The Whole 2019 Yards: Surveying the Valley Fallout…
UPDATED 11/7/19 11:45AM: To reflect a correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Alex Morse was on the ballot this year. He was not and is in the middle of a four-year term.
SPRINGFIELD—A collective whoosh swept through the Pioneer Valley as candidates and prognosticators sighed as open mayoral contests and contentious council races concluded at last. Cities throughout the region had mayoral contests, including open seats in Chicopee and Westfield. Others had noisy Council races including here in Springfield where three new faces will join the municipal legislature in January.
Two ward seats and an at-large seat were open. While the ward seats were hotly contested, the race for the Council’s five at-large seats drew added attention after WMassP&I published one candidate’s online posting past. The comments, caked in racists, homophobic and transphobic language city, prompted backlash even as city and even statewide grandees worried what it would mean if Springfield elected such a person. Ultimately, it didn’t.
Elsewhere in the Valley, the results landed about as expected if still much closer. For example, Chicopee City Council President John Vieau will succeed Richard Kos as mayor. He beat out Assistant Principal Joe Morissette by comfortable if not blowout margins. In Westfield, State Senator Don Humason appeared to barely win that city’s mayoralty. By last count, Humason was leading Police Captain Michael McCabe by 97 votes. A recount is likely.
As in Chicopee, Westfield’s mayor’s office is open. Incumbent Brian Sullivan opted against a third term. The results will have a broader ripple effect. Humason, a Republican, is expected to resign his senate seat, shortly after his win is confirmed. Westfield Democratic Rep John Velis has said he would seek to succeed his Upper House colleague.
In Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno easily won reelection against community activist Yolanda Cancel. The result was almost identical to four years ago when he likewise faced underfunded opposition. Sarno will become the longest serving mayor in the city’s history, beating out Daniel Brunton who served for 12 years just after World War II. Although Cancel was unable to apply pressure on the mayor, Sarno’s complete disengagement from the election was an affront to voters and the democratic process.
Down ballot, the successful candidates were doing anything but. Although arguably the hardest-working candidates did not always win, competition was real. Incumbency prevailed in all races, but the open at-large seat was snapped up by former State Representative Sean Curran.
In September’s preliminary, the candidate in the spot Curran has secured was Christopher Pohner. A retired firefighter, Pohner appeared poised to take the seat left open by Timothy Ryan’s decision to seek the open Ward 6 seat.
Last month, WMassP&I published homophobic and transphobic comments Pohner wrote on Facebook as well as racist Masslive comments linked to Pohner via a screen name he later admitted as his. Pohner denied he wrote the most inflammatory comments. Among such Masslive comments were those that called black men parasitic or called Springfield “Mudville.” Labor unions subsequently withdrew endorsements and Mayor Domenic Sarno, who had energetically backed Pohner, backed away entirely.
Aside from the incumbents and Curran, Kelli Moriarty-Finn, a returning challenger, and newcomer Israel Rivera also placed ahead of Pohner. Lamar Cook, who also ran in 2017, and Johnnie Ray McKnight, a 2015 mayoral candidate, filled out ninth and tenth respectively.
In the wards were more action and even some surprises. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams easily beat back a challenge from Edward Green.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs is retiring. Malo Brown, an aide to Representative Bud Williams, will succeed Twiggs. Brown had dominated the crowded preliminary, but Jynai McDonald, had closed the gap considerably from the preliminary. To many, she outworked him, but his boss’s influence in his House district prevailed. Ward 4, which consists of the McKnight, Old Hill, and Upper Hill neighborhoods, is entirely in Rep Williams’s district.
The stunner was in Ward 6 where Ryan fell to Victor Davila by mere 39 votes according to figures the city released. Ward 6 consists of Forest Park and a slice of East Forest Park.
Davila had his eye set on the Ward 6 seat even before the incumbent councilor, Ken Shea, announced his retirement earlier this year. Davila, who had just come off an unsuccessful at-large bid and had sought the ward seat a decade earlier, essentially plowed his time and resources into knocking the neighborhood’s doors.
