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The Year in Springfield, 2011…

Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your voters doth come.(WMassP&I)

With another year under Springfield’s belt comes another edition of the Year in Springfield.  In its 375th year of existence the City of Homes suffered through one of the most erratic year of weather on record which brought a range of immense destruction and gross inconvenience.  Politically, it was also a tumultuous time from Springfield City Hall to Beacon Hill to the steps of Harvard University.

The year 2011 opened in Springfield with an eye, as in other places, to Washington, where a cadre of increasingly nihilistic “citizens” took their place in Congress and in state capitals across the nation.  While the boat rocked in Massachusetts with a shrunken, but still massive Democratic edge in the State House, Governor Deval Patrick took the oath of office once more. 

However, America was rocked only eight days into January when Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, by quite literally a madman.  Early accusations pointed to tea party extremism, but ultimately mental disease and not right-wing anarchy drove the young man to shoot Giffords and twelve others while murdering six.  Gifford suffered a traumatic shot to the head, be saved by the quick thinking of her intern of five days.

President Barack Obama, given his first significant opportunity to play the healer-in-chief gave a stirring speech at a memorial service attended by Arizona’s Senators, its governor with Obama has frequently clashed, Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who oversees the Ninth Circuit within which the slain judge, John Roll, served.

The event took on somewhat of a local relevance when Congressman Richard Neal held a press conference after the shooting noting that he had known Giffords and had raised money for her ahead of what had been a difficult reelection in 2010.  However, he also urged that parties take down a notch the vitriol and anger that had become pervasive in politics whether Loughner was driven by politics or not.

Also in January Amaad Rivera took office as the Ward 6 Councilor following the resignation of Keith Wright.  He took office because the city’s succession law is only written with only at-large councilors in mind and fills vacancies with runners-up.  Technically, Rivera was a runner-up even though he lost the 2009 election.  The chorus of dissent included this blog and came to a head on a vote for eminent domain as part of Forest Park Middle School renovations.  Rivera invoked Rule 20, the council’s parliamentary motion to delay the project to the shock of other councilors.  While we would settle our differences with Rivera, many remained incensed over the use of Rule 20, ironically including some who would encounter similar anger over its usage.

Councilor Amaad Rivera (WMassP&I)

However, the focus on Rivera would lessen as he became one of a super-majority of councilors that opposed a wood-burning biomass plant.  The special permit had been granted in 2008 by the last council on a 7-2 vote.  All ward councilors and two at-large councilors, including Jose Tosado who voted for the permit in 2008.  The Callahan Family, owners of Palmer Renewable Energy and like-named paving company poured money into experts who dismissed, often condescendingly, the health concerns raised by opponents.  Against the din of protests and threats of legal action the council revoked PRE’s permit on a 10-2 vote.

The nation received another jolt in May when a very late Sunday night Presidential address announced the death of Osama bin Laden.  President Barack Obama, following a week of further birth certificate antics and a successful skewering of birther-in-chief Donald Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, ordered the covert operation.  Bin Laden had been hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, the home of Pakistan’s version of West Point.  Crowds of largely of twenty-somethings, who had grown up in the age of terror, rallied across the country.

Massachusetts’s “model” Republican seemingly entered his second year seemingly impervious after initial fears that the Republican wave he started barely washed upon Massachusetts.  Scott Brown released a lurid biography which included a claim of childhood molestation at a Cape Cod camp.  However, Brown, whose media access is more carefully controlled than Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, mistakenly claimed to have seen photos of a dead Osama bin Laden, which had already been exposed as a fraud.  The impervious Brown construction has never fully recovered.

On June 1, the heavens opened up and series of tornadoes scarred the landscape of Hampden County.  From space it looked as though a great talon had dug itself into the ground Westfield and dragged itself east through West Springfield and Springfield, Wilbraham and Monson.  The devastation was particularly bad in the South End, Maple Heights, Six Corners and East Forest Park sections of Springfield as well as in downtown Monson.  The freak storm attracted reporters from media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and of course area politicians who vowed to help the city and region rebuild to varying degrees of credibility.

Damage in East Forest Park (WMassP&I)

The tornado also proved to be among the most prominent nails in the coffin of those who would challenge Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno for office.  While anecdotal evidence paints a more blurry picture, the media and conventional wisdom suggested that Sarno acted admirably and competently during the worst natural disaster to hit the city in decades.  He had, in fact, an incredible amount of help between state and federal disaster relief agencies.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency had already faced pummeling tornadoes in Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi, and regained respect six years after Hurricane Katrina.

