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Upon Lessons Learned, Cruz Built His Candidacy…

Ernesto Cruz at August Kickoff (via Facebook/Cruz Campaign)

SPRINGFIELD—Even as a candidate, Cruz seems to be working overtime.  He has motored to events across the city, attended candidates forums, organized his digital strategy and even helped out friends running for office in neighboring communities.

His parents were the same, working 80 hours weeks when he was young, “That’s why I’m such a workaholic, they were such workaholics,” he said with a smile.

Cruz, 28, is one of four challengers running in Springfield’s municipal election, the first  without the mayor on the ticket. The race has not received much attention from the media and turnout is expected to be grim.  Although few of the at-large incumbents might admit it, challengers like Cruz, whose campaign began in August, are being taking seriously.

Former Councilor Jose Tosado (WMassP&I)

Cruz is certainly getting noticed, “I am excited about Ernesto Cruz’s entry into politics,” said former councilor Jose Tosado, for whom Cruz worked during the 2011 mayoral campaign.  He called Cruz, “young, bright, energetic and represents Springfield’s future.”

Cruz was born in the Bronx, but moved to Springfield was he very young.  His parents divorced when he was young.  His mother eventually remarried, although now Cruz’s stepfather suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, which is a struggle for his family.

He attended Sacred Heart school on Chestnut Street, but went to Central despite getting a slot at Cathedral.  Cruz attended University of Connecticut studying biology and chemistry.  “My parents wanted me to be a doctor,” Cruz said during an interview at the Springfield Starbucks on Columbus Avenue.

Medicine would not be in Cruz’s future, however.  He began work as a Personal Care Attendant and left school, moing up the ranks as a PCA while also working at a used car lot.  A bad economy would put the kibosh on that career and he found work at MassMutual partly because he is bilingual.

It would be in that environment that Cruz began to drift toward activism after seeing how his largely Spanish-speaking clientele had considerably lower assets than that of agents who had whiter, more affluent clients.  “That’s when I noticed there was something wrong with Springfield from a socioeconomic perspective,” he said after which Cruz drifted toward nonprofits and community activism.

Councilor Edwards in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Councilor Edwards in 2012.  Edwards represents Cruz’s ward and has backed his candidacy.   (WMassP&I)

Around this time Tosado was running for mayor of Springfield.  Although it would get lost in the tornado’s political maw, it, along with Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards’s 2012 State Senate campaign, would prove to be an invaluable learning experience.

Working for Senator Ed Markey‘s campaign, however, Cruz got a chance to see a whole different version of a campaign.  Cruz served as a field organizer, primarily in Holyoke, but by most accounts left a positive impression on his coworkers.

One campaign staffer who worked with Cruz praised his ability to “[hone] in on a particular city, ward, or neighborhood and looking at how to make beneficial changes” for residents.  “He understands how things function across the state and knows that making Springfield a better place will in turn make the Commonwealth a better place,” the worker continued.

Senator Markey with Latino supporters including Springfield Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Anthony Soto and Cruz (via Facebook/Markey campaign)

Cruz himself described the experience, in contrast to the decades old way of politicking in Springfield, as a campaign that was both modern and professional with an emphasis on data, voter outreach and social media.  “I had not experienced [that] until I worked on Ed Markey’s campaign.”

That experience could be crucial as he moved from staffer to candidate, which Tosado called a “natural transition.”  Tosado and Councilor Edwards have both backed his bid, often vigorously.  Were the city to hit even the roughly 25% turnout of the casino referendum, Cruz, the only Latino at-large candidate, could probably ride identity politics to a Council seat.  However, turnout is probably unlikely to top 20% and “blank” usually outpolls candidates by a huge margin suggesting heavy tactical voting.

On the other hand, Cruz does have a few factors in his favor.  While Hispanic turnout shall be insufferably low, Cruz may be in a position to consolidate what turnout does exist with an appeal to white reformers in the city.

“How many people I can motivate, if I can get visibility,” Cruz says will determine his success.

While not naïve about turnout among Latinos, Cruz said, “They care about any election as long as they are reminded.”  Too often Cruz said Hispanic voters tend to feel their issues are never addressed or conversely the finger is pointed at them by others in the city.  “Anytime that you can give them some hope,” he added, they have a reason to turn out.

City Council Chamber (WMassP&I)

City Council Chamber (WMassP&I)

It would be a mistake to say that Cruz is merely “the Latino candidate.”  If anything, he has tried to bridge the glaring, but often ignored divide between the city’s more affluent neighborhoods and its often minority, poorer ones.

Describing a meet and greet in Ward 6, which consists primarily of Forest Park, Cruz said, “We had such a good conversation, that I felt comfortable talking about race and economics.”  He said one of the residents gathered there said, he was the first person to really breakdown how well people, like the poor, are doing well affects those who are better off, but in a way that‘s not grandstanding.

One issue that has gotten traction in the campaign has been reinstating the Police Commission.  Cruz has been pushing this issue since he August, but now it seems like every candidate is backing it.  Cruz recounts how at one point in the campaign, “Everyone is talking about the greatness of the strike force,” as a means to counteract crime, Cruz said.  However, he said he saw the issues as more systemic and bigger than any one initiative could solve, leading him to endorse a dramatic step like a new commission.

Public Safety has become a flashpoint in the Council campaign (via

Cruz is glad others agree, but hopes that drive endures, “If you didn’t think a police commission was necessary after the first, second, third or fourth murder, why is it all of a sudden necessary after the sixteenth murder and right before the Election Day?”

A commission could be a net benefit for residents and cops as well, “They don’t like the tension between residents and themselves,” but deploying cops in military fatigues is not going to build the needed trust.  If anything, Cruz has warned, it could only escalate to a “stop and frisk” program.

“Stop, question and frisk,” normally just shortened the first and last terms, is a controversial New York City program intended combat crime.  A federal judge found its execution to be unconstitutional and ordered a revamp.  Largely perceived as targeting minorities, critics, like Democratic nominee for New York mayor Bill de Blasio have questioned its efficacy as well.

Cruz focuses on greater transparency, and accessibility as well.  While he applauds efforts like that of the mayor to use social media a bit more, “It is good, but it is not enough.”  “It is easy to say the city needs a cheerleader and it does need a cheerleader, but it can’t be itself.”  It has to come organically he argues.  There should greater outreach for jobs, meetings and hearing put out through social media and Craigslist.

Ernesto Cruz (Cruz Campaign)

Ernesto Cruz (Cruz Campaign)

But how has this transition for Cruz been from campaign hand to candidate?  Of his opponents, “Everyone’s cordial.  One of them is faking it,” he said refusing to name who that was.

Like other candidates, he notes that the Council spends a great bickering and getting nothing done.  “You have a proposal that is only going to get three votes,” he cited residency proposals that never made it past first step,  “Why waste Law Department’s time, why waste taxpayers money. Why not work with other councilors?”

For himself, Cruz points to his slogan, “Let‘s get to work.”  “I’m looking to create a vision of what the Council should be doing rather than using it for myself,” he said.