The Year in Springfield 2018…
In Springfield 2018 may go down as a key year for the city. The Council, Springfield’s congressman, and even activism itself had a good year. But even if there was some small-d and large-D democratic developments, this year also ushered in some noteworthy signs on the region’s media scene.
The year began with swearing-in new officials. Springfield inaugurated two new(ish) at-large city councilor for the first time in years. Councilors Timothy Rooke and Bud Williams retired and gave way to activist Jesse Lederman and former councilor Timothy Ryan.
Despite sitting on different parts of the ideological spectrum, Lederman and Ryan’s election has accelerated a shift on the Council. The move has been leftward, yes, but it is really legislative activism generally.
That transformation got another boost when Mayor Domenic Sarno tapped at-large city councilor Thomas Ashe to become chief of staff. A consistent ally of Sarno’s, he was replaced by Tracye Whitfield, who in less than four months has often sided with the Council’s progressive and activist side.
Throughout the year, City Councilors have become more aggressive, proposing and enacting their own vision for city government. Some of this undoubtedly manifested—or will manifest—in more progressive policy. Although has Sarno’s tried to cuddle the provocateur-in-chief, the strife is more about who runs the city: Sarno or anybody else.
The legislation Sarno vetoed ranges from the contentious (Welcoming Communities Trust) to the process oriented (tax incremental financing reforms). Others were a mix like reviving the Police Commission even as Sarno negotiates a new contract with the current, sole commissioner, John Barbieri.
The battlefield was shift at other levels, too.
Governor Charlie Baker, facing reelection, caved to State Senator Eric Lesser and ordered the latter’s long-sought East-West rail study. Attention has now turned to ensuring the study actually move the ball on rail service.
As Donald Trump entered his second year astride the federal government, his tax cut quickly proved unpopular. Ethics scandals culled several principles from his cabinet, but the stench of corruption hovers throughout.
Even after his disastrous family separation policy ended, the Republican party turned hard on immigration scaremongering.
US Representative Richard Neal would not face a general election opponent who could echo such dreck. But he did face a spirited challenge from Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud from the left.
It set the stage for the 1st congressional district’s first contested primary since its reconfiguration in 2012. The Massachusetts 1st Congressional District consists of virtually all of Berkshire and Hampden Counties, southwestern Worcester County, and the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties.
Amatul-Wadud offered that rarest of Neal challengers—opposition from Springfield. Neal’s toughest reelections—the general and primary in 1992—featured adversaries from his hometown who maybe, just maybe could cut into Neal’s metro Springfield margins. His last was Joseph Fountain’s bid in the 2000 primary. Indeed, Amatul-Wadud said her run was a response to seeing unmet needs in her community.
But Amatul-Wadud did not run a campaign with that theme. She leaned heavily on allegations Neal neglected the 1st Congressional district’s hinterlands.
Elsewhere, former City Councilor Amaad Rivera ran a strong challenge against incumbent senator James Welch, who represents about two-thirds of Springfield. Many, but hardly all city figures, lined up behind Welch.
Still, Rivera, his political image considerably evolved from his tempestuous but productive time on the Council, put up a strong fight. He challenged Welch on guns and healthcare and generally alleged inertia against the four-term senator. But Rivera faced skepticism on charter schools. Welch did not.
In the end, Welch won comfortably, but perhaps not reassuringly. He won Chicopee and his native West Springfield by smaller margins than his last contested race in 2012. Springfield came in stronger for Welch compared to six years ago, that may not be a permanent shift. Welch had to drop considerable coin on reelection, but he made some wise staffing investments that likely bolstered his position in the end.
Rivera’s focus on guns, if nothing else, was timely. Following the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, young people around the country, including in Springfield marched for gun reform. Local activists even sought meetings with Smith & Wesson executives to discuss keeping guns out of dangerous hands. They joined their peers in one of the largest public demonstrations Springfield has seen in some time.
Former State Rep Cheryl Coakley-Rivera had challenged incumbent Hampden Register of Deeds Donald Ashe, the latter died before the primary. Ashe had been the last of the city’s old Irish guard holding the county’s offices. His tenure outliving Hampden County itself as a corporate entity by more than 20 years. His son put up a token write-in challenge to Coakley-Rivera’s nomination, but got crushed. She would go on to defeat Republican Marie Angelides in the general election.
Statewide Jay Gonzalez and Quentin Palfrey won their party’s nomination for governor and lieutenant governor easily. The Secretary of State’s race was notable in that Boston City Council Josh Zakim secured support from Springfield City Councilors including Justin Hurst, Marcus Williams and Kateri Walsh. Though, incumbent Bill Galvin easily felled Zakim in the primary.
Republican primaries were even more soporific, though Springfield’s own famous religious bigot, Scott Lively climbed to 36% against Governor Baker.
Though Gonzalez did do something few other state pols did. He chastised Mayor Sarno’s attempt to bully South Congregational Church into ejecting the undocumented immigrant it was sheltering. Gisella Gollazo’s sanctuary in that church prompted Sarno to order code enforcement to find violations, ostensibly to force her removal. He shrieked the move would make Springfield a sanctuary city.
Sarno’s claims and actions were either the height of cynicism—hoping the city’s Trumpkins would not realize/care the city had no role in the dispute—or patent mayoral simpleness. Code Enforcement found the barest of violations and the Council ordered the administration to lay off South Congregational. Sarno backpedaled and Collazo won a year’s reprieve from deportation.
