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Analysis: Fewer Incumbents Waving Their Banner All over the Place…

UPDATED 10:02PM: To add quotes published in The Republican.

This is the first of two-part series on the impact of retirements on the 2017 Springfield at-large Council race.

Councilors Timothy Rooke & Bud Williams (via Springfield City Hall)

Capping off the longest continuous Council tenure in Springfield and giving this year’s at-large race yet another shakeup, Timothy Rooke announced Friday he would not seek reelection. Rooke’s shock decision came the same day colleague Bud Williams ended speculation about his fate. He confirmed long-held assumptions he would not seek another Council term and focus on serving as a state representative.

Rooke had pulled papers for reelection before Friday’s deadline. Yet, his decision to not return them and retire instead broadens opportunities for the challengers who have flooded the field already believing Williams was out. These twin retirements presage a profound shift. Whether new or familiar faces take these open seats, they will serve on a Council with fewer ties than ever to its prior incarnations.

Rooke and Williams’s retirements were both first reported by The Republican.

These two departures are among the final transformations ward representation had set in motion starting with its return in 2009. If reelected, at-large councilor Kateri Walsh, elected in 2003, shall become dean. Because of a previous tenure from 1988 to 1993 she will be the only councilor with pre-Control Board experience. Former councilors from the all at-large era may stage a comeback this year, but they would return to a profoundly different Council than the one they left.

Not your parents’ Springfield City Council.

Ward representation reoriented the Council away from the city’s whiter, wealthier population. Because that cohort turns out more in municipal elections, it dominated multi-candidate at-large races. Electing councilors by geography, as with state reps, limited this.

Yet this may matter less than the generational shift Rooke and Williams’s exit creates. Elected for the first time in 1993 and 1995 respectively—Rooke became dean after Williams left in 2009 for an unsuccessful mayoral run, returning to the Council in 2011—they served in times of particular Council weakness. The Control Board and muscle-flexing mayors like Michael Albano and Domenic Sarno sapped the perception of councilors’ power.

Only with the dawn of ward representation—and its wholesale turnover the Council—has the Council begun to reassert its rightful place in Springfield government.

We Will We Will Rooke You…

But these macro shifts also ignore the impact both Rooke and Williams have had on the Council.

Amid several turns as chair of the Finance Committee, Rooke, a vice-president at an insurance agent, cut a fiscal conservative reputation. This image became especially clear as the city faced fiscal ruin almost 15 years ago and included contrition for the Council’s insufficient attentiveness to municipal finances.

Rooke, meeting with Mayor Sarno and Charlie Baker days after the latter won the 2014 governor’s race (via Springfield City Hall & WAMC)

Still, there was and remains a mercurial nature to Rooke. Though viewed as independent, he has seemed a reliable vote for Sarno’s agenda in recent years. Always deferential to police and fire, especially on labor contracts—his father was a cop—he sounded skeptical notes about more police oversight. Yet, he supported an amendment to a May Day resolution urging city police to stay out of immigration enforcement.

“People are still trying to figure me out,” he once said.

As the longest serving member who once served in Richard Neal’s mayoral and congressional offices, Rooke carries a lot of institutional memory. While he has had his rhetorical moments too, when he rose to ask questions it was usually for a sincere query or to make a point. In other words, he had read the agenda carefully in advance. That led to some acidic moments, too. He would call colleagues out, often by implication, for not reading up or feigning ignorance for some time on camera.

Rooke indicated to The Republican he would not seek elective office again.  “There are a lot of things on my plate, and I’m trying to cut back and do other things that are of interest to me,” he told the paper.

Buddy You’re a Councilman…

Williams’s departure will have an impact, too. However, his exit is less surprising after he won the seat Benjamin Swan vacated last year. Despite playing footsie with another term this week, the freshman rep had telegraphed for months he would put his focus on Beacon Hill. Keeping both, while not unprecedented, may have become problematic over time under state law.

Rep/Councilor Bud Williams earlier this year. (WMassP&I)

Williams rose to prominence as the only black councilor at 36 Court Street Williams for many years. This did not change until ward representation.

Operating outside any one of the Springfield African-American community’s nodes of power, he shirked the turf wars therein. Together these factors let him become a conduit between black business and political leaders and a still largely white City Hall.

While some practitioners fumbled the “be everywhere” political strategy, including Williams allies, he could execute more this omnipresence credibly. Thus, he brought a theatricality to the Council chamber, political events and any setting with a camera—for better or worse.

As he likely will in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Williams maintained a generally liberal political outlook. He often campaigned in broad themes about jobs. But whatever his motivation, Williams’s showmanship did put attention on key issues like police-community relations or residency.

Williams told the paper he wanted to focus on the legislature and ensure the commonwealth’s fiscal issues do not harm his district. “I think I will spend a lot of time in Boston,” he said.

In his absence, younger councilors are filling that role of outspokenness. Over the last term at-large councilor Justin Hurst has echoed many of the themes Williams stresses, if with more polish. Since their elections to the Council, Michael Fenton, Adam Gomez, Orlando Ramos and Williams’s nephew, Marcus Williams, have also taken on issues the retiring Williams has championed.

Gonna Take on the World Someday?

Perhaps it all starts here… (WMassP&I)

The personalities set to leave the Council this December are certainly unique. Neither Rooke nor Williams can or will be easily replaced. Their legacies will come into greater focus as the term winds down. Williams’s will continue to form as a rep.

Thus, it becomes hard not to return to the generational shift these retirements signal.

Two at-large seats opening does not guarantee a younger generation will seize either—Hurst, 38, is currently the youngest at-large councilor. With former councilors Timothy Ryan and Brian Santaniello and former state rep Cheryl Coakley-Rivera running, newcomers may not even grab an open seat.

However, the retirements will nevertheless break from the past. No returning face has served under ward representation. Moreover, without Rooke and Williams, there will be more spotlight to go around.

Though things have changed, the appeal of a citywide constituency is obvious. After all, almost all Springfield mayors since the 1961 charter was adopted had served as at-large councilors.