Hurst & Sarno Battle in (Possibly) Their Sole General Election Mayoral Outing…
In what could be their only general election outing, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno jousted with at-large City Councilor Justin Hurst in a debate WWLP aired Monday. The faceoff featured a range of issues from crime to the equitable distribution of resources. As in debates during the preliminary, Sarno hewed closely to talking points while Hurst took aim at the 16-year incumbent’s strengths.
That the debate happened at all is somewhat shocking. The week before, Hurst condemned Sarno for skipping debates. The mayor declined the Pastor’s Council debate and pulled out of the one Focus Springfield scheduled. The mayor’s scarce debate attendance even earned a spoof at the Valley Press Club roast. Yet on Monday, the challenger offered a sardonic acknowledgement of his rival’s presence.
“Thank you, Mayor Sarno for having the courage to sit on this stage and having a debate with us this afternoon,” Hurst said in his opening statement.
Like the Focus Springfield debate at Western New England University in August, the debate had a staccato vibe. There were only minute-long response and no rebuttals. However, with five candidates and a different candidate answering each question first during the prelim, answers to accusation became inevitable.
None of that occurred during the WWLP debate.
WWLP anchor Rich Tettemer moderated the event, which the station styled as a forum. At worst, it was a joint press conference. The candidates seldom mixed it up. Still, the questions did prompt sharp answers, especially from Hurst, who must overcome Sarno’s fundraising advantages and incumbency to win.
That was especially evident in the debates opening moments, which featured a series of questions about crime and policing.
“I believe that the mayor is causing the increase,” in crime Hurst said pointing the finger at Sarno’s lack of neighborhood investment.
Hizzoner did not take the bait. Instead, he pointed to programs he has funded to address crime.
“We have done youth millions and millions of dollars invested in youth development, our schools, reentry programs,” the mayor said.
As Sarno is wont to do, he also blamed repeat offenders being released and causing problems.
Tettemer then queried the candidates on the Police Commission. He asked the candidates to grade the panel since the Supreme Judicial Court ordered Sarno to appoint the panel (he had resisted for years). Sarno claimed that his appointees reflected the community and that the city was making progress on police reform.
Hurst disagreed, poo-pooing the Commission as beholden to him. The city charter gives the mayor the right to appoint, but the five-term councilor also suggested Sarno erred in never seeking public feedback on Commission appointments. Hurst also noted that the body had ceded many powers, including hiring, in violation of the ordinance that created it.
“All it was, was a handshake deal and a backdoor deal to serve on the Police Commission,” Hurst said.
On the consent decree the city reached with the United States Department of Justice, Hurst questioned Sarno’s attempts to paint it as a positive. The challenger claimed that the city went into the agreement “kicking and screaming.” He noted that Donald Trump’s DOJ only began a police department investigation in one city: Springfield, Massachusetts.
That did not rattle Sarno, though.
“There’s been numerous reforms and initiatives that have been put forward by Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood,” the mayor assured.
The debate moved onto the American Rescue Plan Act and Sarno’s handling of the city’s $129 million it received from Uncle Sam. In recent weeks, Hurst has bashed Sarno’s hand out of grants to politically-connected individuals and entities.
Earlier this month, Hurst cried foul about a business that a Planning Board member, Martin Cunningham, co-owns receiving an ARPA grant. The Republican noted that this likely did not violate state ethics law. This week Hurst cited another ARPA recipient, STCC Technology Park, whose board includes Sarno’s chief of staff, Thomas Ashe.
Sarno again assured nothing untoward was happening. He claimed the city held multiple listening sessions before distributing funds.
“We followed all of the federal requirements,” the mayor said.
Hurst was unimpressed. He accused Sarno of using the ARPA funds as a “slush fund” and again claimed businesses like Cunningham’s, the CityLine Café did nothing to deserve the funds. Rather than focus on owners’ service on boards, he panned the whole outdoor dining program as a farce.
Investment downtown versus neighborhoods has been a major topic throughout this mayoral campaign. It is not a new complaint. For many decades efforts to rehabilitate the city center have taken precedent over neighborhood needs. Sarno claimed that millions were going into the 16 neighborhoods other than downtown. Yet, he also defended the focus on downtown.
“Downtown is also a neighborhood,” Sarno said. “But the track record [outside downtown] is there,” he insisted.
The debate wound down with questions about homelessness, education, the city’s financial health and speeding. Sarno used the opportunity to claim he was investing outside downtown. Hurst repeated his claim about undeserving ARPA recipients.
This included the one exchange where Sarno seemingly swiped back at Hurst. Hurst has given Sarno no quarter on education—the mayor has touted an increase in the graduation rate from 50% to 86%—but Sarno returned that Hurst’s wife, Denise, served on the School Committee. As mayor, Sarno is the Committee’s chair.
There was an interesting exchange on the city’s financial condition. Tettemer noted that the state put the city under the thumb of the Control Board earlier this millennium. Sarno has—and did at the top of the debate—claimed that the city was at the brink of bankruptcy when he became mayor. (It no longer was). He has followed advice from financial mavens the state added to the city government, though.
Hurst suggested that recently-departed Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante left city service amid questions about ARPA. However, the councilor also said the reasons for Plante’s exit were unknown. (In an interview with WMP&I, Plante said that government work generally had become less enjoyable).
The comment came after Sarno’s so there was no reply. However, the point appeared to be that the city needed to keep people who could run Springfield’s bureaucracy. But without elaborating on his accusations, Hurst emphasized the need for good fiscal managers.
“Get the T.J. Plantes back!” Hurst urged.
The debate may not change much and the likelihood of no follow-up showdowns could limit its impact. Nevertheless, it provided a window into how the candidates are closing out the campaign before November 7.
As it happens, this was the second WWLP debate Hurst had attended this cycle. The NBC affiliate had hosted the preliminary candidates, too. Sarno took a pass on that outing citing the opening of a new school in Springfield. Mysteriously, some of his mayoral rivals were able to attend both.
Indeed, the Valley Press Club Roast mocked Sarno’s debate absences. Ink-stained wretches Peter Goonan and G. Michael Dobbs, playing Chief of Staff Ashe and comms director William Baker, reveal they must send a robot in the mayor’s place due to a case of laryngitis.
Former WWLP anchor Barry Kriger as the “Sarno-tron” repeated lines from preliminary debates as flawlessly as the incumbent did on the air this week.