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Oh Brave New Springfield That Has Such At-Large Candidates in It…

Springfield City Council Debate 2023

Oh there’s more where they came from! It’s just one of four panels for the at-large Council debate. (still via Focus Springfield/YouTube)

SPRINGFIELD—In the waning weeks of the preliminary campaign here, candidates for the five at-large City Council seats face a big challenge: standing out. Preliminaries to slim the at-large field down to 10 are not new. Yet, two Council retirements and a competitive mayoral race has yielded a historic 20 candidates for the September 12 at-large preliminary.

The three incumbents seeking reelection are likely to advance but the challenge for the other 17 are obvious. Some have run for office recently—others long ago—but all of them have had work to do. The path to the Council chamber runs through back doors, neighborhood canvasses, standouts during early voting and even the airwaves.

With Councilor Justin Hurst and Council President Jesse Lederman running for mayor, a massive field formed to snap up their seats. This happened in 2017, too, when Councilor Timothy Rooke and Bud Williams retired. What stands out this year, though, is the strength across the field.

Candidates are employing every tactic they can seize. Thomas Oakley, who works in education, was one of the earliest candidates to enter the race. In mid-August, he welcomed residents to a meet & greet at his grandparents’ house in vote-rich 16 Acres.

“I really appreciate you all making the time. I know it’s one of the few days where it’s not 100 degrees or raining thing. So, I appreciate you guys spending a good day with me here today,” he told the sun-soaked crowd. After making his pitch, he urged those assembled to help.

“And really, I can’t do it by myself, I’ve been really fortunate to have the support of so much of my family, so much of my friends, and even you all being here today. So really, I would encourage you, I have yard signs available. We have a volunteer sign up getting started soon,” Oakley said.

Thomas Oakley

Which will be a bigger lift for Oakley? The kid or the prelim? (WMP&I)

In his exhortation for people to vote regardless of who they prefer to win, Oakley, a Sci-Tech grad, even plugged Delgado—despite the latter being a Central High guy. Although technically all at-large candidates compete against each other, such camaraderie, even among challengers, is common in Council elections.

Perhaps mirroring his erstwhile foe’s words of praise, Delgado said his campaign has received positive feedback from voters. With such a large field, there is a lot of energy.

“A lot of folks are like ‘Oh, aren’t you nervous?’ No, I think it’s a great thing. I think it shows that people still care,” he said in an interview.

Still, candidates like Delgado, a former mayoral and gubernatorial aide, have to work the vote. Now the chief engagement officer for the state public safety secretariat, he gets in canvassing on his free time, sometimes with the help of a scooter.

Jose Delgado

Supporters have urged Delgado to run for years and now he faces a packed at-large field. But he sees it as a positive. (courtesy Delgado campaign)

In addition to Delgado and Oakley, the field includes the three incumbents seeking reelection, Sean Curran, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield. The other 15 candidates are Juan Caraballo, Nicole Coakley, Debra Fletcher, Lynell Gasque, Drew Keaton El, Juan “Jay” Latorre, Michael Lee, Soraya Mcelya, Gerry Martin, Will Naylor, Edward Nunez, Kim Rivera, Norman Roldan, Brian Santaniello and Charles Stokes.

Press coverage of Council races is usually low-key unless something massive blows up. However, Focus Springfield afforded every candidate an opportunity to record profiles. On August 23, all candidates but Mcelya and Santaniello participated in a forum Focus Springfield and Western New England University held. Although panels of candidates answered different questions, voters could size up the contenders side-by-side.

(Among the debate’s media panelists was WMP&I Editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski).

What will catapult the field of 20 has not been easy to determine this cycle. Money has not always been determinative in Council races and certainly how one spends it matters more. Exhibit A for the latter precept may play out in the mayor’s race.

Money may matter more this time as it can broaden candidate exposure. For example, four challengers have even bought ad time on television. This week Naylor joined Martin, Roldan and Santaniello on TV. (The latter two appear to also have received backup from a SuperPAC). Several candidates have raised nearly nothing and will have difficulty advancing beyond Tuesday.

