The Year in Springfield 2019…
At the beginning, 2019 felt like it had all the fixings of a great year for the City of Homes. The Council was resurgent. The East-West rail study was (finally) moving. The region’s congressman ascended to one of Congress’s top posts. MGM was entering its first full year of operation and MBTA cars made in the city were about to be rolled out for use in Boston.
But 2019 was nothing close to wine and roses. The mayor’s race was not heavily contested, leaving an unsettled political situation. A Council candidate with a history of disgusting remarks nearly got elected. A retiring councilor died one of many impactful deaths in the city body politic. Beacon Hill seemed inert. In Washington much of whatever work the now-Democratic House could do died at the foot of a Senate that refused to even try to produce alternatives.
Perhaps the year’s most consequential news—nationally of Massachusetts import—may began at the end of 2018. Elizabeth Warren, the commonwealth’s senior US Senator made the obligatory exploratory announcement New Year’s Eve 2018, but a few months later in 2019, she made it official in Lawrence.
Warren’s campaign would has had its ups and downs, doubters and believers, but unlike many just-as-established contenders, she has survived to play through at least the early primary states. But she would not be alone among Massachusetts pols.
In Springfield itself, the Council finalized some legislation to codify policy regarding undocumented immigrants over Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto. Now presided over by at-large Councilor Justin Hurst, the Council upped its legislative consideration.
Plastic bag bans and an election notification ordinance, both initiatives of at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman were among the items on the body’s agenda.
But frustration was mounting on the Council, stoking speculation that maybe one of its own would take on his mayorness. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos considered running, but, he ultimately begged off. It would not be the last word on the mayor’s race.
The first of several deaths of huge figures in the deaths came in February. Dave Vigneault, a former state rep and later mentor to two generations of political activist, died at the age of 83.
Over 12 years in the legislature starting the year JFK was elected president, Vigneault championed liberal causes—and lived them, too, such as registering voters in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Another shockwave went through Springfield with the sudden retirement of Police Commissioner John Barbieri. The exit was unexpected—even to him, councilors have said—and came amid turmoil at Pearl Street. Barbieri would be replaced with Cheryl Claprood, first on an interim basis and then permanently. However, her position no longer legally exists leaving her authority in a gray area, perhaps prompting a thus stunted effort to reverse the Police Commission ordinance Sarno refuses to implement.
That was not all. Masslive reported the city once had the phone records of police that Attorney General Maura Healey later charged for their alleged role in the coverup of the Nathan Bill’s fracas of 2015. The city later destroyed them after the patrolmen’s union claimed they were illegally obtained. However, it was never entirely clear why they were illegally obtained or why the city simply didn’t reacquire them legally.
Meanwhile, down in Washington, Richard Neal Springfield’s longtime congressman took power as chair of Ways & Means. But the first few weeks were overshadowed by an ongoing government shutdown, Donald Trump refused to end without getting his wall. Congress did not give him his wall, but the shutdown ended anyway—he would later (mis)appropriate funds from elsewhere to attempt to build his southern barrier.
However, there would be work Neal did—or, as his critics would charge, did not do. The preeminent power of the moment his position entailed was requesting Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, as permitted under federal law. Neal did, as promised after the 2018 election, but not as quickly as some wanted. This, along with critiques of legislation and not enthusiastically embracing new liberal orthodoxies earned Neal the ire of progressives in DC and back home.
Activist and writer David Daley was the first to feel out a challenge, but by April it was clear another was considering it. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse began considering a run, quietly, but the chatter was real.
Meanwhile, retirement season gripped the Council. Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs called it quits as did Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea. Shea’s retirement might have prompted a big race, but at-large Councilor Timothy Ryan sought the ward race instead of reelection, creating an open at-large slot. Ryan, a son of a former mayor along with his own history on the council, kept the race small, a one-on-one with Victor Davila, who had planned to challenge Shea. The Ward 4 race quickly became crowded.
Other passings followed. The longtime publisher of the Springfield Newspaper, David Starr, departed this mortal coil. In his time, he was one of the most powerful people in the city via his newspapers. However, he did not always use that power wisely or humbly. Still his death was a reminder of the precarious state of Valley media today.
In the mayor’s race, Domenic Sarno was poised avoid a challenge entirely, becoming the city’s longest serving mayor without a fight. Yet, challengers emerged late. Perennial candidate Jeffery Donnelly ran and activist Yolanda Cancel, inspired by her son’s shooting, joined the race.
They were followed by Linda Matys O’Connell. A journalist, who for a time brought the bright colors of arts and culture into a political context for WMP&I, O’Connell entered promising a different path. However, a bout with illness sidelined her, pitting Cancel and Donnelly against Sarno. Cancel survived the preliminary to face the mayor in November.
When City Clerk Anthony Wilson announced his departure for the same job in Cambridge, Sarno opened another fissure with the Council. Announcing, wrongly, his authority to appoint the clerk, he said he wanted Tasheena Davis. The Council has that appointment power, not the mayor, though they did ultimately give Davis the job after a formal selection process.
As the summer dragged on, state politics seemed as frozen as ever. Beacon Hill did little, though talked much. In Boston, the first railcars produced in Springfield were rolled out for public use only to be withdrawn after a defect was discovered.
