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Coakley-Rivera, Again, Changes Contest…& Latinos’ At-large Hopes…

UPDATED 8/21/17 9:03AM: For grammar and clarity.

Former Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera in 2012…with would-be predecessor Domenic Sarno? (via Facebook/Springfield Parent Academy)

In only the past week, Springfield’s at-large City Council race received another series of jolts. But this time, rather than shaking the race up further, the news seemingly reset the board to its place in late July. Former State Representative Cheryl Coakley-Rivera made a stunning last-minute dive into the race not three weeks ago. This week she ended her bid.

Hers was not the only news rocking the race for the five seats elected citywide. But it may be the most significant. Possessing name recognition after nearly 16 years as a state rep, she was the rare late entrant able to upend challengers’ dreams. Only hours before Coakely-Rivera pulled papers, Timothy Rooke became the second at-large councilor to retire, clearing the way for more newcomers.

Much of the at-large field had been operating under the assumption that Bud Williams would retire this year. Last September he won the nomination for the 11th Hampden House district in central Springfield. As he faced no opposition that November, attention immediately turned to this year’s election. While coy about his intentions, most assumed—correctly, Williams confirmed last month—he would stand down.

The retirements of Councilors Rooke & Williams will usher in big change on the Council. (via Springfield City Hall)

The possibility of that open seat had summoned a field of strong challengers. Rooke’s retirement, a sudden, but not altogether surprising move, raised hopes further. Then Coakley-Rivera jumped into the race with little more than an hour left to pull papers. By the following week, she had returned her signatures, qualifying for the ballot.

Nothing was certain, though. The day she announced her plans, July 28, Coakley-Rivera said she was seeking an opinion from the state Ethics Commission, given her day job at the courthouse. The verdict doomed her candidacy. She told The Republican this week that her candidacy was not possible given her position in the courts. State judicial rules bar clerk-magistrates from seeking or holding elective office.

When she left politics abruptly in 2014 to take the courthouse gig, Coakley-Rivera made clear she intended to stay involved. Moreover, for years and to this day, she has been mentioned as potential mayoral candidate when—or if—Domenic Sarno retires or is otherwise extricated from the office. Thus, her reappearance was not surprise. Nor should a future come back shock anyone.

Coakley-Rivera’s withdrawal essentially restores the contest to its status the day she began her campaign. Although Rooke’s departure that day was seismic, its biggest impact was bolstering his remaining colleagues’ reelection chances while ensuring a second newcomer would join the Council.

When Jesse Lederman, pictured with then-Rep. Ben Swan, ran in 2015, there were no open seats. History suggests open seats could boost his chances in 2017 WMassP&I)

Name recognition looms large over Springfield’s elections, as elsewhere. That gives an advantage to candidates who fell short in prior bids such as Jesse Lederman. Former Councilor Timothy Ryan also has a noteworthy combination of name recognition and good will.

Others like Jynai McDonald and Kelli Moriarty-Finn have been assembling bids formidable enough to otherwise supersede voters lack of familiarity with them. This is to say nothing of the surviving candidates who still have time to make their mark between the September 19 preliminary and November.

However, one candidate’s effort got more difficult this week, too. Ernesto Cruz, a 2013 candidate and city activist, has faced a torrent of bad news this summer. His campaign treasurer abandoned him amid accusations of impropriety last month. Then The Valley Advocate reported he faced assault charges. The Republican revealed Thursday that the accuser and ex-treasurer were one in the same. Cruz has declared his innocence and said he will soldier on with his bid.

Coakley-Rivera’s exit may reduce—but not eliminate—the possibility Springfield will elect a Hispanic councilor at-large in 2017. Despite constituting arguably the largest demographic bloc in the city, Latinos only hold two council seats, both in the wards. The last and only at-large Latino councilor was Jose Tosado, who left office in 2011.

From left, Ernesto Cruz, Victor Davila, Marylin Felix and Kelvin Molina (via Facebook/candidate campaigns)

This is partly a consequence of the municipal electorate’s demographics, which swing much whiter than the city as a whole or even its presidential electorate. Though, this is hardly destiny for Hispanic candidates. Tosado often did well in wealthy, white precincts including many he now represents as a state rep. Critically, he had name recognition, which arguably Coakley-Rivera would have had, too.

However, that may not have been an assurance of victory for Coakley-Rivera.  Tosado instantly achieved citywide profile when he filled a vacant at-large council seat in 2000. She only represented about a quarter of the city in the House and, given the fractiousness of Springfield’s Hispanic community, had no guarantee of its unanimous support.

Former Rep. Coakley-Rivera represented about 1/4 of Springfield. Her district is in tan. (via

It now falls to candidates Victor Davila, Marylin Felix, Kelvin Molina and Cruz to try to bring some Latino representation to the city’s at-large seats. If nothing else, Coakley-Rivera’s exit improves the chances of these new players.

Some equilibrium does seem to maintain minority representation among the at-large seats. This counters turnout forces that seem to lock out minorities among Holyoke’s at-large Council seats. However, Justin Hurst already serves at-large on Springfield’s Council and is seeking reelection.

The election in Springfield has generated a lot of interest and buzz. It is not yet clear whether it has enough to break some of the municipal electorate’s traditional voting habits.