In Springfield’s Mayoral Preliminary, a Classical Challengers’ Forum…
SPRINGFIELD—Gathering Thursday night in the main hall of Classical Condominiums, once the former high school’s auditorium, voters met, questioned and listened to six of the contenders in the city’s mayoral preliminary. Save only the incumbent, Domenic Sarno, the entire field for the September 8 preliminary appeared and discussed everything from schools, crime to downtown redevelopment.
Hosted by the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association, the forum posed questions to challengers Salvatore Circosta, Ivelisse Gonzalez, Michael Jones, Johnnie Ray McKnight, Beverly Savage and Miguel Soto, a write-in candidate. The association’s president, Carol Costa, emceed and delivered Sarno’s statement of regret for his absence—the School Committee, which the mayor chairs, had a meeting that evening.
“It was very exciting to have all of the challengers present,” Costa told WMassP&I, while sounding a note of disappointment that Sarno could not attend. Costa added she was “delighted at the turnout and the fact that people stayed” despite the sweltering conditions inside Classical.
While candidates did train fire on Sarno, his absence allowed candidates to distinguish themselves and highlight their proposals. Still, a distinct “anybody but Domenic” air emanated from the mayor’s rivals.
Attendees asked questions in addition to those prepared in advance by the association.
One audience member asked candidates whom they would support if they did not advance beyond the preliminary, but Sarno and another challenger did. Gonzalez and Soto both said they would support the mayor’s challenger. Jones leaned that way, too. Circosta, McKnight and Savage demurred, saying they would have to evaluate candidates’ general election platforms first.
Circosta and Jones landed the most pointed punches on the mayor. During a discussion on crime, Jones accused Sarno of being “a showman,” although he did not elaborate except to imply crime-fighting efforts are fickle. “This is the fourth time we have a new crime program,” he said.
Circosta, while discussing what his most immediate actions as mayor would be said he would bring “authentic leadership” and “stop endorsing cronyism in City Hall.”
Most jabs at the incumbent were subtler. On the same immediate action question, McKnight, the challenger campaigning the longest—since last year—said residents are tired of the status quo and he would upend it. “You may not like all of them, but you will see some positive changes,” he assured.
By comparison, Gonzalez offered a more concrete, if vague promise to completely restructure departments early in her tenure. Savage said she would review abolishing the trash fee.
On issues like homelessness, student achievement in schools and the casino, candidates were largely on the same page. They agreed city was somewhat overburdened, relative to its neighbors, in providing social services. Gonzalez, a lead opponent of the Hampden Sheriff’s Western Mass Alcohol Center’s relocation to the North End, said other communities needed to share the load.
But McKnight, who said he was once homeless himself, would seek to provide more services to the homeless, although he backed North End residents’ opposition to alcohol center.
The schools also prompted strong opinions. Circosta, 30, said his class was among the first required to pass the MCAS, but the focus should be on the students, not tests. He called for more school-based arts, sports and mentorship programs. Savage mentioned some students suffer because of testing anxiety.
All candidates vowed to vigorously enforce the agreement with MGM. Revitalizing downtown and the city’s economy at-large yielded suggestions like duck boats (Circosta), a revived Taste of Springfield (Gonzalez), a forum on small business (Savage) and quarterly meetings with small businesses (McKnight).
There was some noted division among candidates on crime. For example, Soto said he thought C3, the Springfield Police Department’s effort to tamp down on hotspots, did not work. Other candidates were less skeptical. McKnight said he had not been able to attend C3 meeting outside those near his home in Mason Square, but he thought the program worked. McKnight also called for more cops on the street.
Circosta plugged his ideas for police substations, perhaps attached to municipal buildings around the city to bring police into the community. Such moves could also help defray costs for the department hosting the substation, such as libraries.
Circosta made that point on a question about funding libraries, which candidates broadly supported.
Intriguingly, one audience member queried candidates’ backgrounds running budgets and staff, something critical to the job yet rarely considered. No candidate had experience running a budget the size of Springfield half-billion dollar budget, although Circosta, McKnight and Savage all had some management experience.
Circosta, who once ran a small business, said he was responsible for the $1 million+ budget of St. John the Evangelist in Agawam and managing its 30 employees. McKnight said he handled an organization’s $200,000 budget and some 112 workers, although some were ostensibly volunteers. Savage said she helped co-manage her church’s budget when she lived in Florida.
Prior to the forum, the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association held a brief meet and greet with the candidates, and many spoke with residents after the forum as well.
Mayoral candidates have only about two weeks left to campaign after the City Council set the election a week earlier to avoid conflicts with Rosh Hashanah. The two candidates on September 8 with the most votes advance to the November 3 general election.
Focus Springfield, the city’s public access station, is expected to replay the event on television and post it online.