That does not mean only challengers are hustling. Outside City Hall during early voting over Labor Day weekend, incumbent Councilor Tracye Whitfield was holding her sign alongside challengers. While acknowledging the advantages of incumbency, she emphasized that the whole Council is on the ballot.

Tracye Whitfield

Whitfield embraces a supporter across from City Hall. (WMP&I)

“I just want folks to know that there’s five seats that’s open. So, we’re all in this trying to go for five seats,” she said. “Nothing is taken for granted.”

Whitfield also observed a factor in the election, which could be clouding prognosticators’ crystal balls in the at-large race.

“It feels [like] there’s so many new voters,” she said. “There’s so many voters that have never voted in their life that’s now turning out to vote because they just want to see change in the city.”

Candidates report voters are discussing a spectrum of issues, not all that of which they had expected. Nearly everybody has crime and public safety on their minds, largely due to the spike in homicides. Although, the matter has long enjoyed salience given the Police Department’s longstanding troubles.

Other Council aspirants are hearing complaints about utility and water bills as well as the cost of housing. Then there is the question of taxes. While property tax bills have dominated the City Council’s budgeting hearings and the like, the cost may not be irking residents per se. Rather, they do not feel like they see the value of what they are paying.

“Having eight straight years of having taxes increase while not really seeing the return on that investment in terms of city services, that’s also been really high on everyone’s mind,” Oakley said in an interview at his event.

Adding to the unpredictability is who will turn out, especially among the newer voters Whitfield noted. The at-large field is a cross-section of Springfield’s demographics, but includes several younger residents. Millennials and near-Millennials abound in the field, which also has one Gen Z representative.

Gerry Martin

Martin at everything, everywhere in Springfield all at once? (via Facebook/Martin campaign)

That candidate, Gerry Martin, a recent Assumption University graduate, has employed all means of voter contact despite never running for office before. He was among the candidates to hit the television airwaves, augmenting his social media and an aggressive canvassing schedule.

“Being an at-large candidate it’s really important to make my message available to everybody in the city,” Martin told WMP&I.

At-large candidates have certainly advertised in Springfield elections before, but it is somewhat more common in the general. But with such a large field and more strong candidates than open slots on the November ballot, TV ads could have an impact. For his part, Martin is seeing a return on the investment.

“Some people have reached out on social media,” he said. People tell him, “Now that I’ve seen you on TV, it made me want to learn a bit more and go onto your website.”

Still, that decision to go on the air has not unnerved his opponents. Outside City Hall last weekend, Jay Latorre shrugged off his rivals decision to hit the tube.

“Everyone’s got a different strategy,” he said.

In theory, Latorre, a telecom engineer, has some advantages as a returning challenger. He placed 7th two years ago, behind Juan Caraballo, who is also running again this year. Yet, this campaign is very different from 2021, he said. The pandemic was still flaring up here and there, disrupting many opportunities to connect with voters.

“We know the work that we’ve put in, we know that we’ve been pushing for my candidacy for over three years now,” he said. “So, we have some advantages that some of these other candidates that only decided to run when they knew that people were not going to be running again.”

Latorre believes he has the volunteer support, fundraising and name recognition he needs to win.

But as with the mayor’s race, which has a graveyard of conventional wisdom and several twists and turns, the prevailing sense over the Council race is uncertainty. After the Trump years, the pandemic and other events fueling existential dread, politics is not front of mind for many.

Oakley Delgado

At-large Council contender summit with Oakley and Delgado. (WMP&I)

Even if the Council races always got less attention, the ongoing decline media has exacerbated the situation. Not only is it more difficult to learn about candidates, but the issues facing Springfield and even the nature of local campaigning itself is increasingly a black box to many.

Nevertheless, back at Oakley’s backyard event, the first-time candidate for public office was optimistic.

“I’m feeling pretty good. Honestly, there’s been lots of shows of support as I’m knocking on doors,” he told WMP&I.

But not knowing the true state of the race remains confounding. Indeed, whatever the faults of polling, they can provide some insight. Their cost is beyond that of any Springfield City Council candidate, though. That has not stopped folks from asking about them.

“It’d be nice to have some sort of internal polling, because I do have people, like friends out of state, and they’re like, ‘Well, where are you at in the polls?’” Oakley recalled.

He could only reply, “I don’t know!”