Analysis: Springfield’s Seasonal Electoral Disorder…
A fog hangs over Springfield this election cycle.
Contrary to the sunny assessment of and accolades for the incumbent, Domenic Sarno’s mayoralty has not been wine and roses for all. Yolanda Cancel is running a spirited bid, but Sarno has refused to engage with the election but for a handful of television ads. Cancel has lacked the resources force the mayor into acknowledging the democratic process.
It is not just the mayor’s race, however. A miasma has bedeviled the Council race, too. Even before one candidate became (in)famous, there was an unusual tension. It has never been clear why. The circumstances of the election should have made for a good healthy race, much like 2017. Despite an open seat, incumbents and challengers alike displayed a range of things from twitchiness to outright paranoia.
Perhaps this will bear out on Tuesday, but some unease stems from a mistaken belief the mayor is poised to purge opponents from the Council. The body has become the principal resistance to Sarno’s increasingly despotic rule. Though not always successful—and sometimes outright ignored—it still has some tools to mitigate and curtail the mayor. Indeed, opposition to him is often the only thing gluing together a supermajority among the thundery 13.
There are open ward seats, but those races are likely to upset the balance of power to the mayor’s benefit. Rather, his fingerprints are/were on some at-large candidates. He was vociferous backer of Chris Pohner’s until the retired firefighter’s vile social media posts became public. While former State Rep Sean Curran has been a cheerful presence on the trail, he, too, lashed himself to the mayor.
To that end, the incumbent at-large candidates may have felt uneasy. Certainly, that vibe has existed on the trail.
If Sarno concentrated his fire on the four seeking reelection—Timothy Ryan is seeking Ward 6’s open seat—would their positions be at risk? All four have tangled with his mayorness and voted to override his vetoes at least once or twice.
In truth, the mayor has little power to dislodge them. Incumbency remains a potent force, especially in at-large Council races. The math complicates efforts to defeat sitting councilors. Moreover, the machine of old is dead.
The mayor could raise money for candidates, but the developers and businessfolk who give princely sums to the mayor do not donate to other at his command. He controls no substantive political organization to speak of, either. While some city workers, to varying degrees of legality, put themselves at the mayor’s disposal, there is no unified effort to get votes. A lingering fear of reprisal may keep workers and special interests from roiling Sarno, but they ask for an altitude when he says jump.
Adding to the unsettled electoral atmosphere is continued collapse of media. Less and less coverage of races only fosters doubt. Even this blog has not done as much as in past years. Candidates are left to their own devices to grind out votes and remind voters about the election, which aside from signs sprouting from yards, can feel unreal at best.
Only Pohner has gotten much coverage. When WMassP&I revealed the full scope of bigoted online comments, it rocked city politics. Sarno leapt away. Labor, including Springfield patrolmen, rescinded endorsements. Statewide LGBTQ organizations like Stonewall Democrats and MassEquality have called for him to quit. Several councilors either condemned the remarks and/or called for him to drop out as did at-large challenger Kelli Moriarty-Finn.
As the story zoomed across the commonwealth, state political chin-scratchers noted that candidates with troubling views were on the ballot in many Gateway Cities. What would it say if they won?
The whole affair, while essential to daylight, has contributed to the dark mood of the election. Whether it had been reported or not, scrutiny of the candidates would have been minimal—and has been. Public confrontations and misleading to outlandish claims, especially in ads, have not received the attention.
Beyond the state and its election, there is apprehension about how a victorious Sarno will rule.
Given recent discrimination lawsuits against the city, Sarno’s failure to vet his Council endorsements is bizarre. Just as troubling is his buck-passing concerning the firefighters that attended Pohner’s fundraiser, ostensibly on-duty.
Four years ago, after Sarno defeated underfunded opposition, the mayor cut loose a trio of Historical Commissioners who refused to bend to his will. The action was his right, but it robbed the Commission of years of institutional knowledge.
Shortly after the current term began in 2016, the city’s two biggest police scandals—Gregg Bigda’s alleged violation of juvenile suspects’ civil rights and the Nathan Bill’s fracas—germinated. Technically, the Nathan Bill’s event—wherein off-duty cops allegedly beat up other patrons—took place in 2015. However, the city investigation into it went off the rails in 2016.
The feds have since indicted Bigda and Attorney General Maura Healey has indicted city cops for the Nathan Bill’s matter, including several for lying to investigators. Nothing directly connects Sarno to these Pearl Street’s woes, but his undermanagement—or over-management could be a factor.
The mayor’s increasingly erratic behavior—unhinged posts on the city Facebook page, an autocratic mien, uncharacteristically unkempt appearances and delusions of grandeur—make anything possible.
Such concerns notwithstanding, passage of Election Day this Tuesday will bring relief to many. While some councilors and residents gird for the mayor’s next move, there also exists an appetite to take the fight to him on a host of issues. Despite the mayor’s best efforts, almost no result is likely to cow the Council. What will split them is not so much whether to confront him, but how.
In the final analysis, city politicos and 36 Court Street denizens will be glad to dispose of 2019. It has been an exhausting and frustrating year, which many hope will end uneventfully—unless some other bomb drops just after the election.