The Primary Numbers: Choosing the New Sheriff in Town…
The Hampden County Sheriff’s race is the most consequential this year. This is not true because of the office, per se, but because 42-year incumbent Michael Ashe is retiring. The next sheriff inherits not only the sprawling corrections and social service agency Ashe has built, but also legacy of national leadership in the field of corrections.
Running are governor’s councilor and ex-Springfield Mayor Michael Albano, Springfield City Councilor Thomas Ashe and Sheriff’s Department Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Cocchi. The winner of the Thursday September 8 primary shall face independent James Gill and John Comerford in November.
This decision has been one of the most difficult this blog has faced. This race started off competitively and with an exchange of qualifications and resumes. Yet it has collapsed, in recent weeks, into a tribalistic slog. Even after stripping away arguments we deem irrelevant, provincial or incorrect, we are left with a painfully fraught contest to adjudicate.
We dismiss Albano’s candidacy entirely. During an interview with WMassP&I, he asserted that we already had our opinion made up. He’s right. This blog has sat through years of Council meetings, interviewed many officials and reviewed countless documents to see the damage he has done to our city. His protestations to the contrary do not negate the maladministration, misfeasance and malodorous reputation inflicted upon Springfield. As a candidate, his demagoguery against Sheriff Ashe has been cynical and divisive. Simply, no.
The Sheriff himself is a tremendous factor in this race, having endorsed Cocchi. Perhaps this complicates critical analysis of his administration. Staffing and consultants are one example. None of this should or could mitigate Sheriff Ashe’s legacy. Audits show a solid operation. His reputation for compassionate corrections and community integration is nationally feted.
We must also address some charges hurled at Tom Ashe and Nick Cocchi.
We reject the notion that Councilor Ashe is unqualified or underqualified for the position. His experience is simply different. Working in two different jails, if largely not as a CO, and in the private sector is significant.
We reject the proposition that Cocchi’s errors as a young man are disqualifying. These incidents of a beer after work on state property and a trip to a gentlemen’s club during the infancy of his career are indicative of nothing. Such behavior deserved punishment then, not forever.
We dismiss concern-trolling about outside political interference on both candidates.
After much deliberation and assessment, this blog deems Nick Cocchi the top candidate for the Democratic nomination for sheriff.
Tom Ashe has run an incredible campaign, diligent, insurgent, against the odds. We credit his support from Springfield patrolmen and other such groups. His proposal to combat the opiate crisis using a closed pre-release space for treatment is unorthodox but bold and rightly earned one-time rival Jack Griffin’s support. Ashe’s opponents harangued him for criminalizing addiction. Hardly! However, there are legal questions to answer.
While we absolutely deem Ashe qualified, his argument is incomplete. It’s not whether he could do the job, but how, based on his corrections experiences. He need not have been a CO, but how will he apply his career toward a vision for the sheriff’s department? It is not our place to fill in this answer.
For Cocchi, that application is self-evident displayed with his command of the facilities, programs and procedures. We know what we will get with his administration. Both he and Ashe have largely promised to carry on Sheriff Ashe’s legacy, but Cocchi makes a convincing case he already is.
Our endorsement comes with expectations, however. Cocchi has promised to terminate all consultants. He must and look carefully and comprehensively at the distribution of higher-paid posts and the rank and file. Cocchi, in his interview with WMassP&I, rightly pointed out the need for a career path, but he must watch for bloat.
Additionally, while we disclaim territorialism about Springfield and the jail, we do agree that the next sheriff must ensure his department is actively recruiting from cities like Holyoke and Springfield. These job are critical opportunities for inner city residents who have poor access to careers. This blog understands Mike Ashe did this. Cocchi should do the same.
Cocchi is not without faults. The since-pulled ad hitting Ashe’s Council record contained an implicit indictment of Springfield. The ad’s facts aside, it carried an appeal to the suburbs’ worst beliefs about our city. We know Springfield’s faults and we discuss them honestly, but we condemn the local Balkanization that only holds the region back. This objection must be overridden, however. Cocchi’s ad went too far, but the tribalism already existed on both sides.
We recognize concerns about political intimidation as one recent incident illustrated. We won’t repeat the particulars, but we believe some sheriff employees, including the individual in that case, sincerely feel undue pressure. They should pursue their grievances through the proper forums. However, we cannot credit the most salacious allegations, especially given the Albano connection—our sources say Team Ashe avoided involvement with that situation.
Ultimately, Cocchi’s virtues shine brighter. When he talks about the jail, he displays passion and energy and shows an interest in improving the lives of the jail’s charges. He truly loves his job.
There is also no ignoring the sheer amount of backing Cocchi has summoned. Yes, some is political, but the width and breadth of his support goes further.
Some elected officials atop bureaucracies spend little time concerned with the day-to-day. It is hard to imagine Cocchi being anything but engaged with and aware of the happenings in his department.
Both Ashe and Cocchi would make fine sheriffs, but on the totality of the evidence, our support must go to Nicholas Cocchi on THURSDAY September 8.