While Congressional Republicans and President Obama squared off on the budget in Washington, the same was happening at 36 Court Street.  A cabal of City Councilors sought to slim down Sarno’s budget to protect the city’s reserve funds ahead of tougher budgetary times ahead.  A process that normally took weeks dragged on for month as councilors and the mayor struggled to control costs with declining revenue.  Added revenue from the state helped end the debacle.

From Boston to Washington Democrats had a problem.  Scott Brown was seemingly popular and Massachusetts bench offered few strong challenges.  Brown had already vanquished Martha Coakley.  Deval Patrick doesn’t seem interested in running for anything again and Ted Kennedy’s Widow took a pass.  The result was several candidates who could have the potential to challenge the Barncoat Bomber, but not with only a year and a half to prepare.

Elizabeth Warren speaking in Chicopee (WMassP&I)

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren was setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington.  Rumblings began as early as the beginning of the year that Warren, a Cambridge resident and Harvard Law Professor could be a contender for the Democratic nomination.  Even as she worked to get the CFPB up and running, Warren faced constant and consistent opposition from Senate Republicans forty-four, Scott Brown excluded.  Obama would not nominate Warren to head the agency and Warren returned to Massachusetts.  Then a posting on the Liberal blog Blue Mass Group ignited the embers of a campaign.  Warren met with Democratic activists across the state as she contemplated a Senate run.

Even as some in politics sought to burn the house down from within, fire began to creep up from the streets.  Protesters in the Middle East would peacefully overthrow two dictators and forcibly oust others.  However, the protests would not be confined to Arab world.  With anti-labor governors taking the helm in the Midwest, protests that dwarfed some of the largest tea party rallies of yesteryear countered union-busting legislation.  Republicans in Wisconsin and Ohio were successful in passing their draconian bills, but it provoked massive backlash and would ultimately prove a dress rehearsal for protests later in the year.

Union Seals of Communication Workers of American & Int’l Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the striking Verizon unions (wikipedia)

With public employee labor under pressure in Middle America, it was only a matter of time before private sector labor unions would feel the pressure.  Employees of Verizon’s landline business including several thousand in Massachusetts held their first strike.  It was one of the largest industrial actions in the United States in recent memory and was precipitated by the bad-faith negotiations of the company and its unrealistic demands.  Although the contract remains unsettled, the strike is thought to have been a disaster to Verizon who faced picket lines that turned away customers at the non-union wireless stores.  Workers returned after two weeks on strike with an extension of the existing contract.

After a summer of debt ceiling negotiations, the White House seemingly caved to Republican pressure and agreed to a compromise.  A Congressional “super committee” that included our own John Kerry sought further cuts, but was doomed to failure.  Meanwhile, after protests around the world for better economic justice and democracy, activism came the United States.  Occupy Wall Street encampments set up in hundreds of US cities.  While Occupy Springfield, MA never really got off the ground, Occupy Boston would become one of the longest lasting occupations.  Even as the encampments shut down when the fall dragged on, the movement is widely accredited with changing the conversation of the country from austerity and debt to a discussion of job creation.

Two years after the introduction of ward representation, interest in ward races was minimal at best.  Only Ward 8 incumbent John Lysak faced an opponent on the ballot, indeed the same one he defeated by a hair in 2009.  Six other ward incumbents faced no opposition and the ward 6 seat, vacated by Rivera for a run to an at-large seat, only had one balloted candidate, Ken Shea.  The at-large vacancy came about as Jose Tosado made a run for mayor.

Tosado as well as School committeewoman Antonette Pepe vied against Sarno in the September Preliminary.  Pepe took on a far more populist approach directly challenging the mayor even on the tornado.  Tosado offered a much more measured approach attempting to channel general dissatisfaction with the city’s progress.  A sign of Sarno’s strength came in the preliminary when he scooped up well more than half of the votes.  Pepe was defeated and enforsed Tosado.  After struggling to gain traction for much of October, the death knell for Tosado’s bid came when an October storm knocked out power for much of the city.  The mayor suspended his campaign to greater effect than when Tosado did the same after the June tornado and won a lopsided 72% of the vote amidst a dismal 22% turnout.