The changes in local media may also be subtle, but with longer term consequences. The Republican and Masslive’s corporate overlords, Advance, purchased The Reminder, a local weekly. Few changes have come for now, though. The paper renewed its least in East Longmeadow, emphasizing distance from either of Advance’s other properties.
The move comes amid seeming contraction from The Valley Advocate, which has seemingly given up Springfield news coverage.
The transformations were not limited to the Pioneer Valley. Politico’s outpost in the Bay State saw a changing of the guard as its Massachusetts Playbook author and one-time Dorchester Reporter scribe Lauren Dezenski left for CNN-ier pastures. The Politico mothership installed Stephanie Murray in her place.
The Globe, too, saw transitions. The Times and The Washington Post poached a lot of Globe talent, particularly on the political desk. Moreover, the newsroom is bracing for stark labor negotiations after the paper hired an infamous law firm to advise it during contract negotiations. This came after a crossfire of accusations between the paper and a former employee. And yet, owner John Henry said it has, at last, become profitable.
Retail in Springfield seemingly suffered fatal blows. Toys R Us’s death (or not?) and Sears’s own slow death left huge vacancies on Boston Road. Sears’s departure also left Eastfield Mall without any anchor stores. Gasping for air, Eastfield’s owners claim a major redevelopment is just around the corner.
Back at City Hall, the dominoes that led to Councilor Whitfield’s appointment and Ashe’s exit began with Denise Jordan. The mayor’s chief of staff for 11 years, she scored the executive directorship at the Springfield Housing Authority. She succeded William Abrashkin who was called in to clean up the agency after the corruption ravaged it a decade ago.
Although Jordan left a spectrum of impressions on City Hall denizens, she was seen as among Sarno’s more moderate advisers. Ashe’s value to Sarno comes from shoring up East Forest Park. Ashe is not ideology. Still, the mayor’s hard right turn is bizarre.
After all, the triumph of MGM Springfield’s opening came this year. The nearly billion investment by the Las Vegas-based company reinvented a chunk of the South End as an entertainment and hospital mecca. It need not be the apocryphal rising-Phoenix trope to realize its significance in altering Springfield’s cityscape—and its finances.
In addition, new rail service to Hartford and New Haven began. Railcars are rolling off CRRC’s factory floor. Virtually nobody lays blame for retail’s death in the city at Sarno’s feet. Nonetheless, Sarno chose to agitate what Trump base there is in Springfield.
After the church debacle, the clash over the Welcoming Communities Trust ordinance seemed inevitable. The ordinance, if the Council overrides the mayor, would codify existing city policy to not inquire into the immigration status of those seeking city services unless a state or federal law requires otherwise. The Council passed it 10-3 to uproarious applause.
Commandeering the city’s Facebook page like Trump clenches Twitter, Sarno blasted the ordinance with false and misleading claims about the city losing funds, increases in crime and general claims of illegality. The issue became commingled with the Police Commission and, regrettably, a not-yet-passed, ill-timed pay hike some councilors sought.
Incidentally, the push to reform oversight of the Police Department got a boost in 2018 amid federal and state action two long-running Pearl Street controversies. Attorney General Maura Healey charged the cops involved in a 2015 brawl at Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill.
Then the feds indicted Gregg Bigda and Steven Vigneult, who allegedly violated the civil rights of youths who boosted a cop car in 2016. The charges likely relate to the broader Justice Department examination of Pearl Street.
Elsewhere, Governor Baker cruised to reelection. He won nearly all Massachusetts communities, including Springfield. He styled himself a moderate Republican—or not a Republican at all. But the fathers of his victory were mostly Beacon Hill Democrats who passed on confronting him on much of anything. Baker mostly returned the favor. The aura of invisibility scared off donors.
That’s what led former Newton Mayor Setti Warren to drop out of the race. Gonzalez struggled to raise money to both broadcast his image and question Baker’s.
Federal and other state races were no more competitive. Senator Warren flattened her opponent, State Rep Diehl. The congressional races here were equally dull. But national results had local impact. AG Healey, Secretary Galvin, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and Auditor Suzanne Bump all sailed to reelection in the general.
Warren would make one more bit of news in 2018. After lighting the presidential fuse for the first time in public, she announced her exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve.
With Democrats scoring a 40 seat gain the US House of Representatives, wresting the chamber from Republicans who’ve reigned there since 2011. Thus Rep Neal’s will ascend to the chairmanship of Ways & Means, a powerful body that oversees taxation, social programs, trade and more.
Neal’s Worcester colleague who also represents the Upper Pioneer Valley, will chair the Rules Committee.
While both congressmen have promised good things for the 413, it is a career achievement of Neal’s and milestone for Springfield. For Neal, that journey that started 40 years ago in a shuttered Union Station. Springfield’s congressman has not held such power since Frederick Gillett surrendered the speaker’s gavel in 1925.
Neal’s detractors highlight his liberal apostacies, but the history is impossible to deny. Indeed, it was an impediment Amatul-Wadud encountered throughout the primary. The further flung areas of the state shrugged at the potential, but in Springfield and the environs, it was big.
In some ways, 2018’s impact may not be fully realized until this feature is written next year. The state of Valley media remains in flux. Councilor Justin Hurst was selected to lead an empowered City Council in 2019. Neal will chair one of the oldest and most powerful committees in Congress. Springfield will be electing a mayor. So much lies ahead.