Ryan, the son of former Mayor Charlie Ryan, had served a decade on the Council from 1994 to 2003 before returning in 2017. After Shea’s announcement, most assumed a wide-open race would ensue—few expected Ryan to drop down. Instead Ryan sought the seat, essentially clearing field but for the already-running Davila.
Although it covers a smaller territory, winning reelection at-large may been easier for Ryan. In the head-to-head, it appears Davila simply outworked him.
Up in Holyoke, the big question to finance two new middle schools went down nearly 2-1. The measure would have allowed the city to raise property tax revenue beyond the limits of Proposition 2 ½ to make debt payments. Supporters pitched it as an investment in the future.
Opponents, with financial assistance from the Holyoke Mall’s owner, argued it was unaffordable. Led by former Council President Kevin Jourdain, almost reveling his return to Holyoke supervillainy, they also picked apart the measure’s details. Among the digs was alleging simplistically if not always accurately, that Holyoke state was shortchanging reimbursement relative to other communities.
Holyoke Council seats were open at-large and in Ward 4 after Daniel Bresnahan and Jossie Valentin, respectively, retired. Howard Greaney, squeezed out amid Council shrinkage in 2017, snagged the at-large seat. Libby Hernandez will succeed Valentin in Ward 4. Mayor Alex Morse was not up for reelection this year.
Across the river in Chicopee all incumbents won reelection despite challenges across the city. Lucjan Galecki will succeed Vieau in Ward 3.
The race for Chicopee mayor had seemingly become another proxy battle like those Kos and his predecessor Michael Bissonnette had waged. Indeed, Bissonnette had sought a comeback, but was eliminated in the preliminary. Vieau was tight was Kos and received his endorsement. Morissette, by contrast, offered a counternarrative of Kos’s reign noting administrative missteps and crime.
It became a spirited and sometimes rocky battle. Morissette was a first-time candidate and Vieau endured his toughest race in years. Vieau supporters, a mix of Chicopee’s old guard and several of its reformers, were thrilled. They expressed hope Vieau could begin to heal divisions that Kos had failed to mend.
Westfield’s photo finish mayoral race may be the biggest talk of the Valley now. Humason’s apparent, but narrow win over McCabe differed radically different from what many expected when he first leapt into the race. Always a popular figure in Westfield, first as state rep for 11 years and then as senator for six, most assumed the Whip City would welcome Humason into City Hall with open arms.
Instead, the race turned into a slog. A majority of voters picked somebody else in the preliminary. Perhaps voters were tired the chummy, bipartisan, back-and-forth nature of Westfield politics. McCabe had a relative river of money that, while not quite at pace with Humason, kept the race close. A SuperPAC aligned with Governor Baker dumped thousands more into the race to help Humason.
Assuming the results hold, it is not clear when Humason will resign from the Senate. Once he transmits his intention to resign to Senate President Karen Spilka, she and Secretary of State can begin planning a special election date. No serious contenders besides Velis have been floated, though Republicans are expected to field a challenger. For months now, Velis has been wooing Democrats—and voters generally—in the sprawling district that runs from Agawam to Easthampton.
In Agawam, an incumbent councilor, Robert McGovern, lost reelection. Two new councilors, Gerald Smith and Mario Tedeschi were elected there. West Springfield welcomed its former Mayor, Edward Sullivan, to an open at-large seat.
Lost amid that excitement was massive shakeup on the Council. Several incumbents jumped between at-large and ward seats to varying degrees of success. However, the most notable shift was the return of Richard Sullivan, a former mayor who left city office over a decade ago to serve in Deval Patrick’s administration. Sullivan, brother to the outgoing mayor, will take up an at-large seat next year.
Back in Springfield, Tuesday’s results will not change city political dynamics. Regardless of outcome, a huge shift in the increasingly tense relationship between mayor and Council was unlikely, absent a Cancel victory. Sarno had tried to field candidates to dislodge un-friendlies and install yesmen. That largely failed before the ballots were even printed.
If anything, the results maintain the status quo or even strengthen the Council’s hand. Curran may be Sarno sympathetic, but Brown is a wildcard and Davila leans toward the Council’s proactive crowd.
The best—or worst—is yet to come.