Analysis: Sarno for Mayor Re-Launches with Greatest Hits and Little Else…
What are elections about? The smart political operative will tell you they are about the future. Whatever their virtues or vices, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Governor Deval Patrick seized not only their initial elections but their reelections not with, “Hey, it’s fine,” but “There is so much more we can be!”
That was not exactly on tap when Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno launched his reelection Wednesday at the Greek Cultural Center. Whether 200 people as some media reported or 500 as his campaign claimed, the room, formerly the Memorial Square Branch Library, looked full. But the themes and even citations to accomplishments constituted a remarkable echo of his 2019 campaign.
“I love my job, I live it 24/7. I enjoy working with the outstanding women and men in both the public and private sectors, working together to create a better life for all our citizens,” he told the assembled mass. His slogan, “A Mayor who Really Cares,” belched off the screen behind him.
Sarno is seeking his sixth term as mayor. Since unseating the late former mayor Charles Ryan in 2007, he is the city’s longest-serving mayor. The return on the investment of those 16 years is unclear.
The return on Sarno’s investment in this kickoff is easier to quantify. The stage-managed event came together with weeks of planning including an unorthodox $8,000 television campaign, nearly $1000 spent on Facebook, and a mailer to most of the city’s voters costing thousands more.
In his remarks, Sarno thanked the city’s public servants who had attended, whether out of fealty or rumored expectation.
“I firmly believe that public service is a noble profession, and there’s many public servants in this room and sitting right behind me that can make a positive difference in our quality of life,” he said.
The turnout roughly matched that his competitors who launched in roomier venues, such as at-large Councilor Justin Hurst and Council President Jesse Lederman. State Rep Orlando Ramos kicked off his campaign at the comparatively smaller White Lion Brewing. Therapist David Ciampi is also running.
Compared to the fanfare others offered, the mayor’s remarks at his kickoff were brief. Sarno’s speech was seeded with mention of feats that predate his 2019 bid let alone the 2,023rd year of our Lord. Among them were the recovery from the 2011 tornado and the East Forest Park Branch library, which broke ground in 2018. He hailed the city’s financial independence in the aftermath of the Control Board, which left town in 2009.
Sarno invoked a bevy of school construction projects, but this was true in 2019, too. Likewise, he touted a graduation rate of 86% from its earlier, middling rate of about 50%. But the upswing was well underway when he last ran for reelection, too. The four-year graduation rate in 2019 was 74%.
The only new thing was COVID-19, which Springfield navigated well. However, the city is not terribly unique compared to its neighbors.
Sarno spoke about “strong, efficient, effective strategic leadership. Yet, in Springfield the recipients of the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds, has become a rogues’ gallery of those who have been city influencers for time immemorial. Cash assistance to residents, itself controversial, has ground to a halt, forcing the city to call in a consultant.
With few exceptions, little of the $126 million spent has gone into fortifying Springfield’s plant and infrastructure. Many other communities blew their ARPA allowance on the municipal equivalent of video games, but is this “efficient, effective, or strategic”?
This exercise is not to pummel Sarno’s ego senseless, but rather to return to the original question: what’s next? That question was largely avoided in 2019 when Sarno dodged the “vision thing.” Now, aside from the pandemic, there are precious few new accomplishments to point to. Yet, the city still faces an uncertain economic future, disappointing returns from “gamechangers” like MGM, deteriorating plant, and escalating costs for residents. What are the ways Sarno will address this?
Before opposition to his reelection appeared, the mayor’s only notable entry had been another big wet kiss on Peter Picknelly’s cheek. At his kickoff, Sarno said even less. However, he did have the chance to jab his opponents by implication.
“Leaders cannot play the role of an armchair critic and think that’s leadership,” he said winding down his remarks. “Because when you sit at the mayor’s desk, you not only have to understand the challenge, you need to find the solution and provide the leadership required to solve the problem.” Left unanswered is how.
These swipes are fine to dismiss snarky, self-important bloggers. But none of Sarno’s principal opponents in the race were born yesterday politically. Several have written and passed significant legislation, often with the signature of—there’s a note here—Mayor Domenic Sarno.
Indeed, where was Sarno when he defeated an incumbent mayor? The then-director of the South End Community Center had spent less time in elective office than either Hurst or Ramos. Lederman is only a term short of the four two-year terms Sarno had served on the Council.
So, what really was on offer for the city’s future in the shell of that former Carnegie Library? Bravura? Déjà vu? Perhaps Springfield voters will not care. Yet, after 16 years Sarno’s pitch amounts to, “Meh, it could be worse so don’t bother changing horses”
The problem with this strategy is Springfield is not Boston, which could barely bring itself to can James Michael Curley. Springfield has a history of booting mayors who overstay their welcome. Daniel Brunton, the former mayoral record-holder, saw his streak cut off in 1957. Thomas O’Connor defeated him becoming, for now, the city’s youngest mayor Springfield has had. There were troubles in the city even then, but the result suggested voters wished to look forward.
Maybe Sarno will fill in the forward-looking blanks soon. Or, perhaps he will simply bury his opposition with his massive campaign war chest. Taking to the airwaves, Sarno could drown out anything but good vibes about himself. His Herculean and expensive effort to summon a crowd to Memorial Square exemplifies a willingness to spend campaign funds freely.
However, it also suggests something else. Sarno and company realize they cannot rely on the old playbook of being too busy mayoring to campaign.
“I will work hard to earn the confidence of our voters and believe you me, no one—no one—will outwork us,” he said. “I respectfully ask for your support and your involvement in our campaign because the future of the well-being of our beloved city is worth the fight.”
What Sarno did not acknowledge, of course, was that same love for Springfield and its future animates his critics and fuels the largest and most diverse challenge to his reign ever.