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Briefings: A Ward 4 Challenger Brings about Race in the Heart of Springfield…

UPDATED 9:23PM: To include comments from Kibodya and Brown.

Kareem Kibodya

Ward 4 Forward? Kibodya’s entry gives Springfield its second competitive ward race in 2023. (via Twitter/@Kareem_Kibodya)

Another ward seat on the Springfield City Council shall be subject to a contest, adding more heat to the city’s hottest election in years. Kareem Kibodya, a former congressional staffer and former policy and advocacy lead with the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, is set to challenge Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown. On Tuesday, the Springfield Election Commission certified Kibodya for the ballot. Brown secured his spot earlier in the year.

For over half a year, Springfield political chin-scratchers expected a wild mayoral race. With two hopefuls coming from the Council’s at-large seats, everyone knew an intense citywide Council race would ensue. Yet, the ward seats had appeared likely to remain quiet. Then Ward 6 got some competition. With the entry of Kibodya, a former staffer to Congressman Richard Neal, Ward 4 could host a marquee race of its own.

“Really came to stepping up for the community,” Kibodya said of his decision to run.

Addressing those inequities as well as economic development more broadly will be among his campaign planks. He noted that the ward was among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the city and has not received a fair share of federal relief funds. “We should be creating more opportunity for this community.”

Anchored in the historic heart of the African-American community in Springfield, albeit with a growing Latino population, Ward 4 includes many of the city’s educational, historic and recreational assets. The ward encompasses McKnight and much of the Bay, Old Hill and Upper Hill neighborhoods.

Speaking to WMP&I, Kibodya said his decision to run was not about Brown.

“To be straightforward. I am not doing this to go against anybody or tear anybody down,” he said.

Rather, he argued that his experience with Neal’s office and campaign, including organizing voters, and with the BECMA advocate on Beacon Hill were assets he could leverage for Ward 4. He pointed to legislation that supported financing for residential and commercial properties in communities of color.

Brown has held the seat since 2020. He succeeded the late E. Henry Twiggs, who was among the inaugural class of ward councilors who won office in 2009. Brown, a top aide to State Rep Bud Williams, survived a five-way preliminary in 2019. He advanced to the general alongside activist Jynai McDonald, whom Brown defeated. He was the victor in a rematch two years later.

Since those races, Brown has won over several councilors and others who had backed McDonald. Yet, he has not run away with victory in either race. Moreover, his wider political circle, including Rep Williams, has its critics. However, that familiarity will be a reelection asset for Brown.

In response to a request for comment, Brown said he did not know who Kibodya was.

Ward 4 Springfield

Ward 4 in reds, pinks and salmon colors. (via Springfield City Hall)

Despite its history as the heart of Black Springfield, there are many constituencies in the ward, both within and beyond that demographic. Yet, this race comes amid a broader changing of the guard in city’s Black political class. The death of Twiggs and the retirement of State Rep Ben Swan—whose seat Williams won in 2016—were key harbingers. However, the passing of Ray Jordan, a Springfield political powerbroker and Swan’s predecessor, may have marked a turning point.

Twenty years separate Kibodya and Brown, who turn 30 and 50 this month respectively. In addition to his boss, who has held elective office in Springfield for 30 years, Brown’s family has its own political reach.

This is not to say Kibodya, who worked for among the most powerful Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, is some naïf. Nor is the first ex-House staffer to run for office in Springfield. Still, it is not hard to see how a generational argument could take center stage in this race.

Reflecting its diversity, a range of matters stand out in Ward 4. Its four neighborhoods have their own unique needs. While challenged, it has seen recent economic development such as redevelopment of Mason Square Fire Station.

Historic preservation is a consistent issue. In addition to large, elegant Victorian and Edwardian homes that dot McKnight, preserving the former Isolation Hospital has been a prominent issue of late. Relatedly, the rise of online rental companies like Airbnb in McKnight contributed to the City Council’s decision to regulate the industry in Springfield.

Crime and racial disparities have also been major areas of concern for the ward, reflecting and personifying such problems citywide. While the since-reversed closure and sale of the Mason Square library is a distant memory now. But the episode exemplifies the unequal treatment the ward has seen.

Indeed, Kibodya said his focus will be about connecting residents in areas like Ward 4 to resources to counter inequities. Many may not know about programs such as a state down payment assistance program. His goal, he said, was to help residents “seize the opportunities as they come along.”