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The Insight: An Eye To-Ward Greater Representation…

This post is the first in a series on the Hampden Senate District Race.

Melvin Edwards.

Every individual who runs for office must have some ego.  While Ward 3 City Councilor Melvin Edwards is no different, it is quite obvious after only a few minutes with him that he keeps humility in a sizable reserve.  If that’s a strength, he is going to need all he can get and more as he takes on Senator James T. Welch in what may be the most highest profile primary race for state office in the area this year.

Edwards, a sophomore member of the Springfield City Council, and among the first batch of ward-elected councilors for the city in over fifty years, is not the council’s loudest or highest-profile member.  However, when he does speak, it easy to identify him as among those who may be the body’s conscience, never rushing to a decision and often excoriating councilors, the mayor and others for forcing the body to rush things needlessly.

Whether soft-spoken or eloquently speaking more forcefully at a council meeting or other public venue, it is clear that Edwards possesses a true and real love for Springfield.  That passion for the city is not just boilerplate polito-speak.  Rather it is the conviction of his tone coupled with factoids about Springfield‘s prouder aspects.  (like how Springfield’s Forest Park and Central Park share a connection through fabled parks designer Frederick Law Olmstead).   “My passion is for Springfield,” he said during an interview with Western Mass Politics & Insight.

It is no surprise that Edwards’s tone moves between a soft conversational and ministerial, but never sanctimonious.  His mother was a Pentecostal minister, just one piece of the mosaic that forms his background, which includes roots in Pakistan, the West Indies and Native American tribes.  A resident of Springfield for virtually his whole life, Edwards raised his family here with his wife Suzanne.

Councilor Edwards at his Desk (WMassP&I)

Edwards won reelection unopposed, like seven out of eight of the city’s ward councilors last year.  However, his initial victory in 2009 was made possible by the circumstances of the city’s changing municipal government.  The race was the inevitable next step for someone who had gone from sprucing up the Maple Heights/Six Corners neighborhood where he lives to becoming President of the neighborhood civic association.  Additional honors of late have included introducing Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren at a fundraiser for her in Springfield last year.

In an interview with WMassP&I, Edwards described his transition from citizen to public servant.  Well before ward representation was a reality, Edwards and his wife, tired of the condition of their neighborhood, among the city’s poorest, took to picking up garbage on the side of the road.  Their work quickly gained the accolades of other fed up residents and would become the genesis for Keep Springfield Beautiful.  It would be that early activism that led others to encourage Edwards to attend and participate in Maple High/Six Corners Neighborhood Council.

At the neighborhood council, Edwards ascended to president, a position he holds to this day.  However, even the president of the neighborhood council would find it difficult to get adequate responses from city departments.  The police often asked if a gun was involved before sending help on the way, a questionEdwards says is not posed to all neighborhoods calling the cops.  Facing these harsh realities where even the head of a neighborhood council could not get the answers he wanted from City Hall, Edwards and Ward 3 would find an opportunity in ward representation.  Edwards said that in the run up to the 2009 election, many in the neighborhood came up to him and urged him to take up the challenge and represent their ward at 36 Court Street.

Edwards says his turn toward elected office was one he always intended to take, but fate would send him to work to support his family before he could act on his political ambitions.  The all at-large nature of Springfield’s City Council would prove another barrier until it fell by the wayside in 2009.

With the support of the civic association and a neighborhood that already knew him Edwards made the leap to City Hall.  He says that the change in attitudes and responsiveness from city officials was massive.  City and state departments began responding to his calls and services to Ward 3 improved.  At the same time, it had the effect of drawing residents to him as somebody they could reach out to and get responses from 36 Court Street.

Elizabeth Warren with Senator Jim Welch

Still, Edwards worries about his limitations as a councilor under the city’s strong-mayor setup.  This, along with the considerable realignment of Welch’s district, led Edwards to look to Beacon Hill.  Redistricting placed considerably more of Springfield into Welch’s district and dropped Agawam from it completely.  The district also includes parts of Chicopee in addition to holding onto West Springfield as a whole.  Indeed, while Edwards did pepper in some digs at Welch’s expense throughout the interview, he maintained that his decision to run was not aimed at Welch in particular.  “Jim Welch is not the target,” the councilor asserted.

That peppering included references to Welch as following in former State Senator Stephen Buoniconti’s footsteps from West Springfield municipal government to the State House and Senate.  Welch was a relatively low-profile state rep when he graduated to the Senate as Buoniconti pursued a failed run as Hampden County’s District Attorney.  Welch was also an aide to Buoniconti before taking the latter’s seat in 2004.  Due to this and other connections of Welch’s, Edwards often refers to himself as “not a company man,” a phrase Edwards has used during interviews with other publications.

Still, Edwards waived off opportunities for direct attacks on Welch on policy.  Rather, he seems intent on promoting a candidacy that mimics his experience and approach in city government.  That will begin with a great deal of reaching out.  As a ward councilor, Edwards represents less than 20,000 people.  A state senator in Massachusetts will represent just under 164,000 once new district lines go into effect.  To meet that larger audience, Edwards is planning a listening tour.

Additional challenges lie ahead, however.  Welch will almost certainly have a massive fundraising advantage and will leverage his vote for bills or for future senate presidents to get additional backing from his colleagues.

The message Edwards intends to bring to voters is fairly straightforward.  Voters, “will have the confidence that I’ve made a decision on the merit.”  When asked if maybe he was too honest for politics, Edwards repeated the words his mother once said to him, “I can’t go to heaven for you, but I won’t go to hell for you either.”  Put a different way, Edwards does not claim to be perfect, but ultimately expects voters to judge him based on an assurance that he has voted his conscience.

Another issue looming in the background relates directly to the realignment of the district in the new senate maps.  Mindful of the voting rights lawsuits that tarnished the state’s redistricting process after the 2000 Census, legislators made Welch’s district majority-minority.  Edwards’s decision to run is certainly an intended consequence of mapmakers if not exactly the timing anybody expected given the Springfield area’s tendency to leave incumbents alone, especially in primaries.  Edwards pointed out that the state Senate had no black members, despite the leaps and bounds made by minorities in politics, most notably Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama.  However, in light of his own diverse background of which African-American is only one component, Edwards does not seem eager to run a campaign on that facet alone.

The Springfield City Council on Inauguration Day (WMassP&I)

Edwards announced run is also a unique step in the history of ward representation in Springfield.  One of the goals of the reform of the council was to give more voice to areas of the city that felt they lacked a voice at city hall.  This is exactly the empowerment Edwards and his ward felt upon his election.  However, ward seats are still elected political positions, which can be springboards to higher office including those who don’t live in the city’s more politically active wards.  Under the old at-large council format, it was improbable that a city councilor would even be from ward 3 let alone somebody from that ward running for one of the city’s two senate districts.

Of course that also reminds us of the obvious defects in the city’s charter when a ward vacancy opens up.  Unlike when Amaad Rivera replaced Keith Wright in Ward 6, Edwards has no opponent who would be the “runner-up” because in 2011 Edwards was unopposed.  Consequently, an Edwards vacancy would throw the decision of making his replacement to the city council upon Edwards resignation from the council unless councilors act to correct the deficiency.

For now, however, Edwards needs to expose himself to a much broader electorate.  That will involve a lot of reaching out to people throughout Chicopee, Springfield and West Springfield, many of whom may not know who he is.  However, Welch will face a similar dilemma as he introduces himself to new parts of Springfield and Chicopee.  Edwards hopes residents of all three cities will give him a chance, however and put the kind of passion he has had for Springfield to work in Boston, “I feel I can make decisions that make a difference.”

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