In July Morse launched his bid for Congress, alleging Neal had failed to use his influence for the district’s benefit. Morse also pitched Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Neal’s campaign didn’t waste time pushing back, pointing to federal funds and tax benefits he secured while pointing to Morse’s own governmental foibles.
This would not be the only primary challenge on the horizon, however.
Springfield hosted the state Democratic convention this year. (Disclosure: your editor-in-chief, by virtue of a local party office he holds, was a delegate). Sarno was not invited after endorsing Republican Governor Charlie Baker in 2018, violating decades-old party rules.
The convention brought Senator Warren back to the City of Homes and off the early state campaign trail, where she was nominated in 2012 to take on Scott Brown, to thank those who got her there.
Around this time, Warren briefly became the presidential nomination front-runner, but shifting tides put her into conflict rising opponents like now-former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Later in the fall, she lost her status as the only Massachusetts pol in the race. Former Governor Deval Patrick leapt in hours before the New Hampshire deadline.
That convention had another sub-context. Newton Rep Joseph Kennedy, III held a meet and greet for, well, why not? In fact, his interest in challenging incumbent Senator Ed Markey had been recently uncovered. Markey used his convention speech to debut a more personal narrative. Kennedy announced not long after, earning endorsements from, locally, Senator Eric Lesser. Markey, however, had much of the region’s establishment with him.
In August, MGM Springfield passed its first anniversary, but gambling revenues have disappointed. Moreover, development near the casino has been nil. A major tentpole in Mayor Sarno’s reelection message seemed threatened.
Sarno had the advantage of incumbency and his opponent had limited resources. Still, his launch was almost laconic and rote. There was nothing new to be offered at his kickoff, which was among his very few campaign events of the cycle.
As summer closed death took another key figure in the city’s political ecosystem. Michaelann Bewsee, a co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, succumbed to cancer.
Grief flowed over the loss, but at the heart of it was flowering praise for a woman who took on mayors and developers and injustice. In a city (in)famous for its inertia, she could sometimes move the earth.
After the city preliminary, retired firefighter Chris Pohner seemed primed to take Ryan’s open seat. He had the support of the mayor and several city unions, if quietly. Yet, an undercurrent of dread began to build among politicos, given rumors about Pohner’s past statements.
Then, his history of troubling and blatantly bigoted comments came to light. Sarno backed away. Unions abandoned Pohner in droves and a few councilors, candidates and statewide groups called for him to drop out. He didn’t, but he also didn’t win.
There was another thread to this story. Firefighters in uniform, driven in a city firetruck, attended a Pohner fundraiser, in apparent violation of state ethics law and department policy. Mayor Domenic Sarno gave a speech in front of them, potentially inculpating him, too.
It is not clear—yet—whether Morse’s broadsides against Neal did any damage, but one critique faded in September. Neal, having sued for Trump’s taxes as Ways & Means chair, was among those House Speaker Nancy Pelosi charged with investigating whether Trump should be impeached. The House ultimately focused on Trump’s ostensibly extortion of Ukraine, but Neal appeared alongside the Speaker and other impeachment inquiry chairs at almost all major announcements.
Springfield elected no more women to the Council in 2019. Malo Brown beat activist Jynai McDonald to win Twiggs’s seat, which disappointed some activists but Brown had the full support of his boss, State Rep Bud Williams. The bigger shock was Davila’s win over Ryan, but most note that the councilor-elect simply outworked his opponent. Former State Rep Sean Curran won Ryan’s seat.
Sarno won reelection, but it almost didn’t feel like an election. His opponent was underfunded and Sarno didn’t even bother to rent a hall for a victory party. His victory party was at home. Since his reelection, no retributions have happened yet compared to four years ago.
However, he set himself up for confrontation over a public works project in Forest Park and, again, on immigration. Sarno’s wrongheaded assessment of refugees made Springfield one of the very few cities that publicly turned its back on those in need. The Council issued a unanimous rebuke, before which Sarno was too cowardly to even admit this was his position. The circumstance arose from Trump executive order now in court.
Not helping was the attention Sarno’s comms director attracted before resigning.
The year would not end without one more prominent death. Twiggs, the retiring councilor, breathed his last shortly after election day. His passing brought waves of remembrances in the press, in public and in the council chamber. He had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and fought for civil rights right in Springfield. His health factored into his decision to retire, but his decline was sudden. The close of the Council this year was unusually somber as councilor remembered their colleague.
Aside from more confrontation, it is hard to know what really lies ahead for Springfield in 2020. Will its congressman remain one of the most powerful in Washington? The rail study Lesser has long sought is also due this year. Will it recommend feasible service or will Baker, never much of a fan, bury it? City government’s future is even less clear. Sarno articulated no vision for his next term. Councilors have some ideas, but they’ll have to get them around the mayor.
Above all of this looms the presidential election. Trump’s policies threaten Springfield, cities like it and their residents like no other. Discrimination against communities of color, LGBTQ people and Jews has only escalated in this climate.
Springfield’s future, on a local and state level remain unclear, but not in some time, if ever, has its fate, on a fundamental level, hinged on the national contest that lies ahead.