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Yes, Sadly, There Are Tornado Politics…

Damage in E. Forest Park on Friday (WMassP&I)

Only a few days in and already some of the post-tornado politics are coming into focus.  Springfield and West Springfield, being cities and therefore possessing elected councils and mayors could see some impact.  There may also be implications for the Massachusetts Senate race, although that will depend on how both sides play it.
First an update of sorts.  Friday statehouse leaders toured the tornado ravaged areas of Springfield and West Springfield.  Mayor Domenic Sarno led the greater Springfield House delegation, including Speaker Robert DeLeo on a tour of the South End, Six Corners, and East Forest Park.  Senate President Therese Murray toured West Springfield Friday with the area’s Senate delegation.  The leaders of the both chambers came to the area to see the damage first hand and offer assurances to the region that the commonwealth stood behind them.
At a court square press conference, DeLeo pledged the full resources of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and assured area residents that his chamber stands ready to pass whatever bill necessary to aid in relief efforts.  He also conveyed similar sentiment from Murray.  Reps. Angelo Puppolo, Ben Swan, Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Mike Finn, Nick Boldyga and Don Humason all spoke and were joined by colleagues from nearby districts.  Many praised the leadership and hard work of mayor Domenic Sarno.  Many, including both Democrats and Republicans (Humason and Boldyga are GOPers), deflected criticism of DeLeo for not arriving in the city until two days after the storm.  Humason of Westfield, noted that DeLeo had called him with hours of the tornado, even thought the Whip City did not sustain the same level of damage as its neighbors.
Rep. Harold Naughton of Clinton and House Chair of the General Court’s Public Safety, also committed his committee’s resources to the relief and rebuilding effort.  Both Naughton and DeLeo, noted that the legislature provided relief when the violent ice storms hit the state a few years ago.  DeLeo, who was Ways and Means chair during the ice storms, said the state would find a way to pay for relief efforts.
Freshman Rep. Boldyga, whose district consists of Agawam and Southwick, reminded people to stay out of the affected neighborhoods.  Boldyga, a former police officer, said the last thing emergency personnel and repairs want to deal with are tourists.  Sarno, offered a more forceful admonition, “Stay out of the God damned neighborhoods.”
Ben Swan took time to thank the State Police Colonel in charge of operations at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Demolition Underway on Main & Union (WMassP&I)

Afterward the entourage ventured into the South End.  The damage did not begin to become apparent until a block or two away from State Street.  However, at that point, it became increasingly obvious.  From the former Hampden Furniture Building to the roofless South End Community Center, dozens of structures lay in ruins.  A historic block on the Corner of Union and Main was in the process of demolition its walls too buckled to be safely repair.
Some of the businesses along the way seemed well on their way to repair, however.  Work was under way at Mom & Ricos and La Fiorentina.  Carmela Fraziero, owner of Red Rose Pizzeria, seemed eager to reopen as quickly as possible.  However, she knew that would not be possible until health and building inspectors could get into her building, per city ordinances.  Sarno, nevertheless, thanked her and other business owners for their eagerness.  A photo in today’s Republican indicated that La Fiorentina had reopened.  DeLeo and Coakley-Rivera, who represents the South End, took time to speak with residents and business owners as well.

Down Power Lines On S. Branch Pkwy Friday (WMassP&I)

