Analysis: As Struggles Mount, Sarno Seemingly Shifts Right…
UPDATED 2/10/2017 1:52PM: For clarification. A previous version of this post described Mayor Sarno’s parents at WWII refugees. They did live through that era in Italy, but WMassP&I cannot confirm they were came to US as refugees.
It should be relatively straightforward. Springfield does not participate in civil immigration enforcement. It probably could not if it so desired given the burdens of the department. Yet Mayor Domenic Sarno has emphatically rejected pleas to formally keep the city out of immigration enforcement even though it behaves like the sanctuary city it disclaims to be.
This behavior is not unprecedented for Sarno. The son of World Ward II-era Italian immigrants who who claims to support legal immigration, he has tangled with refugees and immigration before. He famously and publicly complained about Somali refugees here, claiming his concern was a strain on the city’s social services. Yet his categorical refusal to issue clearer assurance Springfield would not assist in deportations suggests a turn to the right for Sarno.
Since the 2016 election, Sarno has put up a more public conservative show, involving himself in Hampshire College’s flag fracas and now making public declarations about Springfield not being a “sanctuary city.” Until recently, he has also chased national conservative television coverage like Fox News.
Sarno has always occupied somewhat conservative Democratic territory, not out of character for an ex-industrial city pol. As city offices are nonpartisan, city officials can avoid partisan purity tests. Only one of Sarno’s mayoral opponents over the years, now-State Rep Jose Tosado, could be described as undeniably to the mayor’s left.
Still the city’s diversity and Sarno’s reliance on Democratic players for support from Congress to Beacon Hill, limits how far right he can go. Indeed, much of his shift has seemed more theatrical as opposed to substantive, but it has ticked up over the past year.
Labor, community and religious groups presented Sarno with a letter last week requesting a softer official line on undocumented immigrants. “I’m not going to kowtow to these demands,” the may said according to The Republican. His reply letter was a little nicer.
The pointedness of Sarno’s reply seemed oddly strident for the group’s relatively modest request. It requested Springfield Police not inquire into the immigration status of individuals it encounters, not detain individuals—except violent criminals—at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s request and not contract with ICE to enforce immigration laws. The group claims refusal to perform these functions would not run afoul of Donald Trump’s order to defund sanctuary cities, which faces questions anyway.
Despite cruising to victory in 2015 against token opposition, the past year has not gone well for Sarno. Almost out of the gate, new city councilors helped override Sarno’s veto of reforms to the residency ordinance. A fusillade of troublesome news belched out of Pearl Street, where the Police Department is based, providing momentum to override the mayor’s veto of a revived Police Commission.
Politically, 2016 was not more kind to Sarno. His favored candidate for sheriff, Thomas Ashe, did not win. Sarno worked behind the scenes to frustrate the adoption of the Community Preservation Act. Nonetheless, city voters approve the law overwhelmingly.
Facing a Republican-dominated Washington and these defeats, Sarno lurched to the right first by jumping into the Hampshire College debacle. While not technically a partisan or right-left issue—the school removed the flag to facilitate a conversation after incidents of flag desecration after Trump’s victory—the protests took on that flavor. Among more earnest veterans and protesters were radical right-wing groups spouting rhetoric typical of a Trump rally.
Sarno made the twenty-mile trip to Amherst to join the protests. He later appeared on America’s Newsroom show to offer his take to Fox’s largely conservative audience.
The immigration issue has been in the political ether for years amid attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Compassion and a colder calculation that a hardline discourages immigrants of any status from working with law enforcement has led many cities to adopt “sanctuary city” policies.
In practice, despite Sarno’s protestations, Pearl Street does not actively work with ICE to round up immigrants. Still that makes Sarno’s refusal to formalize that policy all the odder. At the present time there is no serious effort urging Springfield to go as far as Boston, which has mused about using Beantown’s Brutalist City Hall to shelter the undocumented from ICE.
Sarno was to appear on Neil Cavuto’s show to opine on immigration. However, the hot mess at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue repeatedly preempted the interview. Then last week Sarno’s office announced he would not reschedule the Fox interview. Perhaps his travails on conservative TV drew the admonition of Sarno’s allies in high places. Though he did decry refugee settlement again this week.
But why move in this direction at all? He still has three years until he faces voters again. Both Union Station and MGM will be open by then, providing a glitzy background for campaign literature.
This may be a mere dimension of Sarno’s political persona. For example, his opposition to restoring the Police Commission and bolstering accountability had a whiff of pro-law enforcement conservatism. (Though the Springfield patrolmen union also support a commission). Even as momentum built for a commission, Sarno dug in further and further often pressing disputed facts about how other cities were governing their police departments.
In that sense, Sarno’s reaction to immigrant activists may have had less to do with a shift right than his tendency to push back against outside resistance. But why that flag protest then?
Perhaps he is not as secure in his political position as it would seem. Then the answer may be publicity.
Sarno, like many Springfield pols, has long thrived on exposure in the media. The audience of Valley legacy media, like the city’s municipal electorate, skews older, wealthier and whiter. Sarno could be trying to lean on those voters on the theory they, like their peers nationally, will agree with the mayor’s position. Their votes have become more important as Sarno alienates minority voters on the police commission and immigration.
This thinking is flawed, however. On immigration, Sarno practically takes both positions at once. It’s dangerous to assume voters won’t see that or won’t care. The other is that Springfield’s older, wealthier voters still swing far more to the left than their cohort nationally. Morever, Sarno risks activating those city voters who otherwise nap through municipal elections.
In the final analysis, Sarno’s may not substantively shift to the right. Yet that impression remains, whether sincere, a response to political setbacks or a consequence of his political impulse to push back.
Springfield remains an arch-Democratic and largely liberal city. If Sarno is trying squeeze a certain part of the electorate for support, he is likely to only provoke the Council—and the voters—further eroding his own mayoral powers and political capital.