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Analysis: A Springfield Mayoralty Happening over & over Again—Now…

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

SPRINGFIELD—Term limits are undemocratic. Aside from the awesome power invested in the US President—particularly after the atom split—they usurp the will of the people. However, a fair counterargument may be humanitarian.

Last week, when Domenic Sarno formally kicked off his reelection at the Elks on Tiffany Street, he seemed tired. The convincing exuberance of School Committee member LaTonia Monroe Naylor’s remarks and frenetic introduction from Rep Carlos Gonzalez could not conceal how muted the event felt. This job Sarno has always wanted has taken its toll.

Elections are supposed to be about the future. While Sarno promises a sunny one, his campaign seems firmly rooted in the past. Any community has its troubles, but the mayor’s retrospective pitch laden with nebulous hope only highlights bad moons rising.

The preliminary is September 10.

Four years ago, in the exact same place, the tone was a step down from 2011. Still, Sarno seemed to have a bit more energy, the crowd was a bit more electric, even those came out of respect—but would have gladly supported a viable challenger—seemed less obligatory.

Today the pitch is dated. Sarno rattled off noteworthy accomplishments from the last four years, as any mayor would. But, mindful of his struggle with “the vision thing,” he promised more was yet to come. There were no hints what that was.

But the looming threats are clear. While police bodycams are on the way, Springfield faces state and federal investigations into Pearl Street and its officers. Police Commissioner John Barbieri got a six-figure golden parachute because the mayor asked him to leave. The circumstances of his departure have never been fully explained—though Attorney General Maura Healey’s then-pending indictments of a dozen cops may have played a role.

Johnny B. Gone. (via Springfield City Hall)

While MGM’s completion was a triumph, the casino’s middling revenues stand in stark contrast to the heady opening one year ago. The trade war imperils the railcar plant. Retail has nearly dried up in the city. Many residents feel cheated that casino revenues are not providing tax relief.

With the possible exception of the Police Department, none of these are squarely the mayor’s fault. But his lack of clear plans for any of these issues, and others, are his responsibility. Residents, frankly, have no idea how he will tackle them.

Perhaps the greatest threat, however, is something that, while not totally in the mayor’s control, he has influenced. No mayor, not even Michael Albano, has presided over such a deliberate degradation of the city’s body politic.

Powers that be have long tried to deceive voters or bully them into despair and abstaining from voting. But Sarno has taken much more concrete steps. The most obvious is his veto and subsequent refusal to fund something as outrageous as mailing voters a reminder about elections and their polling place. However, he has also abrogated ordinances—and, some City Hallers say, state laws—then accused the Council of recklessness and radicalism.

More troublesome, however, is his conduct in this election, if not that different from four years ago. The mayor’s play had been to pretend like no election existed until the last minute. There was a few cute bursts of activity online, but nothing really substantive until he went up on television last Monday and then held his kickoff on September 4.

Springfield Politics

Mayoral candidates sandwich a Council candidate. From left, Jeff Donnelly, Johnnie Ray McKnight & Yolanda Cancel. Linda O’Connell, who dropped out in July, remains on the ballot. (via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

Some observers understandably, if not fairly, assume Sarno is on the glidepath to reelection. Hence, his refusal, on specious grounds, to meet his opponents in debates and forums. That alone is an insult to voters, regardless of the challengers’ viability. If Sarno has been such a wonderful mayor, why can’t he meet his challengers—and make time to do it—to tear them to pieces?

Then there is his consistent refusal to meet voters at all. Increasingly, the mayor is only available at carefully scripted events. He had no presence at the Mason Square Library candidates night, which would have entailed no confrontation with his opponents. The Valley Advocate found a plethora of people complaining that Sarno has apparently ghosted inner-city neighborhoods, bodily if not always rhetorically.

There are press conferences, but they’re fleeting and the answers glib. Sarno has developed a taste for ducking hard questions from reporters whose publications he suspects his base does not utilize. This is not just about some doofus with a laptop at Council meetings. Public radio and The Advocate have struggled to get responses from him.

Ironically, councilors he has tried so hard to sideline—and the candidates seeking a seat on it—have exemplified the opposite.

Pump that (legislative) iron! (created via WMassP&I, Wikipidia, and Google image search)

The at-large race is a good example. To varying degrees, the incumbents have flexed the Council’s muscles, overriding mayoral vetoes. Council President Justin Hurst reasserted the body’s role in the Clerk selection and Jesse Lederman has cranked out legislation at a pace not seen since 2011.

Challengers mirror this. For example, Kelli Moritary-Finn has been going to everything in the city with a positive message. Johnnie Ray McKnight prodded the mayor into calling a citizen casino oversight meeting. All challengers have ideas and thus almost none are calling for the Council to do less.

Only Christopher Pohner has lashed himself to Sarno’s mast with a vague tough-on-crime message. It echoes the mayor’s posture, but waxes anachronistic since City Hall claims historic drops in crime.

Back at the Elks’ club, there were rounds of applause. But there was an overarching sense of duty—or opportunity to press the flesh—not conviction among those assembled. Likewise, the mayor seemed to go through the motions as well. This is the job he’s always wanted and, in his mind no doubt, he’s done it well. Yet, he can’t shake this well of discontent, maybe escape a contested election like a few mayors of yesteryear did.

Perhaps the more obvious question is “why stay?” With no clear plan for the city’s future other than “stay good,” it remains a mystery why Sarno keeps at it.

Barring divine intervention, Sarno will surpass Daniel Brunton as the city’s longest-serving mayor this year. Normally the job just burns people out. It has burned out mayors with as much love for the city as Sarno has—even his most egomaniacal critics acknowledge his sincere love for Springfield as a place.

Maybe he must stay. Past mayors could return to a law practice. Richard Neal could have gone back to teaching if he hadn’t gone to Congress. Even Albano, a master of the grift, had something to lean on and it worked out pretty well. Where would Sarno go?

MGM Springfield

So close yet so far away? (WMassP&I)

On Earth-616, he might have retired this year, taken a public relations gig with MGM, and left city service with a full pension. Though, in this universe, that option is not available under the city’s casino ethics ordinance. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton forced that through four years ago.

In an era where satire seems dead, irony is alive and well. Fenton was among the pols announced as attending Sarno’s kickoff last week.