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Springfield Mayoral Hopefuls Do Battle in Mason Square Showdown…

Springfield Mayoral Debate

The gang’s all here: Ciampi, Ramos, Sarno, Hurst & Lederman. What craziness will they get into next time? (still via Facebook/Mt. Zion Baptist Church)

With barely three weeks until the preliminary on September 12, the candidates for mayor of Springfield have begun to face off in formal settings. Until this month, Mayor Domenic Sarno’s rival have largely made their pitches on the trail and at community events. This month, therapist David Ciampi, at-large Councilor Justin Hurst, Council President Jesse Lederman and State Rep Orlando Ramos have the chance to challenge the mayor to his face.

This week the candidates will do battle at a debate that Focus Springfield, the city’s public access station, and Western New England University are holding. But last week, a debate at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, organized by a coalition that included Pioneer Valley Project, the Springfield NAACP and the Pastor’s Council, featured some spicy moments and the sharpest rebukes to Sarno’s 16-year reign in years.

“I’m running again for mayor with a proven track record,” Sarno said, employing many terms and lines familiar to City Hall watchers.

Of course, his opponents saw it differently.

Hurst called it “a problem” that city American Rescue Plan Act funds bought an underutilized office buildings before reinvesting in neighborhoods that COVID-19 hit hard.

“More importantly, it’s a sign of somebody who is out of touch,” he said.

After Sarno touted reforms to answer a question about costly police misconduct settlements, Lederman implied the mayor was in denial.

“It starts with electing a mayor who will admit we have problem,” the Council President said.

Ramos, at one point, was simply blunt.

“I’m running for mayor because I don’t believe anyone should be mayor for 20 years,” he said.

Domenic Sarno

Sarno, the man in the arena, but can he take the heat? (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

The three sitting electeds running against Sarno represent the greatest threat to his grip on power since at least 2011. That year, he faced then-Council President Jose Tosado. However, with a much-changed political and media landscape and shifting concerns—cost of living and public safety are paramount today—the race may be Sarno’s hardest fought since his shock defeat of Charles Ryan in 2007.

By far, Sarno has had a massive cash advantage relative to his opponents. Whether he has used it or translated his incumbency advantages effectively is another story.

While he dodged debates in 2015 and 2019 against less seasoned opponents, it was all but certain he would attend this debate. The rules limited candidates’ ability to interact. However,  some mayoral rustiness was evident amid the panel’s questioning, which Pastor Catharine Cummings led. The audience at Mt. Zion, located on Eastern Avenue, was largely Black, once a key constituent of his. But they were unimpressed when he pivoted away from a question on Mason Square’s food desert.

“That’s still the objective,” the mayor said of a grocery store in Mason Square. “But you have to make the deal work.”.

The mayor had pivoted to invoke Big Y’s new grocery store downtown and a Mason Square Pride Station. These examples summoned a stony silence.

His rivals’ promise to pursue one enjoyed a warm reception. Hurst’s line about ARPA funding—Big Y’s downtown funds—came then. Lederman asked for a show of hands from Mason Square residents (like himself) to emphasize who would benefit from a local grocer. Ramos highlighted legislation he filed which would study food deserts. It had a hearing in June.

Justin Hurst

Hurst at his kickoff in January. He landed some of the more direct blows on the mayor. (WMP&I)

Despite Ramos having a specific policy item on the subject and some good lines, Hurst and Lederman held the audience more consistently. Hurst connected on several topical issues, including education, about which he spoke to with specificity (in addition to being a former teacher, his wife is a School Committee member). Meanwhile, Lederman highlighted accomplishments and his own residence near Mason Square. (Hurst lives in the Outer Belt).

This became especially clear on police misconduct. The question was weighted with an eye toward the cost of paying out civil rights claims. Sarno tried to play up changes under his administration, such as body-worn cameras. Ramos noted, accurately, that the move came subsequent to a resolution he sponsored while still a city councilor.

