In Westfield, A Candidacy Whose Time Has Come…at Last…
WESTFIELD—A brief survey of the crowd packed into the Tavern Restaurant might be mistaken for a family reunion or a parents’s event for kids sports teams, but such is the nature of politics in the Whip City. In fact, friends, family and neighbors had gathered for at-large City Councilor Brian Sullivan to announce his run for mayor, with many, including the candidate himself, acknowledging the bid was a longtime coming.
“I’m sure you never thought you would see a banner like this,” Sullivan told the crowd in a comment directed at his parents.
With incumbent mayor Daniel Knapik retiring and possibly eyeing an early exit for a job in Walpole, timing played heavily into Sullivan’s decision. After considering and declining numerous times to seek the job his brother Richard once held, Brian Sullivan’s campaign was able to project a frontrunner status. Only Knapik’s 2013 opponent, Michael Roeder, has announced a run so far.
Sources here suggest others might enter, but few big names are among them, and a special election to fill Knapik’s seat, if necessary, would such bids nearly impossible. Sullivan, as Council President, would serve as interim mayor pending the outcome of a special, or, were Knapik to resign in late summer or beyond, until the November election.
“It’s something he’s been wanting to do for a while,” his brother Kevin, a School Committee member, told WMassP&I.
The crowd was a cross-section of Whip City politics, perhaps illuminating why Sullivan opted against a run before. He declined in 2013 when the incumbent, Knapik was running for reelection. But Tuesday night, he was joined by the mayor and his brother, former state senator, Michael Knapik, who only had good things to say about his former Westfield High classmate.
“Brian has always been a great friend and supporter,” the Republican former senator declared.
In his speech, Sullivan, wearing a dark jacket and a Patriots themed necktie, promised to bring city government together—both to collaborate and to save money, and expand upon recent progress.
While Sullivan wants to build on the work of Mayor Knapik, he and backers are also aware of the discord that has hung over Knapik’s Westfield. Complaints about Knapik’s spending and highhandedness are rife here, even if the former has been necessary. Although a city for a century, Westfield has grown from a small, if sprawling town to a prominent urban center that hosts considerable suburban development.
“I want to build bridges,” metaphorical ones, of course, he told the crowd.
During a brief interview after his speech, Sullivan acknowledged that despite wanting to build off of Mayor Knapik’s accomplishments, there was discontent among residents. He said his personality was such that he wants to work toward a common goal, while remaining frank with people.
“I’m just built that way,” he said.
Sullivan, who owns a telecommunications consulting business, specifically called for closer coordination with the city’s other elected branches including the Council, School Committee and the Gas & Electric Board. He also called on rectifying Westfield’s lack of reliable access to broadband internet services.
Michael Knapik, the former senator, highlighted Sullivan’s ability to bring people together. When he was still a senator, Knapik recalled Sullivan bringing the Council along for important votes on major state initiatives like the Great River Bridge.
“Brian never flinched,” he said, adding that under Sullivan, the Council understood responsiveness from Beacon Hill required active partners on the municipal level.
Complaints about city spending, Sullivan offered a bright picture of the city’s finances, which while serving as president, he would have shepherded through the Council over the years.
The city is “in very good shape” with “money in reserves,” which keeps bond-rating agencies happy.
While Westfield is a conservative city in many ways, moderate describes it best. Solidly Democratic in presidential elections since 1988, it consistently voted for Republican state legislators for decades (until John Velis’s win last year) while oscillating between parties for governor.
Like many places nationally, Westfield has lower turnout in municipal and non-presidential elections, when students and poorer residents fail to turn out and conservative blocs have an outsized influence. Therefore, the deep personal ties across the community, a feature of the often small-town nature of this 40,000 strong city, help pols weather the back and forth.
For example, some attendees knew Sullivan not through politics, but because of his involvement with youth sports. Campaign manager Lisa McMahon told WMassP&I that kids Sullivan coached for baseball, now in their 20’s, had been recruited to run the campaign’s social media.
Still 2013 was a huge wake-up call in Westfield political circles. Observers suggest that Knapik’s near-loss to Roeder, a political newcomer, was caused by a failure to mobilize earlier. While Knapik survived, several councilors down ballot lost their seat in the political tide that year.
Sullivan’s camp appears to take nothing for granted. Yet, Whip City politicos, while placing early bets on Sullivan—assuming nobody other than he and Roeder are running—caution the city’s conservative element could still try to capitalize on issues like spending and taxes. That they bought much-needed public works and attracted new businesses is beside the point.
But Tuesday night, supporters focused on building consensus along with some good-natured ribbing of their candidate’s almost Hamlet-like path to a mayoral bid.
“‘We thought you were going to do it a long time ago,’” Sullivan said, quoting his two adult children’s response to his decision to run.
Speaking to WMassP&I, Sullivan said a run for mayor—sooner or later—was natural step from earning his history degree at Assumption College to the present day.
“I just always like politics” and being a part of the process,” he said. “I’m not one to sit on the sidelines.”