Analysis: Two Open Council Seats…Who Will Be the Champions?…
This is the second of two-part series on the impact of retirements on the 2017 Springfield at-large Council race.
SPRINGFIELD—Only hours before the deadline to pull papers, word hit the City of Homes that not one, but two open at-large City Council seats in this year’s election. There was not much time for political fence-sitters to move. Ultimately, only one, granted a heavyweight, former State Rep Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, took advantage of Timothy Rooke’s retirement. Still, her entry and others’ consideration underscored the allure of more vacant seats.
Rooke’s exit, alongside State Rep/Councilor Bud Williams, creates a unique situation. Two at-large Council seats opening simultaneously is rare. Even with Coakley-Rivera now running and favored to do well, this reorders the race. It brings fresh hopes to the large field of challengers itching to secure a citywide seat.
Maneuvering for 2017 began last September when Williams, a Democrat, won the primary in his deeply blue state rep seat. Though Williams was coy about his intentions—and avoided discussing them for months—by January Council watchers were reasonably confident. Williams would finish his term and leave 36 Court Street.
A deluge of candidates followed. Many stood out and, assuming the other incumbents won, had a good chance to snag Williams’s seat. Runners-up in recent elections Ernesto Cruz and Jesse Lederman joined, among others, former Councilor Timothy Ryan, activist Jynai McDonald, Atwater Park fixture Kelli Moriarty-Finn and businessman Victor Davila forming a solid field.
Paid the Dues, Time after Time
Then Rooke dropped his bomb.
A fixture of City Hall since his 1995 election, Rooke’s move was a shock. Suddenly challengers had two opportunities to scoop up a seat absent dislodging an incumbent. Several challengers quickly thanked the outgoing members for their service.
“All residents of Springfield owe both Bud and Tim a debt of gratitude for their multiple decades of service to the City of Springfield,” Davila said in a statement.
Moriarty-Finn was similar gracious. She said it took “courage” to step back, adding the retiring councilors left “big shoes to fill.”
Although also like others, she seemed aware Rooke’s exit had prompted late entries. In a jab seemingly aimed at Coakely-Rivera, Moriarty-Finn observed some people had been running for some time. They did not wait for “fertile ground.”
“Regardless, this presents the voters of Springfield with an opportunity of their own, and that is the ability to bring in new people with fresh ideas as opposed to recycled politicians,” she said in her statement.
Taking Bows and Curtain Calls
While historical comparisons to Springfield’s nine-member at-large body that existed from 1962 to 2009, that many openings are rare. Midterm vacancies are more common. Springfield’s charter automatically fills resigned seats with the runners-up from the previous election immediately creating new incumbents. For example, when now-Judge William Boyle retired in 1999, Daniel Kelly automatically replaced him.
Two seats opened that year anyway. Barbara Garvey retired. Barbara Garde bailed, but too late to be taken off the ballot.
In 1993 when Kateri Walsh, then serving her first Council tenure, left the body to run for mayor. Then-councilor Frank Keough pulled out two weeks before election day but remained on the ballot.
The last time two seats were open from the beginning was 1991. Robert Markel and Raymond DiPasquale retired, both to run for mayor.
Since ward representation began, retirements have been spare. Excluding 2009, when the new wards seats were first elected along with an empty at-large seat, only two incumbents have passed on reelection, both in 2011. All incumbents ran in 2013 and 2015.
But Who Will Come through?
One outcome this is self-evident. At least two challengers will become councilors next year rather than one. That jostles the race, but doesn’t change the dynamics of who is best positioned to win.
Historically, recent Council aspirants have had a leg up in succeeding elections. That gives some advantage to Lederman, who came in sixth in 2015, and Cruz, who placed seventh two years before that. Because they are so well-known and/or politically connected Ryan and Coakely-Rivera threaten to upend this pattern in Springfield political history.
However, Rooke bailing alters the September 19 preliminary and therefore who is in the general. In Massachusetts, nonpartisan races require a preliminary when more than two candidates run for the same seat. As Springfield has five at-large seats, a preliminary is needed if more than 10 file to run. The Republican reported Wednesday 14 have submitted signatures.
Though not unheard of, even the weakest incumbents can muddle through an at-large preliminary. Turnout is abysmally low. Thus, name recognition and a councilor’s family and neighbors—assuming they get along—are enough to survive. Challengers have it a bit tougher.
The luckiest person in the race may be that 10th place finisher, who, arguably, may have been eliminated with Rooke in the race. That person suddenly has six weeks to make their case to Springfield voters too many of whom don’t tune in until late.
The counterargument to this is Coakley-Rivera can almost certainly move on to the general. That is a good bet, as she represented about a quarter of the city as a State Rep for 15 years. Still, her chances are less certain than incumbent councilors’—who get top billing on the ballot—and challengers with citywide networks.
Former state Rep Cheryl Rivera takes out papers to run 4 City Council pic.twitter.com/g7iXKNQKRP
— Peter Goonan (@GoonanPeter) July 28, 2017
Incumbency No Bed of Roses
While challengers—famous and infamous—jockey just to endure the preliminary, one class of candidates are breathing sighs of relief. Rooke and Williams’s pair of retirements benefit the other incumbents, Thomas Ashe, Justin Hurst and Walsh. Serious challengers and demographic math—especially in a non-mayoral election year—could foment a surge that can engulf a sitting councilor.
That effectively happened in 2013, minus the open seat. While Jimmy Ferrera had some well-documented deficiencies, Hurst’s insurgent campaign pushed him into first place in the at-large race. Ultimately, it was Rooke, not Hurst, who narrowly edged Ferrera out of fifth and the Council.
Another problem for incumbents was a candidate like Ryan. He could absorb Hibernian-American votes that remain a potent political factor in municipal elections to the detriment of Ashe, Rooke or Walsh. Though not atypical of her past campaigns, Walsh has apparently sensed his and acted accordingly. Not resting on demographic or name recognition laurels, she has broadened her scope, appearing at nearly every at-large announcement. This despite they are all technically her opponents.
Likewise Hurst could absorb some of the African-American vote that helped sustain Williams. Yet high-profile black challengers could make a play for the same votes.
No ethnic group is monolithic and coalitions are essential. However, a divided base poses problems, even when voters are electing five councilors.
Adding to the uncertainty are bullet votes—strategically voting for fewer than five at-large candidates—mixing things up further.
A second open at-large seat takes the pressure off considerably. Though not remote, the odds an incumbent loses absent a gaffe or abstention from campaigning (and even then…) have fallen precipitously.
Keep on Fighting til the End
The twin retirements create a massive opportunity to reshape the at-large seats, building upon the shakeup ward representation brought. As many frontrunners sound progressive notes, or at least technocratic ones, politics citywide could shift. The Council’s activism could tick up or Mayor Domenic Sarno could encounter stronger resistance from the municipal legislature.
Under these circumstances, gaming out which new faces will go to 36 Court Street is nigh-impossible. The preliminary will offer some clarity. It will define the general election field and test the strength of challengers’ support.
Of course, preliminaries are not destiny. A smart candidate advancing to November can take a weak showing September 19, retool and ride to victory.