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As Nominating Window Closes, Women Rise to Consider Sarno Challenge…

Linda O'Connell

Joining the mayoral fray? Linda Matys O’Connell pulling papers for mayor Thursday (submitted photo)

In the twilight of the signature gathering-phase of Springfield’s election, two women have stepped forward to consider a challenge to Mayor Domenic Sarno. On Thursday, Linda Matys O’Connell, an advocate, activist and journalist in the city, announced she was pulling paper for mayor. She follows Yolanda Cancel, who began gathering signature this week after her son was the victim of a gun crime.

Both women will need to collect 500 signatures by Tuesday at 5pm to appear on the September 10 preliminary ballot. But, if they meet that threshold, they will face added challenge of fundraising and organizing in a seemingly crowded preliminary before taking on Sarno in a November smackdown. Still, their consideration and potential entry reflects growing unease with Sarno’s now-12 year reign. It also recognizes the myth of his invincibility.

The preliminary will only happen if three of more mayoral hopefuls turn in enough signatures. All candidates, including the incumbent, will then appear on the September ballot. Thus far, only Sarno and perennial candidate Jeffery Donnelly are certified for the mayoral race.

In a statement announcing her interest, O’Connell said the city had made progress. However, there were still needs going unmet.

“My actions today are an endorsement of the change Springfield needs and an indication of my intentions to contribute to that change,” she said of pulling papers.

Time for a change? (WMassP&I)

“My life’s work has taken me far, but all along I’ve been grounded by growing up in Springfield,” she continued She noted the opportunities the city provided her attending city schools, including the former Classical High School before attending Mt. Holyoke College and Brown University. “The Springfield I see today has the same strong foundations, but we aren’t inspiring and encouraging people – all the people – the way we used to. I want to change that,” she said.

Much of O’Connell’s career has been in journalism. She has written for and edited papers across the country, including those owned by Times-Mirror, Tribune and Gannett. She also founded or co-founded several alternative publications including The Valley Advocate.

O’Connell and her husband Geoff returned to the city about 10 years ago. In that time, O’Connell has lobbied for and campaigned for progressive policies including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the legislature passed in 2017. O’Connell was also a convener of the League of Women Voters in Springfield and held leadership roles in the statewide organization.

Earlier this year, O’Connell became Arts & Culture correspondent for WMassP&I. By mutual agreement, she will go on hiatus as she considers a mayoral run.

Yolanda Cancel

Yolanda Cancel picking up election papers this week. (via Facebook/Spfld Election Commission)

Cancel’s draw to the mayoral race came by way of other circumstances. Originally from Boston, she has established herself in Springfield as a prominent activists in the city’s urban core.

Most notably, Cancel had become an evangelist for Pearl Street’s C3 community policing effort.

“I stepped up because I am a true believer that you have to be at the table or you are on the menu,” she told Masslive. “I wanted to make changes in my community, and real community policing – as someone who used to do law enforcement work, I could see both sides of the fence”

After her son was shot last weekend, she considered quitting Springfield altogether. But, after some reflection, her fear melted into resolve.

“He’s laying in bed”—referring to her son Thomas—”he’s got a bullet in him and he’s telling me we should stay and fight,” Cancel told the online news site.

Cancel also cited the mayor’s harsh rhetoric about Club Aquarius, which he called a hotbed of violence. A manager at the club, she noted the dissonance between the mayor’s rhetoric about a venue people of color patronize and his reaction to violence at locales with whiter clientele like Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill. An alleged assault in the parking lot there involving off-duty cops is at the center of several civil and criminal investigations.

While having somewhat different geneses, both women’s nascent campaigns reflect and undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the current administration.

Economically, things have seen somewhat buoyant with the completion of projects like MGM, Union Station and the CRRC railcar plant.  But with these projects completed, Sarno has not articulated what comes next for city. His reelection pitch has amounted to “More of the same, but better!”

“To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub.”(image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

But a maw of scandal has seemingly engulfed the Police Department. Pearl Street’s troubles have not only delivered reputational black eyes and federal and state investigations. Growing payouts for police misconduct rob the city of the financial boon economic development success were to provide.

The mayor has now gone through three police commissioners—one predating his election and the latest in an acting a capacity. Yet, he is the common thread.

But police issues are merely an allegory for broader disparities in health, economic outcome, services and attention throughout the city.

The mayor remains popular in key sectors of the city and maintains a hefty campaign war chest. The near-certainty of a September ballot to winnow the field could be helpful for Cancel and O’Connell, whether one or both pursue a campaign.

The preliminary could be a test of the city’s progressive strength. That could be the longer-term goal. In the absence of public polling, it could also measure how well Teflon Dom has weathered his recent annorum horribiles.

Ultimately, if Cancel and O’Connell’s messages can reach voters, having a choice for mayor may be what matters most. Residents will have an opportunity weigh in together and decide the path on which Springfield will answer its challenges.

In her statement, O’Connell said the city can take these challenges on “as a community, undivided, with our priorities being the future and each other.”

“Springfield voters deserve fresh choices and new ideas in their elections. They deserve courage and a focus on exploring creative solutions to our challenges,” she said.