Analysis: At-large and in Charge at the Schools…
It is often forgotten that the return of ward representation to Springfield was a jarring change not just to the City Council, but to the School Committee as well. Because the body has a four year term, this is the first time it is up for reelection since that upheaval diced up the six-seat body (the mayor is a seventh vote) and remade it with four district seats and two at large ones. Another side effect was that the entire Committee was put up for election all at once instead of having staggered elections with half the body up every two years.
Unlike the Council, where essentially eight fresh faces, (nine if you count Ashe who had taken a pass on one of the fewer available at-large Committee seats), ward representation seemed not as big a shakeup across the hall. Indeed, there was no race for three out of six of the seats in 2009.
Incumbent Antonette Pepe, the fiery rabble-rouser and Denise Hurst, the daughter-in-law to out-going committee member Marjorie Hurst scored the two at-large seats unopposed. Chris Collins slid over from at-large the Ward 6/7 District Seat.
Elsewhere Barbara Gresham took the Ward 4/5 District seat upsetting Sirdeaner Hooker-Walker, who had won the preliminary. Normal Roldan, active in the New North Citizens Council, got the Ward 1/3 District seat unopposed. Meanwhile, Peter Murphy, the ex-husband of a former school committee member (and to some a wannabe establishmentarian) handily beat a college student for the Ward 2/8 District seat.
At the risk of reducing the entire four year term to sex and superintendents, the actions undertaken by the School Committee that drew the most attention have been its condom policy and selected a School Superintendent. The condom policy on a substantive level was important, but beyond earning national headlines it did little to either illuminate or define the very real politics that flow through the Committee.
The selection of a school superintendent did, however, show this situation off a bit. Daniel Warwick, a longtime school department official, but also a politically connected one, got the top job over Jesus Jara. Warwick is seen by some as an establishment loyalist so that he got the job is not overly surprising. However, he was backed by Pepe, indeed vociferously behind closed doors by some accounts, suggesting he was simply the best candidate. Also alive in the minds of all committee members was the disaster candidates non-resident candidates have been.
The candidates see the stakes more broadly than the media largely has and point to them in the race. Graduation and drop-out rates are on the mind of McFadden. Hurst mentioned truancy rates, but also adult and early childhood education during an interview, the latter of which she said has been, “Proven to be a huge benefit to generations to come.” Pepe had not been reached as of posting time.
Politics are very real in other towns’ School Committees (Republican Mary Rogeness long held sway over Longmeadow’s and now Democrat Mike Clark does). However, the expense of mounting such a campaign in a city of Springfield’s size preclude rank and file interested parents that many towns’ committee have.
This year two of the district seats are uncontested, Collins and Gresham’s. Roldan actually has a challenger in Rosa Perez, ostensibly from outside his circle. Murphy is facing a challenge from Zaida Govan, a resident of the Orchard. But the real drama lies in the at-large Council race. Hurst and Pepe are seeking reelection, but are being challenged by Calvin McFadden who has gotten big-name backing from Ray Jordan, the former State Representative and Vice-Chair of the State Democratic Party.
McFadden, a pastor, is fairly new to the area, and has engaged in one of the more aggressive campaigns of the season with a mix of new and old tactics. He promises a fresh perspective and his relatively short residency in the city undermines the most easily charges of political cronyism. It is arguable that in addition to the big-name support, he has established one of the more sophisticated digital operations a city candidate has established, certainly among school committee candidacies.
But qualifications are in play as well. McFadden has had extensive education, but so has Hurst. Pepe worked in the schools for many years. McFadden noted that he is the only candidate at-large to have children in the school system. Hurst did not deny that (although her son is too young to enroll anyway), but she said she was a product of the Springfield public schools and has siblings that still attend them. Additionally, she noted that she has been active in the Massachusetts Association of School Committee, recently chosen by that group to lead its urban schools section
Taken at its most cynical, however, support from an establishment figure like Jordan implies that somebody is being targeted on the Committee, especially since Hurst and Pepe had no opponents in 2009. This is not to say that competitive elections are bad, but in a city with so atrophied a democratic infrastructure as Springfield, races such as these usually only arise in two ways. Either the office is targeted, usually by the establishment and/or machine or the challenge is organically insurgent, whether a perennial candidacy or a true revolution.
It is just as possible that Jordan believes McFadden would do well in the office and wants to see him in there, but that does not explain why either of the two at-large committee members are no longer satisfactory. The likeliest answer is that committee member is Pepe. Hurst, through her husband’s family, has political connections and indeed, she has considerable support from past Committee members, including those now on the Council like Tom Ashe and Ken Shea. She, like her husband Justin who is running for City Council, also enjoy the support of the mayor. That support has come even though she has been described by some observers, like her counterpart in Ludlow, Jake Oliveira (who supports her bid for reelection) as having an independent streak.
However, Justin’s race may also illuminate the situation. The Springfield political establishment is hardly monolithic and among its factions are its share of freelancers. Forces independent of establishmentarians like Jordan may see not Denise Hurst’s Committee tenure as a threat, but rather Justin Hurst’s race for City Council. If they do, it could motivate them to back McFadden to either distract or put pressure on Justin Hurst regardless of whether his wife wins or not.
With turnout likely to be low, Pepe, a Committee member since 2003, despite her at-times tempestuous demeanor, has a strong following within the electorate and could prevail. It was not enough to push her past the primary in the 2011 mayoral contest, but taking on the incumbent and being the incumbent are entirely different matters. Moreover, while it may have been quite easy for Domenic Sarno’s people to use her temperament against her in a mayoral contest, strident dissent is much harder to sell as a vice on a body where she is only one voice.
Instead, it seems eminently possible that Hurst is the one who could be picked off. The result would only trade out one black politicians for another and indeed, actually lose a Hispanic one too as Denise Hurst is both black and Latina, fluent in Spanish. Justin Hurst alluded to this prospect in an Op-Ed (pg 25) he wrote for the newspaper his parents publish, The Afro-American Point of View. He criticized older black leaders in the city for clinging to power and not letting the next generation step up.
There is a proliferation of lawns in the city with both Hurst and McFadden signs on them, which could bode well for Hurst, of course signs do not vote. And it is true that Pepe has earned herself a lot of enemies over the years, but are there really enough of them to excommunicate her from elected office after ten years? Not to mention, while voting for Warwick was probably the vote least based on insider-ism he received on the Committee, it remains a vote that is very hard to overlook for establishmentarians.
As stated, the establishment is by no means monolithic. Figures like Jordan, while powerful, hardly wholly control the whole shebang anymore than they have a market on the black community, widely seen as divvied up politically among Jordan, Representative Ben Swan and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs. These factions are apparent given the kind of support ex-Committee members and institutions like the Democratic City Committee have given to Hurst.
Engaging the electorate on the School Committee election is particularly difficult with such low turnout and those that do vote often do not have children in the system. There are tremendous challenges, as there ever have been, but some signs of hope too. News broke recently about improving MCAS scores.