ANALYSIS: Of Clerks and Councils…
Primary day is rapidly approach and with it the effective election of several contests in Hampden County and Western Massachusetts. Some not contested by Republicans or, alternatively, face opposition not expected to win.
The Hampden County Democratic Coalition, a group of Agawam, Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield and West Springfield’s Democratic committees held a forum at Central High School in Springfield to allow the candidates to spread their messages all in one place.
In our estimate, both forums were an excellent opportunity to gauge the candidates side by side. WMassP&I is engaged in an interview process for all Clerk of Courts candidates, but obviously does not do so with all in a room together. Governor’s Council interviews will depend on time and resources.
Governor’s Council candidates were up first and a clear spectrum of attitude existed among the candidates. Falling in the middle was clearly Kevin Sullivan of Westfield who neither gushed like former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano nor sniped like Chicopee City Councilor Gerry Roy.
The format of the debate limited both the content and timeline of the forum. Consequently, Albano’s record of management of Springfield’s finances remained an elephant in the room. Never mind that Albano made it more awkward by constantly referencing his tenure in Springfield government.
Roy, on the other hand, made repeated references to Albano and especially Sullivan’s political contacts. His cursory claim that lawyers should not be approving judges as it would lead to favoritism betrayed a lack of understanding of the legal system. Roy, a real estate broker, argued that if lawyers and/or politicians pick or approve judges, judges would be tainted. However, conflicts happen in the legal system all of the time.
Some lawyers and judges have histories either in practice together or in opposing cases. An entire ethical apparatus is set up to excuse minor conflicts and respond to major conflicts. Additionally, the appeals process within the judiciary can shake out other problems.
Roy appeared to reject that premise, going directly after Sullivan noting that his brother, Richard Sullivan, is a member of Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet. Of course, Roy could only offer specious reasoning and innuendo to back up his often inflammatory claims.
Albano also focused heavily on his early support on social issues, including most notably marriage equality. He said he would not approve individuals who would backtrack on such issues, but offered no indication how he could be sure how judges would rule. The likelihood of judicial backtracking on this, especially in Massachusetts, is quite slim.
Although Albano had the best performance, praising both Roy and Sullivan, it seemed more geared toward race for the Oscars. Sullivan kept his argument on point. He made it clear his concern was making sure the local judicial system worked properly and would draw off of his experience as an attorney with a Springfield practice to do that.
Sullivan, a member of the Westfield School Committee, argued he had the experience of working on a government board and would work to bring back some level of decorum to Council meetings. Since the last election in 2010, the Governor’s Council has had some high-profile spats that have impacted the effective operation of the Council.
The Clerk of Courts race was a little less excitable. It was the third time these candidates were all on stage together in a race that has become a billboard for the office as much as a contest among four individuals. They are Springfield at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, Ludlow lawyer and former selectman John DaCruz, Chicopee Legal Administrator, Linda Stec DiSanti and current assistant Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile of Springfield.
The scrutiny the race has received has been praised, but it also had the effect of leaving little new to be said at these forums. Perhaps because of that, each candidate, all of whom have genuine experience and skills, suffered some minor blows each.
Ashe, whom some see as the apparent front runner, played it safe. Perhaps too safe. When asked a question about specific improvements to the Clerks office, he offered only “enhanced technology.” At the same time, Ashe did note his management of Community Corrections departments in sheriff’s offices.
John DaCruz did not have a gaffe as such, but a proposal of his to make the Clerk’s office generate more revenue took a hit from Gentile when she worried aloud about the impact on indigent users of the courts. DaCruz did, however, reveal he has had discussions with District Attorney Mark Mastroianni about establishing a gun court, an idea proposed by the Springfield City Council earlier this year.
DiSanti seemed well-prepared, but perhaps too much so. While virtually all of the candidates were reading from prepared remarks, DiSanti seemed the most obvious. However, she did bring a sizable and energetic contingent with her, something the other candidates did not appear to do, which may suggest greater grassroots support.
Finally, Gentile, to the extent that it was error, perhaps made a more non-politician move. While saying “no” without saying so and measuring expectations is an art in politics, Gentile tried to shut down her opponents promises for reform by saying the Clerk does not control the size of its budget. This fact, though welcome if true, does not animate voters very much.
These is just our observation and we do not present this view, particularly of the Clerk’s race, as representative of other Clerk of Courts debates. This is critical to stress as is the fact that all candidates made good points, but the negative appeared to overshadow that in our analysis. By far, the amount of attention these races have received is an excellent indication of the excitement these electoral opportunities have offered.
Opinions vary over whether these races have frontrunners, however, the energy and enthusiasm of all campaigns, and the bizarre Thursday, September 6 primary make it difficult to be sure who will be the victor.