Campaigning to be the Pro’s Pro…
Laura Gentile is not a politician and she says as much when she makes her pitch to voters. However, unlike the vague declarations of Mitt Romney who offers vague explanations of how his business experience will translate into jobs, Gentile can explain the difference a bit more substantively.
Gentile is one of four Democrats competing in among the party’s hottest contests in Western Massachusetts. Incumbent Hampden Clerk of Courts Brian Lees opted not to run reelection this year prompting a mad dash to claim the seat. Gentile is one of two candidates who are lawyers. There are no Republican or independent candidates meaning that the Primary election shall decide the election. The other candidates are Springfield at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, former Ludlow Selectman John DaCruz and Linda Stec DiSanti, a legal administrator from Chicopee.
As Gentile tells it however, taking the plunge into politics for the first time is the next logical step for somebody who has spent fifteen years in the office already. “I’m not looking for the office, I want the job,” Gentile said in a recent lunchtime interview in downtown Springfield. Gentile, dressed for work with a white and purple striped shirt, spoke about her life and career as well as her first run for public office.
A lifelong resident of Springfield, Gentile has worked as an assistant Clerk of Courts since the mid-1990’s. She came to the Clerk’s office shortly after she became a lawyer in 1991. She and her brother both attended Western New England at the same time and after law school she went to work in her father’s law firm. Gentile has another brother who works for the Justice Department in Washington, DC.
Gentile sought employment at the Clerk’s office shortly after her only son, Thomas or T.J., was born. The job offered her more consistent hours, which Gentile felt would allow her to have more time to spend with her family.
Notably, Gentile’s son is the same age as Ashe’s son, also Thomas, and both were classmates at Cathedral High School having graduated together this year.
In advocating for her election, Gentile sees explaining the rather esoteric office as critical. The Clerk’s office is the public face of Hampden Superior Court, Gentile says, and “…where all cases begin & end.” Complaints, sentences, orders and other court communications all go through the Clerk’s office. Gentile says the office works with judges to see to it that the Judiciary functions properly.
Gentile broke down the job at the Clerk’s office into several aspects: its legal responsibilities, its administrative responsibilities and its managerial duties.
The Clerk of Courts must apply the law in limited circumstances such as properly directing cases to the appropriate venue. Gentile, who touts her legal background as among her qualifications, notes that cases go to different courts such as Superior Court versus District Court and knowing where cases must go is crucial. The Clerk also assigns assistant clerks to judges based on the motions and actions before the Superior Court.
The Court also has several administrative functions. The Superior Court of Hampden County is actually administered as part of a broader Trial Court division within the Judiciary. Consequently, rules and regulation may often come down from above. According to Gentile, it is the responsibility of the Clerk to properly implement those rules. The Clerk’s office also handled evidence, too, which can greatly impact cases and, of course, lives as well. “If somebody returns a piece of evidence erroneously, you could be jeopardizing someone’s liberty or jeopardizing someone’s right to a fair trial,” Gentile said.
Finally, the Clerk must take into account more pedestrian things like internal staffing and employee management. As an assistant clerk herself, Gentile argues she has a leg up here as well. Should somebody call out, she says, she knows the strengths and weaknesses of the other clerks and how best to assign them.
To the extent that the Clerk’s position is an elected one, it also deals with a fairly specific dimension of governmental administration. In making her pitch, Gentile emphasizes that she knows the institution and how to make it work best to serve the needs of the public and the lawyers and legal professionals they serve. “The issues are not like they are for mayor or Senate,” she said comparing the office to others more involved in developing policy and law.
Gentile said the professions using the Clerk’s office know, “we need to have this office run well.” She said the lawyers that have cases in the court know what a mess they could have on their hands should a judges order not get out.
To that end, Gentile tries to avoid denigrating her opponents, preferring to focus on her own credentials rather than their shortcoming. “I’m not disparaging anybody,” she says arguing that knowing the inside policies and politics of the office is critical to starting off right. “There’s no learning curve for me.”
That preference to avoid negativity, however, did not deter Gentile to point out a key difference between herself and the perceived frontrunner, Ashe. Gentile says that Ashe has mostly politicians lined up behind him. While Gentile claims the support of legal professionals.
When asked to compare her message to that of her opponents, Gentile is quick to point out that the Clerk’s office is not like a business. She says she appreciates that running a business should be run a certain way, but that that way is not best for the Clerk’s office. “Different places operate differently,” she added.
For a first run for office, Gentile says she has enjoyed it so far as well as the support she has received. Although Gentile borrowed approximately $40,000 to fuel up her campaign early, she says that a great deal of support has come from the professionals that use the Clerk’s office and expect it to run smoothly.
As it stands, Gentile also leads the money race. The most recent campaign finance report has her with the largest cash on hand balance. However, Gentile, unlike both Ashe and DaCruz, has yet to make the same sizable ad buys DaCruz and Ashe have made. Still, that does give plenty of room to spend on a late advertising blitz on an under reported campaign.
Like other branches of government, the Hampden County Clerk of Court’s office has suffered from budget cuts. Gentile pegs the losses in personnel terms to about ten jobs lost since 2008. While Gentile has said she would work with what she has and would advocate for more funding, she notes that the budget for the court is not a line item in the Legislature’s budget.
The legislature appropriates a line for the Trial division and then that money is distributed among the Superior Courts as needed. Gentile says that working with the judges to get them to advocate to the Trial Division’s leaders in Boston.
From now until September 6, however, Gentile is advocating her campaign to snag the nomination and with it the Clerk’s office. Asked if she was enjoying being a politician and campaigning for the first time, she said she was overwhelmed by the support she received.
“It is nice that after fifteen years there are people coming out to support you because you showed them the way,” Gentile said of the support she has gotten. “It’s a nice feeling.”