Analysis: Springfield Voters Refuse to Surprise, but Did Inform—a Little…
Anybody was looking for drama in the midterm elections in Springfield last week only found disappointment. No incumbent seeking reelection lost their race despite several facing not-a-joke challengers. Although the 2022-2023 City Council may have the most women in history, this feminal doubling from the current Council became a certainty when the Election Commission certified the ballot.
Squint carefully and one can find some subtle shifts and lessons. The pandemic certainly muted the race. Yet, aside from sign-plantings and mailsacks heavy with candidate literature, voters could be excused for barely realizing there was an election. The Council and School Committee elections between mayoral contests usually receive little press attention, but 2021’s coverage was spectral. With few exceptions, candidates were not stirring the pot either.
Whether the Council’s long stay behind a digital curtain or a dearth of media coverage were to blame, the Council was not inert. The body has taken an active role in COVID policy and civil rights. It revived its pursuit of the Police Commission. There were variations among councilors, if especially on style. That might have swayed voters equipped with better information.
Mathematically, this was not the city’s most pathetic turnout. Of Springfield’s three midterms since the mayor received four-year terms beginning in 2011, the 2021 election was in the middle. In absolute numbers and turnout rate among registered votes, 2021 ranks between 2017—which featured two open at-large seats—and sleepy 2013. Like 2021, no at-large incumbents retired in 2013, though one lost that year.
Indeed, if any shakeup happened it was in the at-large City Council race. Incumbent Justin Hurst retained the top spot he’s notched for several cycles. Yet, his colleague Jesse Lederman clawed into second place, a few dozen votes behind Hurst.
Following Lederman were incumbents Kateri Walsh, Sean Curran and Tracye Whitfield. Curran and Whitfield swapped places from 2019, possibly a consequence the former’s rise in ballot order. (Now an incumbent, Curran appears above Whitfield now).
No challengers came remotely close to Whitfield. The sixth-place finisher, who could claim a Council seat if an at-large member bails early, was Juan Caraballo. Following him were Juan Latorre, Michael Lee, James Ryan and Debra Fletcher.
State encouragement of mail voting due to the pandemic and early voting may have goosed Springfield turnout. Four contested ward seats and two open seats could have been a draw, too.
The Ward 8 seat was both open and a race. Longtime neighborhood activist Zaida Govan beat by 10 points, which was closer than the nuking many anticipated. Govan always had an advantage as both better-known and better-funded than Thompson. Indian Orchard and the Boston Road neighborhood anchor the ward, which also includes pieces of Pine Point and East Springfield. Govan, the head of the Indian Orchard Citizens Council, has helped rebuild that neighborhood association.
However, the lack of coverage about the race may have given Thompson space to sneak up behind Govan, while still falling short.
Challengers jousted with incumbents in Wards 3, 4 and 6. In Ward 3, Councilor Melvin Edwards fended off Young Democrats of Massachusetts chair Lezlie Braxton Campbell. The ward includes the South End, Maple Heights/Six Corners and parts of the Forest Park neighborhoods. The race developed a nasty tone toward the end when Campbell sent a mailer suggesting Edwards had sued the Dunbar Community Center into oblivion. The charge was not correct, but Edwards countered with a response mailer. He won by nearly 20 points.
In Ward 4, which includes McKnight and the various Hill neighborhoods, incumbent Malo Brown held off Jynai McDonald in a rematch. Although many McDonald allies were with her rival this time, she held him to almost the same margin. McDonald hit Brown harder this cycle, pointing to his public comments—if not always in context—and alleged ethical issues. Brown’s lack of improvement suggests vulnerability against the right candidate.
Finally, among the ward contests, was Ward 6, which consists of the bulk of Forest Park. Councilor Victor Davila bested perennial candidate Robert Collamore, who had faced misdemeanor destruction of property charges dating to last year. While the challenger still somehow won 400-plus votes, nearly 70% of residents that cast a ballot backed Davila. The Collamore name—the candidate’s father, the late Leonard had served in multiple area offices—could not overcome the reputation of Robert.
No ward outcomes were shockers to Springfield political navel-gazers. The details therein were interesting but the factoids will not meaningfully ripple into the city’s political universe next year.
The same is not true at-large. While the net result—all incumbents win—dashed hopes, it did not stun. However, the data offer instruction and omens.
One speaks to the wisdom of blast opponents in mailers. While both Campbell and McDonald lost, the former’s opponent nuked him while the latter essentially forced a status quo result. The result is split.
In the at-large race, Lee, a challenger, torched Councilor Hurst in a mailer for campaign finance issues that got some news coverage. While the subject was hardly unfair game, it may have been tactically disastrous for Lee.
In the at-large race, all candidates are essentially run against each other. The nature of multi-member races is such that candidates do not want to give voters any reason to avoid them on the ballot. That mailer may have turned off voters, perhaps undermining the broad if not necessarily deep support Lee had citywide. He was knocked back into eighth place.
More importantly, the results also begin to map out the gameboard for 2023. Few expect Domenic Sarno, the eternal mayor to retire. (And do what else?).
Hurst has been less than subtle about his ambitions. Councilor Lederman has been less overt, but he done everything possible to prop open the door to a run for higher office. Moving from losing in 2015 to fourth, third and now second place in the 2017, 2019 and 2021 elections respectively is a feat. He was only 58 votes and a tenth of percent from tying Hurst last week.
The grumbling classes have hurled barbs at Hurst under their breath for some time. These stifled barks had no bite. This is partly a function of minimal press coverage, but it also evinces no innate dissatisfaction with Hurst among the public. Meanwhile, Lederman has become the Council’s most prolific lawmaker of this Council era. Both scored over 6000 votes, the most either had won in a midterm either has appeared in.
These facts ensure both will have politicos’ attention as the ground begins to shift ahead of the 2023 election. Ostensibly, it has gotten Sarno’s attention who is already fundraising.
They may not be alone. State rep and outgoing Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos is not disabusing anyone of a potential bid. He toyed with running in 2019. Other unidentified riders may yet find their way to the white horse stable.
Outside the Council races the lessons are fewer. Denise Hurst topped the at-large School Committee race, with LaTonia Naylor right behind. Challenger Cary Curley trailed the incumbents by about 2000 votes. Some believe Hurst, wife of the councilor, was running on fumes after losing the 9th Hampden Democratic primary to Ramos last year—not unlike the 2013 race that felled Antonette Pepe. Any such assessment was wrong.
Curley is the cousin to WMP&I editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski.
The only nail-biter was the district Committee race for Ward 2 & 8. Incumbent held off Ayanna Crawford by fewer than 100 votes. It was Murphy’s closest win among his four bids for that district on the city’s education panel. No one should expect him to go without opposition in four years when the School Committee is up again.