on TV.
Williams’s ability to turn the bad press around was crucial—if not necessarily decisive—given the fate of former at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera. Amid withering criticism for blocking pawn shop reforms and shoddy management as Council President, voters turfed Ferrera from office in 2013.
Name recognition has long been critical in elections, but the nature of at-large races—multiple candidates running for multiple seats—furthers this phenomenon.
In Holyoke, contractor Michael Sullivan came in seventh, ahead of at-large councilor Rebecca Lisi, who rounded out the eight elected at-large. Sullivan was not a particularly high-profile candidate, but surged to victory, perhaps because voters mistook him for the former mayor.
Here in Westfield, a mayor did run for Council. Daniel Knapik, who resigned as mayor shortly after the election to take a new job, scored an at-large Council seat. Dondley won the other open seat, but had some name recognition from a 2013 run and support from labor.
Dondley suggested standing out required more than previous bids. He told WMassP&I he grew his profile by raising issues of both local and state resonance, like calling for more development in Westfield’s north side and supporting the ballot initiative that would impose a millionaires tax in Massachusetts.
“Not a lot left to cut,” he said of Westfield’s finances. Instead, to preserve city servies, “Talk about getting new revenue in.”
Dondley, who won by only seven votes, faces a recount at the request of eighth place finisher, John Beltrandi. Still, Beltrandi’s near-loss mirrors successful campaigns: he had name recognition as a former councilor. Behind him was Moon Mahmood, who placed a strong, but more distant ninth.
“I was at zero. I knew no one.” Mahmood said of when he started. He came within a 155 votes of winning. “It’s not a failure. You look at it and you build it stronger. “
In Agawam, Richard Theroux reputation as the former city clerk carried him to fifth place ahead of six incumbents who won reelection. Notably, the incumbent who lost, Dennis Perry, placed behind three challengers.
Tactical voting adds another wrinkle. For example, Westfield has seven at-large councilors. Thus voters get seven at-large votes. Some people may “bullet” or cast fewer than that to ensure excess votes do not go to candidates likely to win, pushing favored challengers out of the top seven. Yet incumbents bullet, too and many voters, even newcomers’ supporters, do not and will cast the other votes for incumbents.
Name identification may not be the only culprit. Typically incumbents have more resources and money while challengers have less. This can affect even grassroots campaigns. With fewer dollars and supporters, candidates may focus on municipal “super-voters.” This strategy, while efficient, has flaws.
“If you lack the funds necessary to target the voters your message would appeal to most, you are forced to limit your target audience,” said Alexander Sherman, who ran for City Council in Springfield this year.
Sherman, who placed ninth in the race for five at-large seats, suggested his campaign made similar miscalculations. Pursuing reliable voters in Springfield’s low-turnout elections means, “you are actively targeting an audience that has voted to keep every at-large incumbent in place with one notable exception [Ferrera] in over a decade.”
Attracting new voters could help, but not it is no panacea. Holyoke’s turnout has grown since 2011, but those new voters have not appreciably altered the at-large results.
Nevertheless, history shows perseverance pays off, too. As Dondley’s apparent election here, Essaibi-George’s win in Boston and Justin Hurst’s 2013 victory in Springfield suggest, success may require more than one try. Candidates like Mahmood take this to heart.
“I’ll definitely be back another day,” he told WMassP&I.