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Analysis: Sleepy Springfield Election Will Have an Impact, but a Subtle One…

Juan Latorre event in Springfield

Juan Latorre’s crowd at the White Lion Brewery in Springfield last week. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—With no prelim of its own this year, the general election for municipal races in Springfield is taking off after all other Western Mass preliminaries conclude. The lack of a preliminary here has not happened in two decades, depriving candidates of a chance to take the electorate’s temperature before the main event in November.

If there was a true kickoff to the general election, it may have been at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman’s show of force at Gasoline Alley last Wednesday. Luminaries from across the city’s political ecosystem and longtime supporters like Hampden Sheriff Nick Cocchi were there to bolster the sophomore councilor’s bid for a third term. Meanwhile, at-large challengers pressed forward despite the lack of an open seat.

The day after Lederman’s rally, Juan Latorre urged his supporters attending his fundraiser to push him into 36 Court Street. Working the doors and popping into community events all summer, some see Latorre as a challenger who could win—if he can breach the incumbent wall.

“I need your help to push me to cross the line,” Latorre exhorted supporters at the White Lion Brewery. “We gotta visit and hit 1000 doors in the next 30 days to make my case for my election.”

Ten candidates, including all five incumbents are seeking the Council’s five at-large seats. Wards 3, 4, 6 and 8 have competitive to semi-competitive races. The Ward 1 seat is open, but School Committee member Maria Perez faces no opposition. A similar dynamic exists on the School Committee with the two at-large candidates facing a lone challenger and one district seat contested.

Most serious candidates for City Council and School Committee have been holding events. The delta surge of the coronavirus has not halted campaigning. It was candidates not up this year like State Rep Angelo Puppolo and District Attorney Anthony Gulluni who have cancelled events amid the current wave. Still, the resurgence of COVID and the furtive return to normal life has taken attention from Springfield’s often sleepy midterms.

Domenic Sarno

Sarno still enrages councilors but not uniformly among members of the body. (Still via Focus Springfield)

In practical terms, no outcome on November 2 will dramatically rearrange Springfield political arithmetic. The likeliest outcomes and even some inside-straight results will change almost nothing. That makes the election somewhat strange compared to recent cycles when a balance of power was at stake. Yet, future contests will spring from the table Springfield voters set on November 2.

Right now, the School Committee is pretty evenly balanced on issues. As for the Council, its working supermajority countering the mayor has groaned amid growing internal division.

To some extent the pandemic has cowed Mayor Domenic Sarno, limiting his worst impulses and excesses—at least for now. If anything, aside from a few trademark fits of pique, the last several months have been calm. Some City Hall denizens do not now consider the mayor the least reasonable person in the room, again, if only for the time being.

History and the dynamics of the at-large race—which is essentially a multi-seat election—favor reelection of incumbents. Springfield has had no problem turfing mayors, ward councilors or School Committee members. But at-large councilors, whether the five there now or the nine when the body was only elected citywide, have been much tougher to boot.

Only one at-large councilors has lost reelection in the last 20 years. That one person became so unpopular even normally tuned-out voters deliberately avoided his name on the ballot. It is not clear any incumbents today has that much ill will.

There may be other subtexts to the election, though.

Hurst, Lederman, and Kateri Walsh are probably the least likely to lose this November. Neither Sean Curran nor Tracye Whitfield have been as historically high-profile in Springfield affairs as their at-large colleagues. That’s not to say the two are doomed to fourth or fifth place—or defeat. Curran, once five-term state rep whose signs have begun erupting on lawns, could surprise and rocket up. Whitfield has ruffled feathers among colleagues, but their contempt may not parallel broad voter dissatisfaction.

Springfield City Council

S-s-slight changes, turn and face the strange s-s-slight changes there’s going to maybe be a different mayor? (WMP&I)

For at-large councilors, coming in at or near the top is a plum, whether in service to ambition or not. Indeed, ruminations about the 2023 mayoral race are one thing the coronavirus never shut down. Councilor Justin Hurst nearly said he was running for mayor last year during a protest outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill. Hurst has placed first in all but one of his elections since winning a seat in 2013.

Of any at-large candidate, Lederman may be working hardest to snag first place from Hurst.

In addition to Cocchi, Lederman’s rally featured organized labor, woman reproductive health advocates, Senator Adam Gomez, Register of Deeds Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, School Committee member LaTonia Naylor and colleagues Malo Brown, Melvin Edwards and Council President Marcus Williams. Williams, who got to know Lederman when they both worked for Don Berwick’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, offered effusive praise. He said Lederman had been “fantastic” leading the Council’s COVID-19 panel.

Lederman laid out an agenda for the next term including municipal fiber, city beautification, renewable energy and housing.

“We’re all here because there is more work to be done in the city of Springfield,” Lederman said.

Lederman & Gomez in Springfield

Councilor Lederman at his rally last week with Senator Gomez. (WMP&I)

“From the ins and outs of public policy to the nuts and bolts of neighborhood quality of life, I personally believe that we do our best when we think big and look toward the future,” he added.

Along with Hurst, Springfield political toe-dippers deem Lederman, State Rep and outgoing Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos as potential mayoral aspirants. Remove Sarno from the equation and the gossip grows to encompass Coakley-Rivera and former mayoral Chief of Staff Denise Jordan. Depending on how a post-Sarno field coagulates, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton could smash the “break in case of emergency” glass and jump in, too.

Outside incumbents, Latorre, Juan Caraballo and Michael Lee have probably gained the most profile. Both Caraballo and Lee have deployed signs citywide. Normally, this would indicate little—signs don’t vote, you know. Yet, sources say that the ubiquity and location of these signs indicate some latent support for both. Lee in particularly is hard to read, as he has almost no online presence.

James Ryan has cultivated support from labor. A teacher, Ryan has earned support from unions and the Western Mass Area Labor Federation. Debra Fletcher, who has been proximate to politics, has yet to make any public push.

Even if all the incumbent slide back in, challengers are competing for something else. Coming in sixth place means they would take a seat vacated during the term.

As in the at-large race, the ward Council races likely won’t swing the Council one way or another. Ultimately, the biggest impact may be the fait accompli of this cycle. Perez’s near-certain win in Ward 1 would give Sarno another Council ally. City politicos differ on how independent she will be from the mayor’s office.

Justin Hurst

Councilor Hurst in 2020. (Still via Focus Springfield)

Among the contested wards, Ward 8 candidate Zaida Govan looks like a juggernaut against relative newcomer Lisa Thompson. Likewise, incumbent Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila should have the edge on recurring character Bob Collamore.

With its historically subatomic turnout, Ward 3 is harder to predict. Still, incumbent Melvin Edwards has beat back challengers before. With deep ties to the ward’s better-performing precincts, he has the edge. But even if Young Democrats of Massachusetts president Lezlie Braxton Campbell prevails, he would not be to Edwards’s right and disrupt the Council’s political balance.

The Ward 4 race is a rematch of Brown’s contest with Jynai McDonald. In 2019, there was a preliminary to gauge the state of the race. Brown stomped in the first round but won comfortably, if more narrowly that November. McDonald has come out swinging this cycle. Yet, many of her allies from two years ago are with Brown this time.

Nonetheless, were she to win, it may not change Council dynamics a lot. Once bygones from the election are bygones, McDonald could become a free agent during Council spats. That is not a cosmic difference from Brown’s position today.

Whether due to the virus or a lack of open at-large seats, the Council races have been somewhat muted. At first glance, the stakes appear low. That may be a bit too simple. However the election turns out and however familiar the face cards are, Springfield will have shuffled its political deck. It may be a year or more before pols play their hands.