Analysis: Springfield Mayoral Bids Liftoff, Sparking More than a Race…
SPRINGFIELD—In the last few weeks, the race for mayor has formally entered a new phase. Both of incumbent Domenic Sarno’s new challengers, Yolanda Cancel and Linda O’Connell held their respective kickoffs at different points in the city. The mayor’s election plans remain as opaque as ever.
Launching mayoral bids nearly one after another, Cancel and O’Connell have already changed 2019 in Springfield. Without disrespecting Sarno’s cadre of opponents in 2015, this year’s women challengers could awaken an electoral sleeping beauty here. As amazing as it sounds less than two months before the preliminary, it is early. Still, their launches have effectively touched off this truncated election cycle.
On June 27, Cancel kicked off her campaign at Club Aquarius. The venue carried significance for her as her employer. Yet, perhaps more saliently, Cancel and others have alleged City Hall has treated it differently, relative to nightlife spots with whiter clientele. That and her son’s encounter with gun violence—he survived—led her to run.
While Cancel has run for office before, the suddenness of this bid and the subsequent organization requires a lot of work. Her kickoff was, by her reckoning, only her sixth event that day.
“Usually, if I’m deciding to run campaigns, I usually know six months in advance,” she told WMassP&I. Everything from the flash, like colors schemes, to the meat of the campaign—issues—was on a compressed timeline. “We’re trying to do everything all at once, on a crunch.”
Two weeks later, O’Connell launched her bid in her leafy Forest Park neighborhood. At the picnic grounds outside the VFW post, O’Connell and her campaign laid out her story and her mayoral campaign.
A Springfield native, O’Connell had started her career in journalism, as a founder of The Valley Advocate, and went on to lead newsrooms across the country. She recently served as Arts & Culture correspondent for WMassP&I. When she moved back Springfield, she got into advocacy and political activism.
Lakisha Coppedge spoke about O’Connell’s efforts as an interim leader at Motherwoman, during which time the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed.
“Linda was that familiar face, that advocate who was already committed to the fight,” Coppedge explained of O’Connell’s appointment.
In her remarks, O’Connell returned to her emerging theme of “Let’s talk.” Leaning on her journalism background, she said of tackling city problems, “I know how to ask the tough questions.”
But those questions are only the beginning. As Cancel alluded to, entering the race within a week of the signature deadline left little time to build campaigns. Such small windows have happened before. For example, Boston Mayor Tom Menino stepped down only a few months earlier in 2013, relative to Election Day, than Cancel and O’Connell joined the Springfield mayoral race this year.
But the 2013 Boston mayoral candidates had two additional months to gather signatures and then corral donors, hire staff, and build field organizations. More importantly, they faced no incumbent, whether beloved or feared, who could harangue or discourage contributors, political grandees, unions, or businessowners.
First Cancel and O’Connell must make it to November. They, perennial candidate Jeffery Donnelly and Sarno will appear on the September 10 ballot together. The top two vote-getters—Sarno is all but certain to be one—will advance to the November 5 general election.
At her kickoff, Cancel said she has not experienced any backlash directly. Rather, “everybody is just so positive. They want to see change.”
She also suggested that it was not just Sarno, but rather a broader sense that something different must happen. Moreover, this interest transcends the various strata of the city. “Everybody, together is saying we need a change in this city,” Cancel continued.
But that also means reaching out to residents and explaining the stakes and impact of voting in a municipal election.
Cancel noted several issues she hoped would be a focus of her campaign. Among them were distribution of public health resources, transportation, residency and the Police Department.
Specifically, she wanted to see better management of police funds and more emphasis on de-escalation training, including for veteran officers.
Pearl Street is almost certain to feature prominently in the election. The last year has seen a wave of indictments of police officers, the early departure of the police commissioner, and countless videos of alleged misconduct.
Sarno has tangled with the City Council over how to oversee the department. An attempt to reach a negotiating solution collapsed earlier this summer after a mayoral fit over the Council’s deliberative pace.
O’Connell, in her remarks at her July 11 kickoff, mentioned the police department, too. She also spoke to broader themes, like bringing more people into the process. One example was the mayor’s veto of the Election Notification ordinance, which the Council override this past Monday.
She also highlighted poor turnout in city elections. In 2015, when Sarno was last reelected, she said, only 16 out of every 100 registered voters showed up.
“That’s not a show of support,” O’Connell said, “that’s not a show of satisfaction. That’s a sign of a broken system.”
Overall, she emphasized the city’s potential, if unrealized. “The Springfield I know is here. It has strong foundations,” O’Connell said.
Coalescing the themes Cancel and O’Connell emphasize will be crucial to raise awareness and interest in their bids. Despite Sarno’s obvious advantages, an appetite for change is palpable. The challenge for Cancel and O’Connell is convincing voters which of them should face Sarno. Once in the general, the preliminary victor must then become a viable alternative to the incumbent.
The conversation the challengers’ mayoral campaigns promise could be a net positive by itself, too.
Even the most ardent Sarnoite can see—and perhaps feel—36 Court Street’s detachment from the city’s full 33 square miles. There are some signs of economic life, but are the vitals for Springfield’s civic virtue as strong?
“We do want to talk,” O’Connell said in her closing. “Tell us your stories.”
Indeed, these campaigns could shake things up. Regardless of success, they have the potential to awaken people and bring longer term transformation.
That is the intention of both women in the race.
Since announcing, Cancel’s social media have been abuzz with volunteer opportunities and, like O’Connell, with solicitations for input about what the city needs.
“I want [residents] to know that I am in this for the long-haul, win or lose,” she told WMassP&I. “I don’t want anybody to feel that, if we lose, that we lost. Because we didn’t.”