The Year in Springfield, 2016…
For the City of Springfield, 2016 proved notable on multiple fronts. It briefly saw itself as the center of attention in the presidential contest. MGM evolving complexity dodged for at least another year a threat from Connecticut. A bevy of police controversies throttled City Hall and Pearl Street, particularly the mayor. Thereafter city councilors seemingly woke up and found that they were strong.
The year began with a seeming triumph of Mayor Domenic Sarno. Liquefying token opposition—if deliberately acting like there was no election—he began his fourth term at a ceremony in the Old First Church. The pomp and circumstance were an improvement from the almost sadly restrained inauguration four years earlier. Springfield inaugurations of old were held in Symphony Hall.
Sarno’s swearing-in featured an infomercial mid-ceremony that seemed incongruent to the formality of the event. An echo of the staged events in 2015 touting development in the city, the video did not foreshadow problems on those projects. However, that dance in the end zone was perhaps ironic as 2016 proved politically tempestuous in the City of Homes.
After the pomp and circumstance and across the street a City Council featuring two new members was ready to make some changes. It reelected Michael Fenton Council President for the third and final time.
Over Sarno’s veto, the Council passed a clampdown on waivers to the residency ordinance for top posts. The measure included stronger measures to ensure city residents have a crack at lower-ranking job.
But Springfield also had an atypical turn in the national scene. No fewer than three presidential candidates, Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and Republican John Kasich made stops in the City of Homes. Sanders staked a claim here with an office. He tried to flip Massachusetts, where Clinton had defeated Barack Obama eight years before. Clinton would squeak out a win, but Springfield went heavily for her.
Unbeknownst to the city’s commentariat, events involving Pearl Street, the site of the city’s Police Department headquarters were unfolding that would swamp Springfield’s political narrative. A group of joyriding youth allegedly stole an unattended undercover police car. A chase ensued before they were apprehended in Palmer. There Detective Gregg Bigda, per interrogation room video, allegedly threatened to plant evidence against the juvenile suspects.
MGM had a good year. The Council approved MGM’s requested changes to the host community agreement. Down in Connecticut, efforts to build a third casino slipped further and further down the agenda, although the state did beat back a constitutional challenge to its efforts for now.
MGM, the CRRC railcar plant, reconstruction of I-91 and Union Station all continued apace. All are on schedule—almost. Union Station, while finally due to become a reality after forty years, will not be fully finished until 2017, though tenants will begin building out their spaces next month.
The rail portion will not fully open until summer, however. Accessibility laws demanded the new platform be wider. Amtrak has put off its move into the station until after the platform is complete as well. The railroad will maintain its current track-level passenger facility until then.
Springfield was a battleground for major local races.
At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe and former Mayor Michael Albano—now of Longmeadow—joined the Hampden Sheriff’s contest. Nicholas Cocchi had been in the race for some time, but Ashe quickly consolidated Springfield political support, challenging the race’s preconceived notions.
In the heart of Springfield there was a vacancy for the state house. Benjamin Swan, the dean of the city’s delegation, retired from his Mason Square-centered seat. His son, also Benjamin Swan, Jr. and at-large Councilor Bud Williams were the frontrunners in a four-way race.
The city also became a football in the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate race in which now-Republican James “Chip” Harrington challenged Eric Lesser. Harrington—or more accurately the Massachusetts Republican party—set up shop in the heart of vote-rich East Forest Park. He campaigned aggressively there hoping to replicate Gov. Charlie Baker’s success in some Springfield precincts two years before.
While repeating lines from the 2014 contest, Harrington tried to claim Lesser was insufficiently attentive to public safety for failing to secure more funding for the Hampden District Attorney’s office. Lesser noted he and his colleagues had to reverse DA cuts which Harrington’s patron, Baker, had imposed.
Lesser had another weapon at his disposal. Baker vetoed Lesser’s East-West rail study. That opened the governor and by extension Harrington to charges of being beholden to special interests, namely Peter Picknelly.
The Northeast including Springfield hosted the nation’s largest labor dispute in years as Verizon workers struck for a better contract. They returned to work seven weeks later.
Before summer’s end, at-large School Committee member Calvin McFadden was making moves—literally. He had bought a house in Agawam and resigned. The School Committee, without any public casting calls, appointed former member Normal Roldan to fill the seat.
In the Democratic primaries, councilor Bud Williams won the 11th Hampden House nomination. A somewhat bitter, but underreported race, prevailed, but has declined to this day to say whether he would relinquish his council seat to focus on Boston.
In the sheriff’s race, Cocchi won as expected, but a robust data operation produced a commanding 20-point win in the primary. He even carried Springfield by plurality.
Ashe came in second. He worked hard, but lacked the boots on the ground to counter Cocchi’s advantages. Yet, the result in Springfield may say less on Ashe than his biggest supporter there, Sarno.
At about this time, the Bigda bomb had begun to detonate. The revelations of the video created chaos for Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office. Cases that featured Bigda were dropped or dismissed. Federal and state investigations have been launched.
The trouble percolated all the way to City Hall and 36 Court Street. Police Commissioner John Barbieri only gave Bigda a 60-day suspension, claiming anything more not stand on appeal. It was later revealed internal affairs had failed to notify Barbieri in enough time to discipline Bigda. Given other Bigda controversies, the punishment, whether unavoidable or not, reflected poorly on Barbieri.
Sarno promised he would oppose the ordinance and ignore it if passed over his objection as a violation of the city charter. However, the legislative battle came amid the continued revelations out of Pearl Street involving Bigda and other incidents of police misconduct. It altered the dynamics of power between the mayor and Barbieri and possibly beyond.
At the height of a controversy of Hampshire College’s treatment of the American flag, Sarno found respite by joining the protests in Amherst. It would not prove refuge for long enough.
Nationally, of course, the results defied expectations—though in post-mortems, the result seems less surprising. Massachusetts and Springfield strongly dissented—as did the country at large—but the permutations of the electoral college math permitted real estate tycoon and provocateur Donald Trump’s win. With unified Republican government, the impact on cities like Springfield is uncertain.
Locally Lesser prevailed by a comfortable 12-point margin. Combined with the ballot question outcomes, the results in Massachusetts were not good for the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
Cocchi got a monster 68% of the vote in Hampden County. With his election the changing of the guard will at last occur as Cocchi replaced long-serving sheriff Michael Ashe. A national icon for humane corrections, Cocchi’s success is at least partly an endorsement of Ashe’s legacy.
Even in the flaming wreckage of the Democrats’ loss this year, Massachusetts pols in Washington—who are all-Democratic—had some interesting changes.
Springfield congressman Richard Neal waged a short, but successful battle to become the top Dems on Ways & Means. His chief rival, Xavier Becerra, dropped out to become California’s AG leaving Neal a clear path.
Meanwhile Senator Elizabeth Warren announced an appointment to the Senate Armed Services Committee, broadening a portfolio better known for its domestic issues.
Back at City Hall, the police commission battle reached a denouement when the Council overrode Sarno’s promised veto of a revival of the Police Commission. The mayor has promised to ignore it and a court challenge seems likely. Were Sarno to lose, it could weaken his hand further.
As per usual, the City Council held its caucus for Council president and vice-president. Councilors nominated Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos for president and at-large Councilor Justin Hurst for vice-president. On January 2, the Council will confirm those nominations.
The next year should bring MGM’s future into greater clarity. Union Station’s impact on the landscape may become clearer, too. Also, expect the governor’s race to begin. Meanwhile, the Council’s decision to assert its power could have implications for years to come, but against the background of another non-mayoral municipal election, the outcome is far from certain.