In the same election, all at-large incumbents running maintained their seats including Counilor Jimmy Ferrera who had connections to the burgeoning Probation Department scandal.  Amaad Rivera failed in his bid secure the open at-large seat falling behind former Councilor Bud Williams who secured the open seat and Justin Hurst, who claimed sixth place.  While many ascribe Rivera’s loss as evidence of citywide disgust, that simple explanation belies a more complicated situation complicated by interplay with the mayoral race, virtually zero debate or campaigning among candidates and some miscalculations by the Rivera campaign.

November also proved surprising reassuring for the American left.  Anti-union, anti-voter and allegedly anti-abortion measures appeared in Ohio, Maine and Mississippi respectively.  An anti-union bill in Ohio was shot down by voters in a lopsided vote leaving the formerly confident Republican governor a blithering mess.  A same-day registration law was vetoed by the people in Maine, but the shocker of the evening came from Mississippi, which beat back a personhood amendment that would have defined a fetus as a person.

Locally, Holyoke cast out its incumbent mayor for a young newcomer.  Alex Morse takes the helm in Holyoke in only a few day’s time.  Since his election, Holyoke attracted unprecedented national media attention and Morse scored a visit to the White House.  “You’re not an overachiever, are you?” was the President’s reported comment to the 22 year-old Morse. 

Even as Springfield sorted out its elections, state leaders released maps for new Congressional and State House and Senate districts.  Massachusetts was due to lose one Congressional seat and it was widely feared that the hammer would fall on the regions’s two congressional districts.  The evidence that this was the fate of the 413 came when John Olver, a twenty year veteran of Congress announced he would retire despite earlier promises to run.  This led the Redistricting Commission to split the difference and meld Western Massachusetts with a Worcester based district.  Elsewhere, longtime Congressman Barney Frank announced his retirement citing the new district lines.

State legislators did not get off any easier, however.  James Welch took on much more of Springfield’s minority communities to create a new minority-majority district.  The new district is expected to draw Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards into the race according to certain City Hall Sources.

Rising from the political ashes, Martha Coakley came out swinging against banks for their behavior amidst the foreclosure crisis.  While Coakley had safely secured reelection last year, some questioned her relevance after losing to Scott Brown in early 2010.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren made her bid official in September.  Attracting a flurry of media attention as Warren crisscrossed the commonwealth, attracting largely friendly crowds from Boston to Springfield.  Warren faced overflow crowds and raked in more than $3 million in a few weeks time.  Her primary opponents fell one by one.  While some felt a tougher primary would make her more battle-tested, Warren ably rebuffed attacks from Brown’s camp and Karl Rove’s SuperPAC’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.  In recent polling she has topped Brown and has been in a statistical dead heat with the incumbent since her campaign became official.

Before calling 2011 a year, the Springfield City Council still had a few more fires to put out.  Acting on the advice of the city solicitor the city’s building commissioner issued a building permit for the biomass plant.  Drawing angry rebukes from the 10 councilors that revoke the special permit earlier in the year, the council stood ready to appeal the building permit until Kateri Walsh invoke Rule 20 herself in an effort to delay the vote.  While the delay was successful, it did not stop the vote to appeal which passed.  Instead it provoked a backlash against Walsh, who became subjected to scrutiny from several news outlets because of the hefty campaign cash the Callahan family had given her.

Mr. President? Councilor Ferrera (via Urban Compass).

Meanwhile, Jimmy Ferrera, the only at-large councilor from the old council setup never to be Council President secured the votes necessary to become President in the new year.  This came despite his connections to the scandal-ridden Probation Department and his failure to achieve a critical task appointed to him at the beginning of the year.  Ferrera had been charged with drafting legislation to correct the error, but only ever produced a proposal that would change nothing and even this was never voted on.

Also in the latter half of the year the Massachusetts General Court and Governor Deval Patrick finally passed a bill legalizing casinos in the state.  The law came after years of debate and consternation between proponents and opponents, but also in-fighting among opponents.  The final legislation approved three casinos in three different regions of the state.  Local proposals included sites in Holyoke, Palmer and on Page Boulevard in Springfield.  While the idea of millions invested into Springfield and other towns has spurred great interest, more measured assessments of casinos’ possibilities has brought, at best cautious support, for many of the proposals now that one of them has become inevitable.

Without a doubt 2011 was a huge year in Springfield both as a city and as a component of the wider commonwealth and nation.  Whether the subject was weather or politics Springfield and Massachusetts had loads of it.  For all of the ups and downs 2011, many hope for a less bumpy 2012, but with one-time governor Mitt Romney queuing up to snag the Republican nomination for President, that may only be a pipe dream.