Analysis: Holyoke City Council Says “Vaya con Diosdado…”
Closing an odd and fraught chapter in the history of Holyoke, the City Council selected former Ward 2 Councilor Diosdado Lopez to fill the seat once held by at-large councilor Jennifer Chateauneuf. Following a long feud with a critic, Chateaunef resigned April 4, prompting a scramble to fill her position on the 15-member body.
Ten aspirants stepped forward to seek the seat providing the remaining councilors a spectrum of would-be colleagues from which to choose. That it took 13 ballots for Lopez to secure the necessary eight votes is a testament to the difficulty of the choice before Holyoke councilors, who, while generally collegial, remain divided on countless issues.
Among the factions on the council, whether pro/anti-Alex Morse, Latino or not, or left or right, no candidate began Tuesday’s meeting with a clear path. Eight votes proved even more elusive due to at-large Councilor James Leahy’s absence. In Lopez, who retired as Ward 2’s councilor in 2011, the various factions may have found a compromise candidate.
The draw of appointing somebody who ran for Council at-large last year kept Mimi Panitch, who placed ninth in the eight seat at-large race, kept her in contention throughout much of the night. However, she never exceeded five votes, a mix of left-leaning councilors, Morse allies and firm believers in following the voters’ direction.
At the same time, the more conservative/historically anti-Morse councilors could not muster the votes to select the likes of James Brunult—who also ran last year—or Anthony Keane, a former Ward 3 councilor.
Hovering over much of this impasse was a desire to add another Hispanic councilor to a body that represents a nearly 50% Latino city. All current Latino councilors represent wards, just as Lopez had been.
But the Latino option presented problems for the divided chamber, too, similar to those that bedeviled the overall selection process. In addition to Lopez, Darlene Elias and Juan Anderson-Burgos, who ran for Council at-large and in Ward 6 respectively, also sought Chateaunuef’s seat.
Both Elias and Lopez endorsed Francis “Fran” O’Connell, Morse’s mayoral adversary last year. Anderson-Burgos was viewed as a Morse ally. Both Anderson-Burgos and Elias were seen as far more to the left on several social justice issues, which did not sit well with more conservative councilors.
Normally such division might have augured well for a white candidate like former councilors Keane or John Whelihan. However, even among more conservative (and Caucasian) councilors, there was no consensus.
There was a moment when Council President Kevin Jourdain—who had largely backed candidates perceived as conservative but on the fifth ballot did vote for his 2015 Ward 6 rival Anderson-Burgos—said the Council might need to table the matter. At-large Councilor Peter Tallman demurred and kept motioning for new votes.
Jourdain voted Anderson burgos this time. Surprised sounds in audience.
— Sarah Oelker (@sarahoelker) May 3, 2016
If Jourdain were smart he'd push Anderson-Burgos for vacant seat. Eliminates '17 opponent, gets cred from Latinos. 1/x
— Matt Szafranski (@MSzafranski413) April 26, 2016
In the end, views about ideology and about Morse may have been decisive. While it would be an overstatement to say, prior to Chateauneuf’s resignation, there was a durable anti-Morse Council supermajority, a working majority skeptical of the 27 year-old mayor did exist. That majority often found the two votes needed to pass items over Morse’s veto.
With conservative/old political guard’s preferred candidates like Brunault, Keane and Whelihan not getting anywhere close to eight votes, the tide had begun its shift toward Lopez.
Likewise, Panitch supporters, some of whom had periodically backed others on later ballots, needed to reassess. Council sources say that while Lopez had opposed Morse in all of his elections, he had a reputation for fairness during his 20 year run on the Council. Lopez promised as much, perhaps allaying fears he would become a reactionary anti-Morse vote. While conservative on some issues, Lopez tacked left on items like social justice and needle exchange.
On the thirteenth ballot, all sides apparently came to the same conclusion. Lopez got the votes of 11 of the 13 present councilors. Only Tallman, who never swayed from Panitch, and Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, who voted for Brunault on the last ballot, bucked the trend.
Lopez was sworn in last night after the vote.
Not everybody was happy with the decision. Chatter on social media indicated an anger among Panitch supporters who felt the Council should have adhered more closely to the voters’ will. Under the City Charter, however, councilors didn’t have to do so. While unlikely to advance, at-large Councilor Michael Sullivan filed an order, cosponsored with others like Ward 4 Councilor Jossie Valentin, to change how at-large vacancies are filled.
Despite only retiring four plus years ago, Lopez joins a changed Council. It is more Latino, more LGBT, engaging—whether in opposition or support—more complex policy and facing a more engaged electorate. Moreover in 2017, following a 2015 charter change, the Council will shrink from 15 members to 13, eliminating two of eight at-large seats.
Longstanding councilors may call it a career and exit as happened in Springfield when, in 2009, it added ward-based seats and culled four at-large slots. Five Springfield incumbents retired that year.
If all at-large Holyoke Councilors seek reelection next year, at least two among them will assuredly not return. That number might grow if a field as large and energetic as the one that sought Chateanuef’s seat contests the 2017 at-large race.