The Year in Springfield, 2022…
The year 2022 has come and gone with much affecting the City of Springfield. As a part of the commonwealth, nation and world, it felt inflation, the war in Ukraine, national political contests and the state’s own elections. But much of the year, in retrospect, has the air of prelude for 2023 when Mayor Domenic Sarno may face his first real challenge in years.
The city’s own midterms in 2021 returned new members for Wars 1 and 8 in Maria Perez and Zaida Govan. Along with at-large councilors Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield, the Council had perhaps the largest number of women serving ever. Despite omicron, the pandemic was receding fast as an active force in the city. Yet, the Council itself remained wholly virtual.
Other transitions were underway. City Solicitor Ed Pikula retired, capping a tenure as the city’s top lawyer dating to the second Charles Ryan mayoralty. The mayor convinced former solicitor and retired judge John Payne to return to lead the Law Department. But the Supreme Judicial Court was about to upend city government amid that very transition.
But another era passed with the death of Ray Jordan, once a state rep but long a power broker. The city’s first Black state rep, he was a key ally to Sarno but also to statewide figures look for a toehold in the city.
With no ambiguity, the commonwealth’s highest court found the Springfield City Council could, as the charter explicitly permits, reorganize the police department. That means it could revive the Police Commission. A defiant Sarno at first played the ruling down but then said he would comply.
How much he has remains a controversy itself. The mayor appointed a commission, but has constantly undercut its prerogatives. The panel has no staff of its own and Sarno demanded commissioners surrender power the ordinance clearly grants them.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice’s reached an agreement following its probe into Pearl Street. Joining Sarno and police officials in Springfield to announce the consent decree were US Attorney Rachel Rollins and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke. Community involvement and internal police reorganization were a must. The pact acknowledged a role for the Police Commission but also installed no bar to the powers ordinance grants.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had its ripples into Springfield as well. Flags, lapel pins and resolutions backed the Ukrainian people as they resisted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. A vigil occurred at the Springfield Jewish Community Center early in the war, drawing attendance from Ukrainian-Americans, officials, interfaith leaders and Valley residents of good will.
Transportation policy took a sudden turn when Governor Charlie Baker finally backed his own transportation department and its East-West rail plan. With a little arm-twisting from US Rep Richard Neal, Baker agreed to use funds and establish a body to oversee service.
While the agency itself is yet to be, the gears were clearly moving on the project. What was once of plank of Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser’s 2014 platform and then a shibboleth of Valley politics was becoming a reality.
Election season was also heating up. The gubernatorial race received a jolt when Attorney General Maura Healey hopped into the fray. One by one, her opponents would fall away well before the primary.
Lesser, one of the city’s senators, jumped into the lieutenant governor’s race. He began with a money edge over other contenders, even Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, long-eyed for higher office. Only Driscoll, Lesser and Rep Tami Gouveia would exit the Democratic convention. Yet, the convention revealed the difficulty of running statewide from Western Mass. Lesser would come in third in the convention.
Running for his seat was State Rep Jake Oliveira and Democratic political aide Sydney Levin-Epstein. While the final results of the primary would not be especially close, the race itself was heated. It never felt like a runaway. Levin-Epstein outraised Oliveira and attempted to out-organize him on the ground.
The only other contested legislative race in the city was Bud Williams’s renomination. He faced two-time Council candidate Jynai McDonald. Williams would prevail, but the margin was nothing to write home about after 30 years in city politics.
Ward 2 City Councilor Michael Fenton would run for Governor’s Council. Incumbent Mary Hurley was bowing out. North Adams School Committee member Tara Jacobs and lawyers Shawn Allyn and Jeff Morneau also entered the race. The debate in the race turned on how the Governor’s Council, which confirms judges, would shape the courts, but events would overtake that prospect to some extent.
But an entirely unexpected election happened in Springfield exclusively. In June, Marcus Williams, the Council President and Ward 5 councilor, resigned amid career and life changes. The presidency devolved the Council Vice-president Jesse Lederman, an at-large councilor. The fate of his ward seat was in his ex-colleagues hands…or was it?
As councilors prepared for another uncomfortable selection to fill a ward seat, Springfield learned a charter change happened under everyone’s noses. After Adam Gomez resigned in early 2021 to focus on being a senator, the Council had to fill his seat. That prompted a fresh attempt home rule petition to facilitate special elections for ward seats. Little to anyone know Beacon Hill had blessed it days before Williams’s exit.
A stampede of Ward 5 candidates emerged. Mayoral aide Lavar Click-Bruce, retired labor leader Ed Collins, former candidate Mike Lee and comms professional Ellen Moorhouse emerged as the strongest contenders. Voters whittled the race down to Click-Bruce and Collins. The former prevailed, consolidating support in and around Pine Point and the Hill neighborhoods.
While not wholly unexpected after oral arguments and a shocking leak to Politico, the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. The ruling had no immediate impact on Massachusetts as state law—and likely state courts—protect the right to choose. More troubling, the ruling and others stood on a flimsy and amorphous historical traditions standard.
