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Is This the Springfield Council’s Year of the Woman?…

UPDATED 2:15PM: To include comments from Councilor Whitfield.

Jynai McDonald and Kelli Moriarty-Finn in 2017 (WMassP&I)

Councilors Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield circa 2017-2018. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—With the sun setting and not quite 48 hours to go until the polls closed, Kelli Moriarty-Finn gathered supporters at a stately Atwater Park home to rally the troops. A fixture in the area neighborhood association, she already had the room. Yet, she urged everyone present to keep spreading the word to friends and family citywide as Springfield closes out one of its stranger election cycles.

Moriarty-Finn, who is running at-large and Jynai McDonald, a Ward 4 candidate could, however, be part of a big change on the Council. Assuming the at-large women incumbents Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield hold on, Springfield could see the number of women on the Council double this Tuesday.

None of the candidates are campaigning purely on gender. Nonetheless, some feel the wave of women entering office is due to visit Springfield.

“I don’t really think I did mention gender this year at all,” Moriarty-Finn said in an interview. “But I do think it’s important if you look at the makeup of the council, we’re getting there ethnically, but we’re not there at all from a gender perspective.”

Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand?

Springfield does not have a horrible record of electing women. Several women have served on the Council over the years and the city elected its first woman mayor, Mary Hurley, 30 years ago.  Mayor Domenic Sarno’s challenger this year, Yolanda Cancel, is the first woman to advance to a general election for mayor since 2003.

Yolanda Cancel

Yolanda Cancel pulling papers earlier this year. (via Facebook/Spfld Election Commission)

Though none do now, women have represented the city in the Massachusetts House and Senate. Two Springfield women, Cheryl Coakley-Rivera and Laura Gentile hold the countywide Register of Deeds and Clerk of Courts positions. Plus, a majority of the School Committee is now female.

Still, the city can seem to lag in elected gender parity compared to cities like Holyoke, Northampton and Westfield. Only Chicopee, where no woman current hold a Council seat, lags behind Springfield. That two women serve as councilors in Springfield is only indirectly due to voters. Last year, then-Councilor Thomas Ashe resigned to become chief of staff to Sarno. Whitfield, who placed sixth in 2017, was elevated to the Council’s fifth at-large seat.

“Throughout the country, women make up 50% of the community,” Whitfield said in an interview after this story was initially published. “We need to have a council that represent the women throughout the city and the country.”

Despite this, none of Springfield’s Council campaign have a radically different focus or emphasis because of gender.

Speaking to her supporters Sunday, among them neighborhood activists and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, Moriarty-Finn stated her intention to highlight and raise up the city’s neighborhoods. Earlier, Fenton had praised Moriarty-Finn’s engagement not just with the beauty and historic nature of the area, but her neighbors themselves. Moriarty-Finn revisited that point when she explained her emphasis on the city’s distinct neighborhoods

“It was about the people who live in them,” she said.

‘Cause it’s all those little things

Ward representation returned in 2009, partly intended to better connect City Hall to its more diverse neighborhoods. Since then, however, only one woman, Zaida Luna, has held a ward seat. Though several women have run in the wards since.

Jynai McDonald with her preliminary opponents at the McKnight Council debate. (via Facebook/McKnight Council & Bryan McFarland)

McDonald is one of them. Like Moriarty-Finn, she also ran at-large in 2017. This time, McDonald is seeking the Ward 4 seat E. Henry Twiggs is vacating. Two years ago, she did emphasize the need for more women in office. This time, not so much.

“Other people may mention it, especially before the preliminary,” McDonald said in a phone interview. Thea 4 preliminary on September 10 featured five candidates, four of which were men. Also advancing, in addition to McDonald, was Malo Brown, an aide to Representative Bud Williams. He claimed the lion’s share of the vote in the preliminary.

As in other places, Springfield women have faced difficulty in breaking through the city’s (mostly white) old boys network type of politics. As if accentuating that point, Whitfield is only the third woman of color to hold a Council seat in the city’s history. Even within their other demographic groups, women have had a harder time getting to the Council.

