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Analysis: Ward 5’s Special May Be Springfield’s Hottest Race in Years…

Ward 5 Springfield

Ward 5, in it current iteration in green hues, could be the life of Springfield politics this summer. (via Springfield City Hall)

The hottest race involving Springfield at the end of summer could be one nobody saw coming. In the few days since the Election Commission released petitioning papers for the Ward 5 special election ballot candidates have flooded the field faster than Lake Massasoit has refilled its lakebed. Just as importantly, this cluster of could-be councilors includes prominent names and serious contenders. Springfield is on the precipice of a big race.

The Ward 5 special election could have one of the most contested preliminaries and general elections since ward representation returned in 2009. Many of the city’s eight ward seats have seen serious races, even felling incumbents. Ward 5 itself has defenestrated a councilor. But large fields, even when seats are open, are rare. Since that inaugural round of ward elections in 2009, only ward has seen races close to what is brewing in Ward 5’s special.

The seat is open then-Council President Marcus Williams announced his resignation from the Council for career and personal reasons. While the Council presidency passed to then-Council Vice-president Jesse Lederman, councilors were bracing to select a new colleague for Ward 5. Little did anyone realize, Beacon Hill had approved a year-old home rule petition that changed Springfield’s city charter. Now, special elections fill vacancies in ward seats.

Ward 5 lies north and east of Watershops Pond (aka Lake Massasoit). It encompasses parts of Pine Point and much 16 Acres neighborhoods, except areas between Plumtree and Wilbraham roads.

By last count, at least sevent candidates for the seat had pulled papers. They include former Council candidate Lamar Cook, mayoral aide and former City Council staffer Lavar Click-Bruce, resident Edward Green, Springfield College program director Nicole Coakley, retired labor leader Ed Collins, 2021 Council candidate Mike Lee and comms professional Ellen Moorhouse.

Lavar Click

Lavar Click-Bruce was among the first in. (via LinkedIn)

Candidates began trumpeting their campaigns immediately. Click-Bruce was out with a statement when papers became available, promoting his work with city youth and career in City Hall. He also showcased backing from School Committee member LaTonia Naylor, who had considered the race for herself.

“LaTonia’s support means the world to me,” Click-Bruce said in his statement last week.  “She’s an incredible leader and an asset to our schools, city and entire community.  I’m proud to have her in my corner as I announce this bid!”

Collins, who ran for state rep in 2014, tweeted that his paperwork to convert that account to one for city council was in the mail. With about $2500 in the bank, he can hit the ground running quickly. Other candidates were actively gathering signatures this weekend.

Moorhouse formed a campaign committee with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance on Friday, the day she pulled papers. By Monday she had become the first candidate to turn in enough signatures for the ballot.

Ellen Moorhouse

Ellen Moorhouse is in the house for the special already. (campaign photo)

“For me, this race is all about centering the needs and voices of residents and voters in our local politics,” she said in a statement announcing she was on the ballot. “I am serious about representing the voters of Ward 5 and am committed to working hard to ensure everyone feels heard, and that local issues are brought to the forefront that we can tackle together.”

Municipal politics in Springfield have never been the same since ward representation return after a 50-year hiatus. Along with the Council’s remaining 5 at-large member, the 13-person Council has become a more active participant in municipal policymaking. The body has openly battled Mayor Domenic Sarno, even taking him to court and serving him his patoot.

Even as Sarno has tightened his grip and neighborhood associations flagged, particularly during the pandemic, ward seats have provided a bulwark for parity of attention across the city. Indeed, even at-large seats feature more geographically diverse than they have in ages.

Although ward representation has not fully shaken off apathy and minimal awareness that smothers city voters, it has delivered more competitive elections. Unlike Boston, whose Council’s evolution is similar, Springfield voters have never been shy about dumping incumbents. Three incumbent ward councilors have lost reelection since 2009. Elections have been competitive, but seldom crowded.

“Look to your left and then to your right. Three of your ward colleagues—and one at-large—from the 2012-2013 Springfield City Council won’t win reelection one day.” (WMP&I)

Preliminaries, which are necessary when more than two candidates run for a ward seat, have only occurred a few times after 2009. Ward 5 has played host to busier races, as recently as 2013. Yet, those challengers were not serious enough to take down then-Councilor Clodo Concepcion. When Williams won his seat in 2015, he was the only challenger to Concepcion. As with the 2013 Ward 5 race, prelims in Ward 2 and 3 have been snoozes.

Even open seats have been quiet. Councilor Maria Perez won Ward 1’s open seat last year against zero opposition. The open Ward 8 race the same year did not require a preliminary. In 2019, Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea’s retirement could have spawned a mega-race. But Councilor Tim Ryan dropped from at-large to run for the ward seat. That essentially cleared the field except for Victor Davila, who ultimately won the race.

The exception is Ward 4. In his last race, the late E. Henry Twiggs faced a throng of challengers in 2017. He fended them off in part thanks to his storied reputation in the city and community, despite deteriorating health. When Councilor Twiggs retired before the 2019 cycle, the race again attracted a large field.

Still, the Ward 5 special election could be even more heated. Just based on the names in so far—papers can be picked up a bit longer—a fierce battle appears all but certain. Aside from Green, an ostensible newcomer, the emerging contenders have deep ties in their neighborhoods and with Springfield power brokers.

A big effing deal? Well, maybe not that big a deal, but Ward 5’s race will be a big deal for Springfield politics. (still via YouTube/Obama White House)

Turnout is likely to be abysmal, though Ward 5 is usually one of the better performing wards. Moreover, while the election will be occurring against the background of the state primary, Ward 5 will be the star. No at-large Council or mayoral election is driving voters to the polls—or hogging precious attention spans. It will be up to candidate to pry friends, family and supporters out of their homes and into the voting booth on August 16 and then again on September 13.

As this is a ward race, candidates can get by with modest fundraising. The seriousness of campaigns may depend on how quickly they organize volunteers and raise funds. Another will be how to connect with voters. While fears about neighborhood provincialism at the dawn of ward representation never panned out, the issues are not uniform across the city.

The truncated schedule also leaves candidates with little time to tailor messages to the hyperlocal and raise funds.

In short, this special election could be one of the most competitive in recent city history from beginning to end while spotlighting a specific corner of Springfield.

The fate of the city will not be decided in this election. Yet, the interest proves two other things. For some wards the Council remains an attractive place—perhaps especially given its growing role in policymaking and as a springboard—to have an impact in the city. Second, Springfield can still put on a political show when the opportunity presents itself.