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In Ward 4 Race, Challenger Kibodya Sees Springfield Sitting at a Pivotal Moment…

Ward 4 Springfield

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

With the Springfield mayoral race now a hot mess and the at-large Council an huge large field of qualified hopefuls, the ward races offer a calm respite. The incumbents in both Ward 4 and 6 face challengers. While the preliminary results suggest that Victor Davila will win reelection, the Ward 4 race only ever had two candidates. It had no preliminary.

In Ward 4 on Tuesday, incumbent Malo Brown will face off against Kareem Kibodya, a former policy and political staffer. While hardly as noisy at the other races on the ballot, it represents several crosscurrents in Springfield today. Though both candidates are Black and focus on several issues, their backgrounds and generational gap could influence voters’ decisions.

Ward 4 includes the historical center of the Black community in Massachusetts. Although the Latino population has grown in areas in and around Mason Square, African-American voters remain prominent. The ward includes many of the city’s educational, historic and recreational assets, too. It encompasses McKnight and much of the Bay, Old Hill and Upper Hill neighborhoods.

Both candidates have deep ties to politics, too. Brown, 50, has been a top aide to State Rep Bud Williams since the latter’s election in 2016. Kibodya, 30, has worked for pols on all levels of government, most notably US Representative Richard Neal. After leaving the congressman’s employ in 2022, he worked as a policy and advocacy lead for the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA).

Brown has faced opposition in his elections in 2019 and 2021. Kibodya is a first-time candidate. In an interview, he acknowledged the difference between campaigning for others and running himself.

Kareem Kibodya

Can Kibodya displace an incumbent? (submitted photo)

“Just how people respond being on their door, face to face,” he said of  the difference canvassing for himself. “One of the most common things that I’ve heard is that I’m the only candidate that has knocked on their door.”

Brown did not respond to a request for an interview.

Kibodya has avoided criticizing Brown directly. Yet, he said that voters have expressed disappointment with the engagement and responsiveness of the incumbent. They want a councilor that, in his words, is “not just showing up for photo-ops.”

Brown is a formidable adversary, though. He raised more in October than Kibodya has throughout the campaign. Observers from the ward say regardless of his faults as a councilor, Brown is a vociferous campaigner.  When Kibodya announced, Brown suggested that his new opponent was also new the neighborhood.

Speaking to WMP&I, Kibodya, the son of Tanzanian immigrants, said he was raised the neighborhood. He pointed to the history in the ward from Mason Square’s namesake to the McKnight historic district to the prominent Black Springfield leaders from there. His parents have since moved away. Yet, he and his now-wife bought a house in the ward last year.

“I wanted to make sure that when I bought my first home, I bought it with intention,” he said reflecting on the neighborhood’s virtues and rich past.

Times have changed, however. Not only have storied leaders like Ray Jordan and E. Henry Twiggs passed away while others like Ben Swan have retired, but many people are moving away.

Kibodya cites a lack of investment and slow responses from City Hall to fix quality of life issues that get attention promptly elsewhere in Springfield.

“I’ve heard a lot of families that they don’t feel comfortable or want to move away,” he said.

The neighborhoods in Ward 4 have seen some work in recent years. However, like many areas of the city, there has been frustration with the attention—and subsidy—downtown had received. That pairs with more universal complaints about services and rising taxes.

Part of his goal, if elected, is also to educate voters about government can do. There is no denying that the ward lacks resources other neighborhoods have. While the lack of a full-service grocery store in Mason Square is well-known, Kibodya says the area more broadly suffers from being a “resource desert.”

Businesses struggle. The library has had a tempestuous history. The US Post Office contemplated closing the local branch. While Kibodya was working for Neal, TD Bank announced plans to close its bank nearby. Kibodya credited his old boss, then the chair of Ways & Means, with convincing the Canadian bank—which operates what used to be Springfield Institute for Savings’ assets—to keep the branch open.

Malo Brown

Brown, in a screenshot from a recent City Council meeting, has beaten back stiff challenges before. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

On the issues, Kibodya has cited housing and economic empowerment, especially in terms of cultivating contractors, as key. The latter has also been a focus of Brown’s, too. During Council meetings, he will query presenters about what opportunities there are for people to access funding or grants.

Citing his work with BECMA, Kibodya pointed to the need to increase the housing stock and growing options with diverse contractors. He said his background is helpful here to not only change policy. Opportunities and efforts for these contractors need to harmonized across all levels of government so they can seek bids not only in Springfield but beyond.

“That goes from not only a Ward 4 Springfield issue, but also a regional issue,” he said of nurturing contractors in the city.

Kibodya said he has been in touch with Neal and they have discussed him seeking office, both before the current bid and since he announced. (A spokesperson for Neal did not respond about a request for comment). Neal has not said anything publicly about the race. However, Kibodya noted that Neal got his start on the City Council and he appreciated advice from his experience.

Were Kibodya to win, he would be join the City Council amid great political change in Springfield. At least two new at-large members will join the body. There could be a new mayor—or not—though he says he has good relationships with both Mayor Domenic Sarno and his challenger, Councilor Justin Hurst.

The recent controversy in the mayor’s race had not broken when Kibodya spoke to WMP&I. However, he did observe that political conversation have become more fraught than ever in recent years. There may be something to that. Springfield’s own top finance official left recently mentioning the increasingly unpleasant atmosphere in public life.

People cannot be expected to agree all the time, Kibodya said. Still, he wants to work with whoever he must to accomplish the job.

“I think one thing we’ve lost in our country as a whole is our ability to have dialog and discovery and disagree without it turning into toxicity or vitriol,” he said.

Springfield City Hall

Unrealized potential? (WMP&I)

Kibodya senses the importance of the moment for Springfield. Although the city endured the COVID-19 pandemic well, it continues to lag its peers on multiple fronts. The themes of the campaigns in 2023—costs, equitable use of resources and sustainable economic developer—will not go away regardless of whether incumbents. It prompted this year’s extraordinarily large mayoral and Council fields.

“We’ve seen some history happen this cycle and that’s because the city is at a crossroads,” he said of this year’s campaign cycle.

Despite the advantages Brown has, Kibodya said he is plugging away at secure votes until the end. He said that he had been feeling community support. He said he has been reconnecting with family and friends and making allies of strangers in the final days before vote-counting begins.

The goal, Kibodya says, is to do everything he could, win or lose. Nevertheless, if he does win, there is one thing to which he will not attribute it.

“I don’t believe in luck, but what I do believe in is God and hard work,” he said.