Moriarty-Finn said she has come across the odd sexist comment about her appearance, but for the most part it has been limited especially compared to her experience in the workplace. A few years ago, she was heading up technology as an investment management company—she now works for MassMutual—a role men usually filled. That presented challenges.

Kelli Moriarty-Finn

Kelli Moriarty-Finn at her kickoff earlier this year. (WMassP&I)

“But I have not seen anything on that level here locally,” she said. “Now, I think people are largely concerned with are they going to do the job.”

Whitfield described a similar experience as a candidate. Yet, she wondered if some people she encountered underestimate her assertiveness as a female councilor.

“People can be a little more aggressive until they realize I’m going to push back,” Whitfield said. She mused on whether her male colleagues faced the same bellicose insistence.

McDonald, by contrast, has found some subtler forms of sexism on the trail. A single mother who serves as Director of Childcare for SEIU 509, she has encountered people who ask what her children’s father do for a living before inquiring about her professional background.

“Why aren’t you considering what I do for a living?” she recalled thinking to herself. When it has happened, she said she steers the conversation toward more productive areas. However, she can’t imagine a man being asked that.

“It’s a little unnecessary,” McDonald said. “What does that have to do with me being qualified?”

She has also faced more practical challenges as a woman running for office. Of the four female council candidates, only McDonald has young children. That means she often needs to arrange childcare to campaign. Her campaign funds can buy food for volunteers, hire people to make calls or send mailers, but not pay for someone to watch her kids for a bit.

Federal campaign finance regulators have approved use of campaign funds for childcare, but Massachusetts has not, though legislation is pending to allow just that.

Oh, am I making myself clear?

Walsh and Whitfield face varying chances at reelection. Walsh is a fixture in city politics and, combined with the difficulty of defeating incumbent at-large candidates, is in a good position for reelection.

At-large candidates at a forum at Classical Condos in September. (WMassP&I)

Given her fourth place finish in the preliminary, Whitfield is faring well for being essentially a mid-term incumbent. However, at-large challengers and the mayor, who pines for a reliable ally on the Council, may sense her relatively short tenure may leave her vulnerable. Another complicating factor is the limited media attention this race has received save one candidate’s online commenting history.

Though she opposed the election of Christopher Pohner, the candidate who made the remarks, Whitfield emphasized her own candidacy, not others’ deficiencies.

“I did my best to get out there and talk about what I believe in,” she said.

The limited press attention was something that Moriarty-Finn picked up, too.

“I think no matter what candidate you ask, they will say that every one of us work hard to get out there to rally our troops to get the vote out,” she said. “And we need media to play a more increased presence in the election process.”

The number of candidate events Moriarty-Finn logged in October were down, too (3 versus 15 in 2017). Among the major ones were events at Classical High, East Forest Park and Focus Springfield.

Yet, she feels “invigorated” ahead of Tuesday’s finish line. She’s been organizing standout and phonebanks in recent days and began Facebook advertising.

McDonald, too, has been feeling a bit of adrenaline as the campaign concludes. While she had hoped to win more votes in the preliminary, she thinks the results may have actually galvanized her supporters. Labor, specifically her employer’s sister local 1199, has stepped up support and spending on her behalf.

What’s my destiny?

Although the women seeking council seats this year are not running purely to bolster’s their gender’s representation, there can be a practical impact.

Council chambers

Time for ladies’ night at Council chamber? (WMassP&I)

Moriarty-Finn noted the explosion of women winning seats in Congress and other offices. Each surges brings still more into office. For example, the original Year of the Woman in 1992 saw the number of women in the Senate triple to six. Today there are 25.

Put another way, women winning office begets more women winning office. This was a sentiment shared by many of the women running this year.

“When it comes to wanting to be a mentor, wanting to give the young women in our city something to strive for,” McDonald said. “I Think it’s important to see women like themselves running for office and winning.”