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In Springfield, Retooling to Get Campaign Redux in a Row…

Lederman with supporters Wednesday night. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—In politics, the City of Homes likes a comeback story. Over the last twenty years, the most successful at-large City Council challengers have made a stab at the office—or even held it—once before. That factor favors Ernesto Cruz and Jesse Lederman as they seek one of five at-large seats in Springfield this year.

Despite a likely open seat—Bud Williams, now also a state rep, is widely expected to retire from the Council—it may not be enough. In such a large field, Cruz and Lederman must build on their prior work to win this time. Both reshaping strategy and capitalizing on the time in between their previous bids are clearly part of the play.

At his kickoff Wednesday, Lederman and his camp emphasized what they accomplished two years ago had not been enough.

“Spread the word,” was the mantra from speakers, exhorting the packed room to tell friends, family, neighbors, and “those that may not know Jesse” about his candidacy.

During his remarks, he revived a theme from 2015—“Count on Jesse”—but he also spoke in more personal terms. “I’ve had the opportunity to see the power of this community in so many ways,” Lederman said. He described how teachers and neighbors checked in with and helped his family after his father died when Lederman was a child.

Ernesto Cruz, left, with his boss State Rep Jose Tosado (WMassP&I)

In both of Cruz and Lederman’s previous races, all incumbents were seeking reelection. Lederman placed sixth in the at-large field. Cruz placed seventh in 2013 behind Jimmy Ferrera who slipped into sixth as challenger Justin Hurst rocketed into first that year.

Indeed, Hurst’s 2013 bid also speaks to the value of retooling. Unlike his 2011 campaign, which relied heavily on his family name, he made an aggressive pitch about making Springfield more livable for young families like his own.

Councilor Justin Hurst in 2013. He lost in 2011, but changed up two years later and won. (via Facebook/Hurst campaign)

That exact avenue is not available to Cruz or Lederman, but changes from their prior bids are palpable.

Three weeks before Lederman’s kickoff in the same Sullivan banquet room of Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill in East Forest Park, Cruz launched his new campaign for Council. Four years after his first attempt, including two as State Rep Jose Tosado’s aide, had given the self-described idealist a new perspective.

“I see my own personal growth,” he said candidly in an interview last month. “I can be an ideological person or a values person,” the latter being more compatible with working within the system.

For Tosado, a 11-year vet of the City Council and one-time mayoral candidate, Cruz’s tech-savvy and drive have been critical in the sophomore rep’s tenure on Beacon Hill. But that also means what was abstract validation of the candidate is now tangible.

The place hasn’t beaten down Cruz yet. (WMassP&I)

At the State House, Tosado said, “You need information.” Mass quantities of it hurtle toward reps constantly—and more than a bit is missing from the fusillade. Handling that—and the meager salary—can burn out aides quickly. “Often new reps go through 2 or 3 aides in their first term,” the rep said. “I have my original aide,” he said. “He has the ability to get the info I need.”

Time has become an asset to Lederman too. Now finished with college, his job at Arise for Social Justice has injected him into more Springfield policy battles. His efforts to stop the proposed biomass plant on Page Boulevard are well-known. Yet he and supporters touted his more recent role negotiating a settlement with Columbia Gas. The company agreed to repair gas leaks the cost for which rate-payers had been absorbing in their bills.

Lederman has had several high-profile supporters from former Councilor Patrick Markey to Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards. Since his last bid he has added another high-profile name.

Cocchi speaking Wednesday as Lederman looks on. (via Facebook/Lederman campaign/Julia Kozodoy)

“Jesse has fought for his neighborhood, he fought for clean air, he’s helped to re-open parks for kids so they could have a place to play,” Hampden Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi declared Wednesday. On wading into the race, Cocchi added, “You help support the people who helped you cross the finish line.”

In last year’s Democratic primary for sheriff, Lederman backed Cocchi even as many Springfield political figures of all stripes rallied around Councilor Thomas Ashe.

“Nothing feels more right than being here with you,” Cocchi said.

Maturing politically against a background of activism and social justice issues, Cruz and Lederman clearly fell within Springfield’s reform element. A loose constellation of do-gooders and smart government types, it is best defined by what it is not: the city’s political establishment. Cruz and Lederman have always had high-profile supporters from both universes. Yet whatever lines existed for these candidates before have all but blurred.

In Cruz’s case, this is partly thanks to Tosado, who straddled these lines well over his career in city politics. For Lederman, it is a combination of persistence and politicos’ recognition of his 2015 campaign’s work.

A long way from 2013. Cruz at his kickoff that year. (WMassP&I)

Whether a function of Trump or not, Springfield’s cautious political culture seems more amenable to progressive policy and its supporters. The anticipated at-large vacancy helps too.

In addition to Cocchi, figures like Hampden Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile and State Representative Carlos Gonzalez were at Lederman’s kickoff. Besides Tosado, former Reps Ben Swan and Southwick’s Dan Keenan joined councilors Adam Gomez and Orlando Ramos at Cruz’s launch.

Councilor Edwards, who is close to both, attended their kickoffs. Activist Shanique Spalding and Zaida Govan, a candidate for School Committee, did as well. Spalding has also worked on each candidate’s earlier bids. At-large Kateri Walsh, who is technically an opponent of Cruz and Lederman’s, appeared at both kickoffs.

Other at-large candidates attended one or both events (indeed, Cruz appeared at Lederman’s). As their political worlds have overlapped—the two have worked on campaigns together—duplicate support is no surprise.

Ultimately, the breadth of support will be critical. That grows name recognition especially when media is retrenching and, with some notable exceptions, sometimes, ignored down ballot races like these.

Finish Line… (WMassP&I)

At Lederman’s kickoff, in addition to the establishment-reform spectrum, political diversity was also on display.

Nicky Manion, a prominent Republican from the city’s Forest Park neighborhood, did not hesitate to explain her support for Lederman. “Because I think he is absolutely for the city,” she said in an interview.

Citing Lederman’s role in battling the biomass plant and electing more young people, she added, “This heart and this love of the city comes through to everybody.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the verdict was just as clear. Ivette Hernandez, a social worker and labor activist, noted that they see eye to eye on a lot of issues from unions to the environment.

“We can have a good conversation about anything,” she said.

But Hernandez also underscored a non-ideological dimension: Lederman’s commitment to the entire city. She said he was often more visible throughout Springfield than some current officeholders.

“Jesse cares about every single neighborhood,” she said.