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The Whole 2019 Yards: Springfield Election Changes Faces, Not Political Air…


Some things may not change… (WMassP&I)

November brought a familiar election to Springfield. Once again, there was little resolution about the schism between the mayor and the City Council. Mayor Domenic Sarno won reelection and a Council still capable of overriding his vetoes was elected. This came despite three seats opening on the Council and a broad case councilors could have built to assist challengers to the mayor in this year’s election.

In the final analysis, this reflects problems on both sides. Although the mayor might—might!—find an ally in at-large councilor-elect Sean Curran, his other preferred candidate imploded under scrutiny. Meanwhile, several councilors have taken a cautious, perhaps overly so, to battling the mayor electorally. Its strongest contenders have not challenged him. Efforts to find contenders from outside City Hall have flagged.

At bottom, this problem on both side is about the failure to find challengers. However, they exist on two different planes and say different things about each side.

The worst you can say about councilors is that the strongest challenger may be on the Council itself and that person, whether for political or personal reasons, has not given up their own seat to battle Sarno.

On face value, this does not actually detract from the Council’s leverage nor escalate the tension with the mayor. Rather, it suggests the Council—or at least its members who see themselves as mayor one day—feels it has a weak hand or they don’t know how to use strong ones.

Springfield Councilors with family and friend of councilors’ late colleague E. Henry Twiggs on December 21. (WMP&I)

If the opposite were true, there might be even more confrontation or, in the alternative, a more aggressive public posture toward the mayor. One might see councilors, in a coordinated fashion, not only calling Sarno out but making specific appeals to other authorities. That hasn’t happened, perhaps for fear it will come to nothing. That would certainly look weak.

For Sarno, the stalemate betrays the hollowness of his power. Many presume that because Sarno has been unassailable as mayor—specious reasoning since he’s never faced both a bad environment and a strong foe in the same cycle—he could easily field candidates to pick off irksome incumbents. Yet, he never has.

Hypothetically, this should be easiest in the ward seats as at-large councilors have unique structural advantages. Yet, no successful challengers to incumbent ward councilors were Sarno acolytes. If anything, the opposite was true as when Marcus Williams beat Clodo Concepcion, a friend of Sarno, in Ward 5. The mayor has never laid an electoral finger on Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, a  thorn in Sarno’s side for a decade now. Or, perhaps, the mayor’s attempts to recruit an opponent have simply sputtered.

Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2017. (WMassP&I)

There is something to the idea that Sarno simply doesn’t view the Council as enough of an impediment to his rule. That doesn’t ring entirely true though. Unless Sarno truly is nothing more than a shrill infant, his opening all orifices to scream and whatnot at the barest wisp of opposition suggests he does care when the Council dissents.

While he has ignored some of their ordinances—illegally—he has had to accept some Council initiatives, too. Sometimes there is a negotiated settlement and sometimes he just appropriates councilors’ ideas. But he knows he they will not always roll over as the body often did during his tenure as a councilor.

Even the détentes leave everyone on edge. Forced smiles and ground enamel will remain a part of Springfield political life in 2020 after the Council and mayor are sworn in next week.

What ultimately may define the next two-years in City Hall is whether the Council itself sticks together. While the Sarno-skeptic bloc didn’t shrink in this year’s election, it is not of one mind. There are disagreements about how to counter Sarno.

Some councilors do not fully appreciate now impotent the mayor is in terms of influencing Council races. Fearful of political backlash, such city lawmakers may balk at the march of progressive legislation that has been rolling through the Council over the last two years. Others question colleagues’ tactics or would prefer to protect the city from Sarno’s errors rather than leave him holding the political bag.


Known Unknowns (WMassP&I)

In short, there are fractures on the Council. So far, they’ve been bouncing around in the background. There is still a lot councilors want to accomplish and even along those fault lines, there is some consensus that a firmer hand with the mayor is necessary. After all, he has another four years.

Then there are the unknowns. Pearl Street is still in a state of chaos given the federal and state investigations. While ostensibly these have focused on only cops, it is not clear it will end there. It could spread to City Hall.

As the mayor likes to tout, millions of dollars have been coursing through the city of late. Yet, finding 36 Court Street under a microscope like that may not be part of Sarno’s plan.