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At Launch, the Case for Hurst—and against Incumbent—Comes into View…

Justin Hurst

Hurst, now with some flight plans, ready for liftoff. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Nearly two months after announcing on his 44th birthday, at-large City Councilor Justin Hurst has formally kicked off his bid for mayor. Echoing his original Council bids for Council a decade ago, Hurst tried to cast a forward-looking pitch.

Speaking at the Cedars banquet hall, a favorite of city pols—including at one time the current occupant of the mayor’s office—Hurst sent some of the clearest signals about his campaign’s direction. Hurst did not invoke Sarno by name. Still, he implicitly offered a laundry list of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s failings even as he attempted to look beyond the incumbent.

“It is our time,” Hurst said—and intoned throughout the speech. Time for change in administration but hinting beyond that.

“Together we can alter the course of history and make history at the same time. Look around. Look at the crowd assembled here this evening. Each and every one of you braved the weather because you believe that a government that works for all of us is possible and necessary,” he said.

Hurst, in his fifth term on the Council, had announced November 30, jumping ahead of other possible challengers to the 15-year incumbent. At the time, the shape of his case against Sarno—and potentially other rivals—had not fully formed.

If elected, Hurst would be city’s first Black mayor and its first mayor of color. Although Springfield is some 70% nonwhite, Sarno has overcome opponents of color before, if much earlier in his tenure.

A substantial crowd of Hurst supporters and ardent Sarno critics filled a room at the Cedars. The divider to the full hall was opened to let people spread out and sit down on extra chairs. Although the program featured a short video, the formal program was modest, mindful of predictions the winter weather could become wretched.

In the preceding few years, civil rights and police reform took more prominent places in Hurst’s rhetoric and focus as a councilor. Both items featured in his kickoff speech Wednesday night. Another matter he has road-tested more recently was property tax and trash fee relief. These, too, came up at the kickoff.

However, constructing a platform will only be half the battle to take down Sarno. Selling it skeptical city voters must follow.

The launch served another purpose in reintroducing Hurst to Springfield. His wife, School Committee member Denise Hurst, introduced him with rousing remarks. A rhetorician and a key asset for Councilor Hurst on the trail, she whipped up the crowd—subsequently earning her own uproarious cheer when he thanked her later—and offered thanks.

Denise Hurst

Justin Hurst’s no-so-secret weapon? (WMP&I)

“I just really, really want to make sure that you all know how much we appreciate all of you. I am so proud of Justin for taking this leap,” she said. They would go back and forth on it. Yet, Denise Hurst continued, “Justin always said, we have to do it, we have an obligation to do it. And we owe it to everyone that has believed in us from the very beginning to do it.”

For his part, Justin Hurst relayed anecdotes of his sons surprising him with their own wisdom. To watchful observers, the invocation rhymed with, if not repeated, themes from his first successful bid for Council in 2013—he ran unsuccessfully two years earlier. His then-infant son—now 11 years-old and a big brother—featured prominently in senior’s pitch to make Springfield more viable for families.

Families generally and working families specifically came up frequently. In addition to his own relations, including his parents, both lawyers and political figures in their own right, he mentioned grandparents and great parents who raised families here.

His grandfather, Fred King, migrated to Springfield from Georgia. Like many other African-Americans then, he had undertaken the trip in search of economic opportunity outside the Jim Crow south. Hurst’s references to this history, and a later nod to his wife’s Hispanic heritage, have import in the diverse Springfield of today.

Such would be part of any good pol’s messaging, but it also undergirded a separate bid to soften Hurst. Whether fairly or not, critics in and out of law enforcement consider Hurst anti-police. Denise Hurst said the mayoral hopeful only ever wanted to be sure police serve with “honor and integrity” without being overshadowed a few bad actors.

Hurst himself had a more aspirational tact, disclaiming confrontation.

His administration would “create a culture that is supportive of police officers while holding those accountable who do not live up to the professional standards.” He added, “We will have the best trained officers in the commonwealth especially in areas of autism, mental health and non-violent encounters.”

Sarno was never named and obviously not there, but he was present in other ways. (Still via Focus Springfield)

Whether this reframing works or not, it reflects cognizance of the risk. The mayor has a complicated relationship with the cops for different reasons. But he has a massive campaign war chest. Other challengers to Sarno waiting in the wings have their own assets. Plus, they maybe able  tango past the landmines of police-community relations more easily.

One possible rival, City Council President Jesse Lederman has the soapbox of council chamber rostrum. Another possible candidate still on the board, State Rep Orlando Ramos, had more campaign cash than Hurst at the end of last year. Another candidate, David Ciampi, also launched his bid Wednesday night.

The uncertainty of the field’s manifested a bit in the crowd that showed Wednesday. The mayor has alienated many and maintains a shaky détente with other. Yet, few of those folks were at Hurst’s launch. Among city electeds, aside from Denise Hurst, at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield, presently Hurst’s closest ally on the Council, attended as did at-large School Committee member LaTonia Monroe Naylor.

Still, the biggest news from the kickoff was a clearer emergence Hurst’s case against the mayor. There was no shortage of daggers plunged into the incumbent mayoral rump, however indirectly.

In addition to a more positive image for Pearl Street, Hurst called for a Police Commission free of political interference. He indicated his administration would have department heads move to the city immediately upon starting. Under current law, they have a year to do so. Contracts would also stay in the city, he assured.

Hurst said he would pursue transportation and community investments. Sidewalk maintenance, the lack of which is a perennial gripe among councilors, would be more frequent. Yet, at the same time, Hurst said he would repeal the trash fee and bring relief to residential taxpayers.

Justin Hurst

Crowding for photos. Will they become historic? (WMP&I)

That last plank could prove among the slipperiest to pursue. Residents’ ire over tax bills, while not outlandish among peer communities, has risen along with the bills themselves. Driving this has been the city’s increasingly reliance on residential properties for tax revenue as commercial values plummet. Furthermore, nearly everything on his to-do list rubs against state law, which Springfield must abide.

Some explanation for that fiscal Rubik’s cube may become necessary as the campaign goes on. Although, Hurst again damning Sarno by implication, had a last salient assurance.

“And if for some reason we can’t do any of the above, We will be honest with residents and tell them the truth!” he said.

Sarno made many of the same pledges running for mayor first in 2007 and in subsequent elections. With so many needs and unkept promises in Springfield, for Hurst, and for others, the challenge will be convincing voters that as a candidate they embody its root word: candid.