Elsewhere in the city, the titanic effort to clean up and restore power to East Forest Park continued.  As confirmed by WMassP&I, the Pennsylvania and Derryfield blocks closest to South Branch Parkway were simply brutalized.  Again, trees were the hardest hit, but several more homes with punctured roofs and walls were apparent here.  Island Pond Road remained closed to non-residents today.  Apparently, the thoroughfare between Allen Street and Watershops Pond represented a major trunk line in the area grid, which contributed, at least in part, to the extended blackout in East Longmeadow.  Western Mass Electric Company announced today that power had been virtually restored to all neighborhoods.  Individual homes in the East Forest Park area still in need to be reconnected to the repair mainlines throughout the neighborhood to have power restored.
Onto the politics.  Given the effusive praise Sarno has received from city leaders, movers and shakers, the mayor may stand to gain in his reelection effort, without any concerted effort.  So far the city’s response to the storm has appeared to have gone off without a hitch.  Within hours of the storm, city departments kicked their emergency plans into gear.  Power has been restored to much of the city that lost it.  Dumps have already been opened for tree debris.  The list goes on.  To what extent the mayor is directly responsible for this is an open question, but there is little doubt, that if the city were polled, Sarno would receive a bump.
Such political dividend, if the response is successful are not uncommon.  Still those approval bumps and the requisite media attention are often smaller than the drops when the response goes awry.  Think Hurricane Katrina.  It is also paramount that a politician make no overt effort, either now or later, that leads to the appearance he or she is exploiting the crisis to his or her benefit.
But Sarno has not appeared to done anything other than what he should be doing as mayor to effect this possible political gain.  This may translate into other benefits.  His budget was likely to receive greater scrutiny than last year.  Maybe not now.  However, that budget may already be busted due to the costs of overtime (which, we assume, it probably among the largest immediate monetary costs to the city).  Sarno has already said the city will spare no expense in rebuilding.  The fiscally mindful can only hope that state and federal aid will plug budget holes to the point that we are back to what the situation was on May 31 at least.
Other politicians are coming much closer to the controversial mark, but it is hard to measure the impact one way or another.  Scott Brown was going door-to-door in Springfield delivering supplies with either the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.  Reports differ.  Photos and tweets from Brown supporters broke the news first and were mentioned in a Boston Globe piece.  Now, the polls for the US Senate seat up in Massachusetts next November are almost a year and a half away.  Therefore any discernible impact may be minute as much can happen between now and then and rebuilding from the tornado will be well-underway or even substantially completed, until by this November and the municipal elections.
Now for the craven and soulless like us it is easy to dismiss Brown’s mission of mercy as political posturing at its finest.  The more likely reality is that the tweets from Brown’s advisers and photos were merely meant to needle the Democrats in Lowell, holding their annual state convention.  It could also serve to blunt criticism coming from environmental groups that have continued to hammer him for his dubious vote to gut the Environmental Protection Agency this past April.
Frankly, however, there are risks for both sides.  Massachusetts Republican Illuminati criticized the Democrats for holding their convention at all, but especially for attacking Brown while recovery efforts were underway in Western Massachusetts.  However, the Democratic Convention had been planned for months and with Springfield area damaged, but hardly paralyzed, there was no reason for business as usual to continue elsewhere.  What is important is that relief keeps coming, not that everybody stops, hands folded and collectively wills the region into recovery.  Even as Dems paid tribute to tornado victims, they would have served their cause well by using a softer touch in their criticism of Brown rather and drummed up energy on electing a good senator.
All sarcasm and cynicism aside, it seems entirely possible that Scott Brown, out of the kindness of his heart wanted to help out.  In terms of direct influence on the federal response apparatus, Sen. John Kerry and Richard Neal probably have the contacts and know how needed to navigate the byzantine system more effectively.  Kerry also has an especially close relationship with the White House as does Gov. Patrick.  Brown may have been inadvertently reduced to backup while Kerry and Neal sang lead.
What may get Brown into trouble is how he uses these innocuous Twitpic photographs later.  Images of the senator delivering supplies door-to-door, with a WWLP reporter in tow (but off-camera) will look suspicious if they end up in his campaign literature.  The photo of Brown in a Red Salvation Army Vest is just too precious to be believed beyond being the errant tweet of devoted follower, Republican Consultant Eric Ferhnstrom.  If it stays in that context, then so be it.  Interestingly, although the video may appear to tell a different story, WWLP’s write-up on Brown’s activities yesterday made precious few references to Brown and focused more on the victims.
However, Brown has signaled, to some degree that he might try to extract some political dividend of his saintly actions.  Much of his personal sojourn through the tornado ravaged areas has been posted to the blog of the Brown Brigade, the recruitment arm of his reelection campaign.  On Thursday, he tweeted a link to the Brown Brigade that included a video of his initial survey of the damage that day.  Certainly all of this could merely be preaching for the Scott Brown choir.  However, Senator Claire McCaskill, who herself faces a tough reelection fight next year, did not likewise tweet to a campaign site after the devastation in Joplin, Mo.  Brown could have avoided this suspicions by linking directly to Youtube, which would lack any campaign milieu, save some randomly generated ads or similar videos.
When Democrats or opponents of Scott Brown more generally immediately questioned why he was not there Wednesday night as Kerry was, they risked backlash.  Nothing came of it, as the complaints were quickly squelched.  A shrill attack on Brown can be just as dangerous as the Senator possibly using disaster victims as a campaign prop.  First of all it disrupt the whole “coming together” meme and people are almost as unable to stomach that as using disasters for political gain.  Second of all it echoes, to some extent the concerns raised (and mentioned in our first Monday Markup) about the attitude Democrats have toward Brown.  Specifically, these concerns center around the idea that the anti-Brown camp just wants him out.  It just sounds mean-spirited at the wrong time.
The South End Friday (WMassP&I)
Politics is fundamentally a game of perception.  One need not be deliberately making use of a catastrophe to be hit with that perception, but deliberate is considerably more damning.  Exploiting natural or man-made disasters for explicit political gain is and should be anathema in our society.  There is a time and a place for a politician to take the stage and lead or, as in the case of the Tuscon shootings, encourage the nation to heal.  In the context of this tornadoes that struck the greater Springfield area we will be watching for any exploitation regardless of party.  The area has suffered far too much to be put through the indignity of becoming anybody’s campaign prop.