Analysis: Ward 1 Aspirants Unveiled, but Choice Vexes Extant Councilors…
Later this week, the Springfield City Council will begin the process of selecting a replacement for Adam Gomez, the Ward 1 councilor who resigned to focus on his new role as a state senator. Five names came into the council office this week, including a couple prominent ones. Now the Council faces, for the first time in recent memory the unenviable task of appointing a new colleague.
The city charter envisions this, but not as a first resort. Normally, the recipient of the next highest number of votes in the previous election Yet, the authors of this provision did not foresee ward elections. In applying this language to ward races gives a vacant seat to the patently unsuccessful candidate in the last election. Gomez had no opponent in 2019 though, pushing the decision on to wary councilors.
Last week the Council’s office released a list of five applicants for Gomez’s seat. They include UMass student Hussein Abdi, Veteran’s Activist Gumersindo Gomez, Valerie Gonzalez, Blake Grandon, and District School Committee member Maria Perez. The Republican identifies Gonzalez as Democratic activist and Grandon as a former manager at an MGM eatery. Perez’s district covers Wards 1 and 3.
While Abdi, Grandon and Gonzalez will get the same airing before the Council all applicants will receive, it is hard not to handicap in favor of Gomez—father of the senator—and Perez. Both are fixtures of Springfield’s Puerto Rican community with connections galore, including longstanding ties to nearly all 12 remaining councilors.
Consequently, on background, councilors are not savoring this selection. Many, ideally, do not want to appoint somebody running for the seat. Perez declared her intent to run at the same time she expressed interest in the younger’s Gomez’s seat. Gumersindo Gomez has indicated he will not, but he has run for this seat in the past.
Some councilors are squeamish about even asking candidates about election plans. Others question the point in doing so since they cannot hold the appointee to such a promise. City Council President Marcus Williams indicated a assurance to not run will not be a precondition for him.
“I don’t know if that’s a legal thing I can say,” he said last month after Senator Gomez resigned from the Council. “I will not be rolling this process out with that stipulation.”
Williams has telegraphed the Council could fill the seat by mid-March.
In some ways the Council remnant is lucky. They will consider only five names. In 2016 after at-large councilor Jennifer Chateauneuf resigned from the Holyoke City Council, her ex-colleagues were confronted with 10 applicants. In Holyoke, only the rump of its Council can fill vacancies midterm. That year, after several ballots, they finally decided upon former councilor Diosdado Lopez. A much smaller and somewhat less contentious process played out when the Council had to fill the Ward 2 seat in 2019.
However, Springfield once had its own history of extreme selection processes. The next highest vote-getter was not always automatically tapped to fill vacancies. That has been true of the Council since 1965 and of both the Council and School Committee only since 1992. The system largely worked while both bodies were entirely at-large, as they had been until 2009. That year, Springfield elected ward-based city officials for the first time since Ike and Mamie were in the White House.
The 1965 special act that allowed runners-up in the prior Council election to fill vacancies that arose. That law came on the heels of a brutal process to fill the seat Eileen Griffin vacated to become a District Court judge. The Council deliberated over 19 applicants for weeks and plowed through dozens of rounds of balloting.
Afterward, there were few problems—on the Council side. Vacancies on the School Committee were filled with a convention of the Council and the remainder of the School Committee. A string of vacancies and trying selection processes creeped up in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
According to contemporaneous reports in The Morning Union, it took 35 ballots to fill a vacancy in 1979 and 61 in 1980. As a historical note, the latter appointment was for Cesar Ruiz, the first Latino in election Springfield municipal government. Later vacancies were a bit less arduous.
Still these processes were often fraught with the kind of decisions politicians live to avoid. Legislators would try to tweak the system through several bills introduced at the end of the decade. Finally, in 1992, the legislature revised the changes it instituted in 1965 to make them include the School Committee. The runner-up with the most votes from the corresponding election would fill a vacancy (Committee terms were still staggered at this point). If no such person existed after 1992, the Committee alone—rather than in convention with the Council—would select a replacement.
During this whole time, Council and Committee races were essentially multi-member elections. For example, the former nine-member at-large Council and the five at-large seats on today’s Council were and are technically a contest among all candidates for the available seats. The odds of exhausting all runners-up to fill midterm vacancies is fairly low. Plus, those also-rans from the last election can credibly claim some democratic buy-in.
However, layering ward representation onto this system revealed a quirk. Giving a vacant seat to the recipient with the next highest number of votes in a one-on-one race ward race necessarily means deeding it to the clear loser.
This became evident during the inaugural term of revived ward representation in the city. In 2011 Amaad Rivera took the Ward 6 seat Keith Wright had won in 2009. The issue would not come up again for nearly a decade when Ward 4 Councilor died in the twilight of his last term. Though there was a hypothetical qualified runner-up from the prior election, the Council stalled until Malo Brown, elected days before Twiggs’s death as his successor, took office.
By the time of Twiggs’s death, the city had seen multiple cycles wherein ward councilors faced no opponent eligible to fill a vacancy if one arose. Under the legal status quo, it was inevitable the Council would face the choice of choosing a new colleague, as is happening with Senator Gomez’s seat.
The School Committee meanwhile has dealt with the issue a few times, however. As the Committee has longer terms, vacancies midterm are more likely.
In 2013 election, only three candidates competed for the Committee’s two at-large seats. Calvin McFadden displaced Antonette Pepe while the other incumbent Denise Hurst endured. In 2016, McFadden resigned, but by then Pepe had passed away. The Committee appointed Norman Roldan to complete the term. In 2017, Maria Perez’s predecessor Rosa Perez (no relation) resigned. With an election imminent, the Committee took no action on the vacancy. Maria Perez won the seat uncontested months later.
That the Committee has faced this choice does not put councilors at ease, however. Thanks to their nature—and the state education officials’ watchful eyes—school committees are somewhat less boisterous bodies. While education engenders plenty of passion, committees have a limited portfolio and state rules strongly discourage public discord.
A city council is different given the breadth of the responsibilities especially in a big city like Springfield. Complicating matters further, no sitting councilor lives in Ward 1, but the Council will be deciding who represent this ward, one of the poorest jurisdictions in the state. Many wish there were a better way.