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2013 An Election Odyssey Editorial: A Diversity of Lessons…

This is the second post in a series analyzing the results of the 2013 election.



Last Tuesday was a big day in Springfield.  The turnout was embarrassing, but the result was historic.  Both the City Council and School Committee will feature a majority of minorities in the next term.  However, amidst the navel gazing of this change there seems to be a fundamentally flawed assumptions about what this actually means.

Diversity is essential on bodies like the Council to broader the experiences and worldviews of its members, but we can ill afford vapid takeaways from Tuesday.  The Republican’s editorializes about the subject correctly, but rather flatly states the obvious and others have sought to assert some other, surface level meaning for personal gain.

There are several hazards to simplistic interpretations of Tuesday’s vote.  There were some ward contests where there was almost zero chance a minority would not be elected.  In two, there was virtually no chance anybody, but a minority would win.  In two others, the minority candidate was highly favored to win.  Moreover, some of these minority councilors have as much if not a greater connection to an identity other than their race.

In Ward 8 a minority did defeat a white incumbent.  Yet, Councilor-elect Orlando Ramos’ win was due less to a changing city and more the work he put in this time.

At-large we saw a minority candidate, Councilor-elect Justin Hurst, win and displace a white one.  We must not view this purely in terms of race.  Rather, it is a sign of a generational shift.  Hurst and the man defeated, Jimmy Ferrera, are about the same age, but both they and their campaigns could not be from more different political universes.

Hurst prosecuted his campaign across traditional means, but also engaged social media, often as a way to spread things like his commercial.  Ferrera, despite being a child of the 1980’s had a campaign that looked remarkably similar to one from 1969.

That commercial tugged at the heartstrings rather than relying solely on classic if milquetoast Springfield political slogans.  Grandparents? Check.  Young families? Check.  Plug the commercial on Facebook to reach younger voters? Check.  That Hurst is black has nothing to do with any of these.

Tuesday also showed that just using social media is not enough.  It is about leveraging it to one’s advantage.  Ernesto Cruz, coming in seventh, was far ahead of the two in last place, partly because of effective social media use.  Jose Claudio and Norman Roldan both lost their races to candidates with virtually no digital presence because both  failed to manipulate social media effectively despite having Facebook and Twitter.

We see the same on the School Committee, where Calvin McFadden wielded social media to his advantage perhaps not superbly, but better than most other candidates.  Antonette Pepe, who lost her seat, had no digital engagement.

The Springfield City Council in 2012 (WMassP&I)

The Springfield City Council in 2012 (WMassP&I)

The shorter version is that Springfield politics has matured to the point where both zero interaction and haphazard engagement with social media can carry a price for candidates.

This is bigger than any one candidate, than race or than social media.  These election results were a sign that “the coalition of the ascendant” is on the move in Springfield.  In a city where President Obama and Senator Warren won by extraordinary margins thanks largely to young voters, students, minorities and white progressives, nobody seems to contemplate that this coalition might begin to materialize in city elections. And it has.

That is the significant point.  Yes, the electorate in municipal election years will continue to skew whiter and older than in presidential years.  Still, Tuesday’s results in part reflect that Springfield‘s “coalition of the ascendant” is ready now and no longer willing to wait.

Boston Councilor Ayanna Pressley (via Facebook/Pressley campaign)

Boston is instructive here.  While that city’s Council is less diverse than Springfield’s, its at-large race was topped by Councilor Ayanna Pressley, repeating her improbable 2011 first place finish.  Pressley, who is black, did not get there because of her race, despite a strong base in Roxbury and other minority neighborhoods.  She got there as a progressive icon who has used her position to address women’s issues, among others, with appeal to all.

It is too early to place similar expectations on Hurst or any other councilor, but we have to reach for deeper meaning.  Tuesday was neither about race alone nor surface-level conceptions about it.  If we take that path, we encourage the scorn of bigots and make no progress.  Rather, Tuesday was about the future and a city.  It was about whether we will embrace each with a eye toward what the city will be and what it still needs to become.