As for the ruling itself, it suddenly made questions about women’s reproductive rights salient, however much Massachusetts law protected them. The legislature firmed up the right and blocked other states from using from persecuting people who seek abortions here.
Still, the reaction was raw. Healey, in the middle of an interview in Boston, was visibly agitated as she decried the ruling as a “goddamned shame.” The ruling reverberated in races everywhere including the Massachusetts Occident. It gave Levin-Epstein a talking point, even as she and Oliveira shared the same positions on choice. In the governor councilor’s race here, insisting on judges who would protect choice—and other rights—featured prominently in candidate forums.
In the primary, Lesser would fall to Driscoll but kept a rock-solid hold on Western Mass. Democrats nominated former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell for AG and Methuen Senator Diana Dizoglio for Auditor. Incumbent Secretary of State Bill Galvin was triumphant in his renomination bid.
The biggest shocker however was Tara Jacobs’s win over Mike Fenton in the Governor’s Council race. Jacobs consolidated support outside Hampden County, the district’s largest population center. Fenton came out well ahead of Allyn and Morneau, but the split still cost him his principal geographic advantage.
The new Council President moved quickly to put his stamp on the Council. Lederman moved the body onto a hybrid footing. That, in turn, prompted Springfield to finance upgrades to the council chamber’s technology even as the body returns to more normal pre-pandemic operations.
Much of Lederman’s legislative agenda would have happened even without the presidency. Now he got to preside over passage of environmental legislative on gas pipelines and energy choice. The body passed an ordinance to improve public access and information about boards and commissions.
Other controversies stirred in the city. Residents, councilors and activists reasonably complained the city was not distributing American Rescue Plan Act funds well or fairly. Springfield, under Sarno, had failed to beef up its capacity to process such large sums. Moreover, many spending allocations faced questions.
Meanwhile, MGM attracted attention for its less than full recovery. Despite reviving gambling revenues, many of the casino’s amenities remained at low or no power. Adding to the crisis of confidence were accusations from a former employee that MGM had filed inaccurate reports. As the year closed, that remains an open concern although how much is up for debate.
In the end, the Massachusetts election brought few surprises. Maura Healey won the governor’s race in a romp. Voters returned Democrats to power in all the statewide offices. Even in the race for Auditor, where the sanest statewide Republican not named Charlie Baker was running, Democrats prevailed. Likewise, Oliveira, the only Springfield state official facing a meaningful GOP challenge, won Lesser’s senate seat easily.
The results of the national election, however, had local implications. Democrats did far better than many expected. They gained a true Senate majority, rather than relying on Vice-presidential Kamala Harris. Committees can have subpoena power. Despite relatively low seniority, Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey can influence policy more as never before.
There were also implications for Western Massachusetts.
Earlier in the year, there were moments when it seemed Neal might leave. His long-serving top aide, Billy Tranghese, retired this year. President Joe Biden’s approval rating was circling the bowl, meaning a Democratic wipeout seemed likely. But Neal did not resign, retire or otherwise leave politics.
As the election drew nearer and Democratic doom surged, rumors of a Neal exit percolated anew. On Election Day, Democrats…had their best midterm since JFK…or even FDR. While Neal, the chair of Ways & Means, must surrender his gavel, the nine-seat margin Democrats kept Republicans to make a comeback likely in 2024. For now, no special election or open seat in 2024 is imminent. The 413’s ambitious pols remain hungry.
But political junkies in the region need not fret. At the end of November, at-large city councilor Justin Hurst announced his bid for mayor of the city of Springfield. While expected, it kicked off what could be the first serious challenge to Sarno in over a decade.
Hurst had been raising money and shaping himself as a leader of the opposition for some time. Yet, he was not the only one eyeing the mayor. Council President Lederman and State Rep Orlando Ramos have disabused no one of their interest.
By merely having three high-profile challengers, the mayor’s race in 2023 would be the most intense since 1995, at least. In addition, Sarno could face vulnerabilities. This blog reported in the Fall, his former aide Darryl Moss was suing him for wrongful termination.
The Council itself closed out 2022 on a quiet note. It formally nominated Lederman for a full-year term as Council President and Melvin Edwards as Vice-president. The actual election was on January 2, 2023.
Retiring leaders, such as Lesser, said their goodbye in Boston. But he will not fade away. Lesser was among several Western Mass appointments to Healey’s policy committees. East-West rail continued to move forward with new funding requests.
The final major note of the year may have been Neal presiding over the release of Donald Trump’s taxes. Finally in hand after a years-long battle, they reveal less about his tax-dodging—however plausible—but more the brittleness of the Intern Revenue Service’s enforcement against the rich.
Much happened well beyond the boundaries of Springfield. Still, the internal events may have set the table for 2023. Were Springfield to have a big mayoral smackdown, it might prompt real debates about the city and its future. That also raises a trenchant question. What media remain strong enough for a conversation so vigorous?