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Slower, if Hopefully Steadier, Push for Edwards to Win the Race…

Councilor Melvin Edwards (WMassP&I)

Councilor Melvin Edwards (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Politics in the City of Homes, like anywhere, as they say “ain’t beanbag.”  For very few, however, can say with direct certainty, that playing the politics game may have nearly killed them.  Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, however, may be the rare exception, but it certainly has not stopped him.

“It was a physical barrier, but it did not affect my ability to communicate with people,” Edwards said of his injury during an interview in his Maple Heights home.  Edwards sustained a catastrophic double knee injury last year during a run for the Hampden State Senate seat, the complications of which nearly did kill him.

Edwards is one of four ward councilors facing a challenge this year as he campaigns for a third term in what has been a painfully sleepy election cycle in the City of Homes.  The mayor is not up for election this year leaving only the full Council and School Committee on the ballot.  Turnout is feared to be low and Edwards’ ward is historically the lowest.

He faces business owner Salvatore Circosta, who lives in one of the ward’s few Forest Park precincts along Belmont Avenue.  Structurally, the demographics heavily favor Edwards despite low turnout among minorities.  However, that low turnout also provides a much smaller universe and therefore less votes are necessary to secure victory.

Edwards, known for his self-effacing style, says he running again because, “the job is not done!”  He noted that when he first joined the Council, a great deal of his time was spent learning the job and catching up on policy.  By the time he got a hang of it, election season had started anew.

Councilor Edwards with his wife (right) and daughter in 2012 during the State Senate campaign. (WMassP&I)

Councilor Edwards with his wife Suzanne (right) and daughter in 2012 during the State Senate campaign. (WMassP&I)

In some ways, this election is a different experience for Edwards than his past bids.  Never before was he the incumbent to beat.  He could take, as he did running for Council in 2009 or in the 2012 State Senate race against incumbent James Welch, an approach that emphasized the need for officials to pay more attention to his ward or the city.

This time around, he is facing criticism from Circosta for staying inside his “comfort zone” around Maple Heights/Six Corners, the neighborhood association, which Edward’s chairs.

“It is just inaccurate,” he said of Circosta’s position.  “It just goes to reflect his lack of knowledge” of what is going on beyond Circosta’s comfort zone, Edwards continued.

Edwards noted his involvement in the South End redevelopment of the Hollywood section and Emerson Wight Park.  He hedged a little bit about Circosta’s claim with regard to Forest Park, pointing to the representation of at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea.  Ward 6 encompasses the lion’s share of Forest Park and a precinct in East Forest Park, in which WMassP&I is based.

“Part of the push to get ward representation to get more people beyond the same area,” a possible dig at Circosta’s address, which are well within a mile of Walsh and Shea‘s home.  Prior to ward representation, five of nine councilors lived in Ward 7 and two lived in Ward 6.  Presently Four of the five at-large councilors still hale from Ward 7.

Edwards joined the Springfield Historic Preservation Trust this year. A number of historic buildings and parts of historic districts are in Ward 3 (via Trust website)

It is easy to only think about his role too provincially, Edwards said.  He said that he takes a broader approach and works for projects that help the whole city like tax credits for business or the Community Block Development Grant loan to renovate the old Holiday Inn as a La Quinta.  Often, he and Council friend John Lysak appear at city events together.  Edwards also said that his seats on citywide groups like the Preservation Trust or Keep Springfield Beautiful look at the whole city and not just one neighborhood over another.

Edwards also argued that if there is anything to Circosta’s claims, it may be attributed to the 2011 tornado.  In “Maple Heights/Six Corners, there has been a lot of the need,” Edwards said and pointed to helpful projects to revive the Central Street Corridor, which took the storm head on.

During the weeks and months after the tornado, Edwards and his Ward 7 colleague, Tim Allen, being the representatives from the area most directly impact wore much of the disaster on their faces.  Edwards told the story then and repeated during the interview how his wife and he were in their car as the tornado swept overhead and had to crawl over debris to return to their home.

Edwards praised the work of city, state and federal officials in storm recovery, but he added, “The majority of the people who ended up at the South End, or along Central Street, this is the are where people lived who had no insurance.”  National Guard checkpoints were not set up there and Edwards said he fielded calls from people worried the city would demolish damaged homes without the owners knowledge.

Tornado damaged house on Beech Street, now demolished (WMassP&I)

The purpose of relaying the experience of the tornado was not just about rehashing an old events.  Rather, Edwards emphasized that more needs to be done to make sure the city is served equitably.  In past interviews, he has mentioned the long, if unending police response times for non-gun crime and other poor response from city agencies.  As for his relationship with Mayor Domenic Sarno, he and Edwards enjoys a personally warm, if not always professionally close relationship, a not unique situation observed from afar.  Edwards said he was appreciative of the mayor’s visits while recovering from knee surgery and developed a rapport with Sarno’s extended family as a relative of his was also recuperating in the next bed.

Edwards thought the tornado rebuilding plan as an example of the city doing right by all neighborhoods, “Ninety-five percent of what they asked for is what they are getting.”  But the point is not to put the area of the city in competition with each other.  “It should not be about who got better service.”

Rather, the city and indeed the whole commonwealth need to realize that they are in on the success of Springfield together.  “I’m hopeful we recognize and tear down these barriers.”

As for the campaign itself, Edwards admits he cannot move as quickly as he would like limiting his ability to knock on his neighbor’s doors himself, with his sureness of his step now aided by a cane.  “I am campaigning  as hard as I can.  I have people knocking doors, I am making phone calls.”

Sal Circosta (via Facebook/Circosta campaign)

Like Circosta in his interview, Edwards said whether he is a councilor or not, he would remain active in the city in which he grew up helping to literally clean the streets as he has done with Keep Springfield Beautiful or the neighborhood council.

Still, he has goals for the next term.  Edwards, neither an agitator of nor a Pollyanna for the Police Department, more done to bring neighborhood folks and the police together and build up trust.  He also urged a shuffling of the police department in the upper ranks, noting that the presence of police often seems scarcer in his ward’s neighborhoods.

Edwards also backed a return of the Police Commission after Commissioner William Fitchet’s contract expires.  This idea has been actively pushed by Edwards protégé Ernesto Cruz, a candidate for Council at-large.  In recent weeks, other Council candidates have been falling all over themselves to back it.  Both community groups and patrolmen on the front lines are said to support the return of a commission.  Yet, a return of before Fitchet’s contract is up would breach his employment agreement with the city.

Job creation is high on the list of priorities, of course.  He said he was looking forward to mayor’s raise, which he voted for shortly after the interview.  “I’m supporting the raise for the mayor, I’m hoping that the chamber will consider an increase in the minimum wage,” he said referring to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, which had pushed for a hike in the mayor’s salary for years.

Overall, Edwards appears set on trying to maintain his reputation for listening carefully and not shooting his mouth off.  “Sometimes we get so arrogant we don’t listen to the person next door,” Edwards said admitting even he is guilty of it sometimes.  He hopes the Council can spend less time mired in its own juvenile squabbles and do more for the people of the city that elect them.

“Sometimes we are own worst enemy,” Edwards said.  He and his all of his colleagues should “Remind ourselves it is the voters that pay our salaries,” after all.

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