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Analysis: Amid New Chatter, Sarno Reelect Likely, but Not Assured…

UPDATED 2/21/19 4:08PM: To reflect a clarification that Ramos left Sen. Welch’s employ last month, not the same day Ramos’ mayoral interest became public.

Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2017. The mayor is definitely favored for reelection in 2019. However, he’s probably more vulnerable than many assume. (WMassP&I)

At last, a name.

By no means is Orlando Ramos the only person who could take on Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno this year. Nor, should he cross swords with the incumbent, is Ramos favored to win.  When the three-term Ward 8 City Councilor nudged the door open to a bid this month, though, discussion of Sarno’s inevitability shifted, if marginally.

Sarno owes his strength to many things. He is a master retail politician, enjoys generally positive press coverage and his cling to City Hall has made powerful forces wealthy. Still, you cannot beat an incumbent with nobody or somebody with minimal resources. Ramos, if he runs, or a similar elected, may not chisel Hizzoner’s derriere out of the mayoral throne. Yet, it could happen.

Springfield does not want for ambitious pols, including those who could at least force Sarno to work for reelection. The list of maybe-runs—Councilors Justin Hurst, Michael Fenton, Timothy Ryan, School Committee member Denise Hurst, Register of Deeds Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Rep Jose Tosado, among others—is long. But even private interest from them has been, at best, tempered.

Councilor Orlando Ramos a few weeks before he became Council President in 2017. (WMassP&I)

Ramos’ coy admission of interest to The Republican came somewhat as a surprise. The city’s grumbling classes had settled into the reality of a dull municipal campaign season.  While Sarno may not escape a challenge entirely, as Michael Albano did twice in the 90’s, he would not face anybody capable of countering his campaign cash and mile-wide politicking.

Savvy followers should have guessed Ramos had an eye on the possibility. In his two years as Council President, he had maintained the legislative tempo his predecessor Michael Fenton had set. The last five years have seen a more confident and muscular Council than any time since the waning months of Albano’s mayoralty or possibly the 1980’s. Ramos became increasingly outspoken on police, labor and immigration, sometimes directly calling out Sarno’s mediocrities and mendacities.

It is far from certain Ramos will jump in. Community groups and unions, even those that detest Sarno, may assume Sarno is bolted to 36 Court Street. The Ward 8 Councilor’s campaign war chest is relatively empty. While Ramos had long been rumored to be seeking another job, on the same day his mayoral musing leaked, his gig as Senator James Welch’s district director was reported to have ended. A Welch spokesperson said Ramos’ last day was January 25. Would he give up his Council seat and pay on a gamble?

However, the right challenger, whether Ramos or a similarly situated contender, and the right campaign could upend Springfield’s conventional wisdom.

Sarno’s strengths are obvious. He has stored 100 grand for the electoral winter. His famous person-to-person approach to politics endears him to voters. He may not be able to explain why snow plowing stinks, but he can remember when the First Communion of a voter’s grandchild was. However, outside of the Fox News set to which he increasingly appeals, Sarno lacks many nuts and bolts victories to tout.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space.”(image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Although Sarno can tell a good story about Springfield under his watch—if a somewhat apocryphal one—his tenure is not without its warts. Moreover, Sarno has struggled with the “vision thing” and, more than in 2015, he likely cannot articulate what will come next in Sarno v5.0 outside platitudes.

The multi-police car pileup of misconduct cases risk alienating minority groups—especially blacks, a key pillar of his coalition. The expense of paying out millions for lawsuits can’t endear him to taxpayers upset casino revenue has not equaled tax relief. Only his most loyal backers claim the current police oversight system—including the opaque police commissioner appointment process—is working.

While he can be open and convivial with the people—in public anyway—Sarno is brittle, thin-skinned and petty with critics. He dodges accountability with selective outreach to media outlets. He spurns more than local blogging fiefdoms. The Globe has struggled to get responses from him.

While civic grandees seem to be circling their wagons around Sarno, their strength is debatable. Moreover, the earth could move under Sarno’s feet. Rumors swirl that his stock has fallen with US Rep Richard Neal. Neal’s backing helped scare off potent challengers in 2015. Even if Neal endorsed Sarno again, the congressman has more pressing matters now as chair of the Ways & Means Committee.

Finally, history offers no certainty. After all, Sarno defeated an incumbent mayor and in 1995, Robert Markel fell in the preliminary. Springfield will eject a mayor, unlike Boston for example.

There is a case to make against Sarno. But how?

Ready for a modern mayoral campaign? (WMassP&I)

An opponent will be at a financial disadvantage. Sarno has historically been slow to adapt to the 21st century, including in the campaign department. It’s also not clear he has knocked a door since the Hurley administration. A lean, insurgent campaign could scrimp on television ads, at least compared to the incumbent, and put money into field instead.

To capitalize there, the candidate would need to some level of inspiration to goad volunteers into action. Only between 20,000 and 25,000 city voters are likely to show up under sunnier scenarios. A good, well-staffed field plan could reach lots of voters given the dense neighborhoods in the City of Homes.

A major unknown is the police scandals and trials. Whether it had anything to do with Sarno or not, crime is down. Ironically, that can put the spotlight on Pearl Street’s personnel woes. The mayor’s refusal to implement the Police Commission has made him look feckless, not resolute. Moreover, a confrontation over the commission could play out, possibly in court, during the election itself.

Then there is the economy. In an odd way, because Ramos—and virtually all of the maybe-runs—have supported MGM, Sarno will have difficulty painting him as a naysayer. The tactic on the economy is not to disparage the gaming goliath, but to ask what Springfield’s next act is. Lower than expected gaming revenue and ripple-effect development—nary a hammer hath fallen at the former School Department in months—will add to the urgency of defining the city’s next move.

Meanwhile, retail has increasingly withered in the city. Some of this is outside his hands. But well before Eastfield bombed, city storefronts were emptying. That’s also a metaphor for the perception City Hall obsesses over downtown at neighborhoods’ expense.

None of this means the mayor will lose—to Ramos or anyone else. Plus, time is running out to marshal the resources necessary to compete, let alone succeed.

Springfield voters keep electing Sarno’s critics, too. (WMassP&I)

Still, there exists an appetite for an alternative. That a City Council increasingly hostile to the mayor can breeze to reelection suggests its agenda has support. It also reveals the hollowness of the mayor’s political operation. He cannot pluck perennial thorns like Fenton or Adam Gomez from his side .

At the risk of disparaging the 2015 challengers—even those who may deserve it—they simply lacked the oomph necessary to call Sarno to account. He blew off debates and actively discouraged voter turnout. It robbed Sarno of legitimacy and Springfield of a conversation.

Ultimately, the competition in campaigns makes the candidates themselves better, even incumbents. A Sarno who must sweat is better than a Sarno who can coast electorally. More importantly, no matter its decision, a city with a choice is better than one with no options.