Tuesday night’s debate at American International College among School Committeewoman Antonette Pepe, Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Council President Jose Tosado would be the last time that three mayoral candidates would appear on the same stage together. On Tuesday, the voters of Springfield, or at least the ones that show up, will select two candidates that will advance to the general election in November.
Because all of the candidates, but especially the challengers, knew that they may not be up on that stage again, all took the steps necessary to try to make their final case to the voters. Both Tosado and Pepe, as challengers, hammered the mayor for perceived failures. Tosado stuck to charges that the mayor left the council out and failed on issues of policing. Pepe spoke heavily to school issues, but also more pointedly attacked the insider culture at City Hall. Sarno, meanwhile, parried the attacks (mostly) calmly and by highlighting some city accomplishments.
The debate itself consisted of questions from reporters and the candidates themselves and was moderated by Walter Kroll, the President of the McKnightr Neighborhood Council, which sponsored the event.
In his opening statement, Tosado, making light of the fact that the candidates had earlier debated at AIC, reminded voters, “I’m still Jose Tosado. He noted his personal history in the city and his work as a regional administrator with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Throughout the debate it was patently clear that Tosado had a real grasp of the issues. Although, the council president did struggle to fully answer questions and frequently ran up against the time limits for answers. As a member of the council, he could claim directly that Sarno shuts out the council or avoids giving them information.
Pepe by comparison was undaunted by attacks that her experience was limited and her temperment too mercurial. Playing off her opening about getting into politics after working in the schools and raising a family, she fended off charges that she had never managed a budget. She implied that as President of the Paraprofessionals Union (and with her husband as head of a family) she knew enough to tackle the city’s finances. More importantly, however, she brushed off the charge that she could not work with others and collaborate for the sake the city. Specifically, she cited some of the successes on the School Committee, like school uniforms, but also work with her fellow challenger, Jose Tosado on the joint Council/School Committee subcommittee.
Sarno remained cautious only lashing out at his opponents sparingly, though when he did it was among his weaker moments. The mayor name dropped the tornado frequently, knowing full well that his performance within popular perception, if not univerally so, has been widely applauded. Still, he also tried to disarm his opponents by chastising negativity. However, if voters dig at all deeper (or listen to Tosado or Pepe) they would find the mayor’s claim of a good relationship with the council is, at best, embellishment.
On substance and policy much of the debate appeared to center on crime, education and the general administration of the city. As important as economic development is, and all the candidates acknowledged it, it took a back seat to the other issues. Lip service was paid to lower the commercial property taxes, but little substance was offered to initiate a lower rate. Both Sarno and Tosado took credit for lowering the city’s property tax levy last year, an event that though historic (it had not happened since 1983) was brought on by a falling levy ceiling with an assist from reserves more than fiscal restraint. Ultimately, improved economy was seen possible only through a reduction in crime.
Pepe did criticize some economic developments like the Asylum building demolition, the School Department relocation and the sale of the old HQ. Sarno dismissed concerns about the school department’s old building noting that the alternative bid called for far more public subsidies. Tosado shot down Sarno’s boasts about progress on some projects like Union Station, which have been in development for decades.
On crime, both Pepe and Tosado said that new approach was necessary. Tosado emphasized that deployment was the city’s biggest problem, noting that the department had more police per capita than Boston, but higher crime rates. (Tosado would letter allege in an interview with WMassP&I after the debate, that even these stats are manipulated, we’ll bring you the interview piece tomorrow, hopefully). Pepe called for more community policing and the use of the city’s ward councilors to work with wards and their crime (and other) problems. Sarno touted recent police academies and ticked off decreases in several crime categories.
On education the mayor featured recognition by The Washington Post of Central High School, seen here. However, both Tosado and Pepe clung to attacks on the increasingly disliked Alan Ingram, the city’s School Superintendent. Pepe generally moved past the school superintendent to paint an image of wider cronyism and neoptism in the city. At one point, she state that her department head would be vetted without their names or addresses in order to avoid such favoritism in a Pepe administration.
There was some unity among the candidates. Neither Tosado nor Pepe disputed apparent progress on the drop in teen pregnancy in the city, but both vowed to improve further.
The knives did come out, toward the end, when Pepe took aim at one of Sarno’s strengths: the tornado. Specifically she dismissed the actions of the city instead citing insurance people have on their homes and property and the kindness of residents of the city and beyond. Sarno, clearly offended by a charge that his “success” was a show, told Pepe, “You don’t know a damn thing!” It was not the mayor’s high point in the debate, but it might have left Pepe looking petty had she not followed up. She noted that architects that used to have offices in a South End building not demolished, were suing the city for destroying their property. The mayor did not rebut the charge when he made his closing statement.
It was easy to see that Tosado and Pepe each made a calculation to avoid attacking each other too strongly. Their target was the mayor and siphoning votes off from the mayor would be each’s best chance to advance. Indeed only Pepe’s pointed question on Tosado’s own fiscal stewardship on the council prior to the arrival of the Control Board seemed even remotely hostile to the longtime councilor. Mostly the two only had positive things to say about each other, with Tosado even aiding Pepe when she was charged with being too divisive.
Sarno stayed safe. Whether Pepe’s attack on the tornado response earns her votes or not, it could give either her or Tosado more liberty to critique the response in a general election campaign. Without the tornado as a bulwark, the race become a tossup against either of them (we assume that Sarno will advance past the primary). Sarno also claimed by way of an attack on Tosado, that the council had cut police overtime, a false statement. Cuts made by the council in June had no impact on the overtime budget. The mayor reportedly submitted a smaller overtime budget for FY2012 than the year before and that is the source of the difference.
If there is a winner in the debate it appears to be Pepe, but if she does not advance then whatever benefit that win would have got her would go to Tosado. The council president would then face a mayor who remains damaged by Pepe’s attacks, but without having actually done the attack himself. However the kindness Tosado and Pepe showed each other also makes it impossible to know which of the two is likely to move on. Tosado’s historically good performance in City Council races gives him an edge. Yet, Pepe has maintained her slot on the School Committee despite often seeming to be a pariah, no small feat in Springfield. The mayor meanwhile, may need to take stock about how best to handle a debate in a one-on-one setting against an opponent who fact-checked all his statements. Then again maybe he might need to start updating his resume Tuesday, but that seems unlikely.