But that followed a bit of one-upmanship from Hurst and Lederman.

“Not sure I agree with you about being the most vocal,” Hurst said, pointing to marches he led in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. He also mentioned the push to bring the courts in to finally implement the Police Commission ordinance.

Lederman, in turn, noted his own efforts, including engaging with young activists protesting outside Police Headquarters on Pearl Street. He recalled driving to Hurst’s home to inform the then-Council President that they had lawyers to sue over the ordinance. He said it did not matter who got credit, but the opportunity to act had arose.

“Injustice cannot be solved with words,” Lederman said. “It requires actions.”

Springfield Floyd Protest 2020

Social Justice protests in 2020 challenged Pearl Street’s conduct with residents, but 2023’s uptick in violence have raised questions about the mayor’s policing policies. (WMP&I)

Public safety which has taken a prominent role in the campaign amid record homicides and home invasion that left a child and grandmother dead. As with police misconduct, the challengers had the initiative. Sarno rattled off endeavors and he recalled attending funeral of a homicide victim. He said the family thanked him, but they did not understand how offenders were not in jail.

“You cannot allow repeat, criminal offenders back on our streets,” Sarno said. Pending trial, if a defendant can make bail, courts under law can only hold exceptionally dangerous persons.

This only provided an opening for his critics to accuse him of buck-passing.

“Blaming the judges is not going to make our city any safer,” Ramos countered. He laid out plans for a gun buyback and called for a gun court to expedite firearm charges.

Hurst laid out a multipoint plan with a heavy emphasis on rebuilding the police department’s ranks and redeploying resources. But he, too, questioned the mayor’s emphasis on what the judges were or were not doing.

He said it was especially galling given how the city had paid out millions in misconduct cases—although some relate to misdeeds from decades ago.

“It’s easy to just say you want to lock them up and throw away the key,” Hurst said before outlining his plan.

Jesse Lederman

Lederman was a touch more subtle but the audience reaction suggest his swings made contact. (WMP&I)

Lederman recalled being at a rally for public safety a decade and a half ago after a stray bullet struck a 12 year-old.

“We were asking for these answers 14 years ago,” he said. “The loss of life, the families that are grieving in our community is weighing heavily in the city of Springfield.”

Residents, Lederman continued, were asking him on the trail when things would change. The three-term councilor agreed that everybody wanted more resources and did not oppose many of the short-term suggestions. But more needed to happen.

“We have to look at the underlying causes of gun violence and crime in our community,” he said. Lederman pointed to a program he has advocated for that interdicts young people before they go down a path that leads to crime and violence.

The mayor was not without his stronger—or at least more energetic—moments. During a section on housing, he vigorous objected to the suggestion it unimportant to him. He pointed to several developments his administration shepherded through. His rivals replied that most were market-rate outside the price range of the city’s poor. He pushed back on criticism of his ARPA distributions, claiming the money overwhelming went to women and minority-owned businesses.

Orlando Ramos

Although Hurst and Lederman had the room more often, Ramos had some disarming hits during the debate. (still via YouTube/WWLP)

Still, there was no topic that the mayor really owned. Even on economic development, on which he closed well—except for a paeon to the (improbable) Peter Picknelly’s courthouse scheme—his challengers were ready.

“Mayor Sarno has been a good mayor for downtown Springfield,” Ramos said later in the debate. “But he forgets that we have 16 other neighborhoods in Springfield.”

The challengers’ closings capped the event on a largely positive, hopeful note. All assured that the city could be better—and of course they were the means to get there.

While the critiques and condemnations, if at times by implication abounded, few were new to anybody paying attention. It is not difficult to imagine Sarno parrying his opponents’ swings easily were it not his wont to dismiss all criticism as haters’ grousing.

Sarno would likely prefer not to endure this at all. But after years of eagerly accepting the air of a pugilistic mayor, how can he win reelection if he will not fight for his job?

The next round is on at 6:30PM Thursday night on Focus Springfield.