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Sarno (Sorta) Storms to Victory over Hurst in Fraught Springfield Mayoral Election …

Domenic Sarno

Sarno clawed to the top again. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—After an undernoted campaign that turned caustic and accusatory in its dying days, Mayor Domenic Sarno triumphed over at-large City Councilor Justin Hurst by a 15-point margin. This was a race many had foresaw ever since Hurst, whom Sarno once endorsed, began to tilt away from the city’s longest-serving mayor. But the challenge came later than some wanted and thus without backing he would need to win.

Though Sarno seized the crown once more, his campaign was lackluster. Sixteen years after he defied expectations and deposed once-again-mayor Charles Ryan, Sarno raised wads of cash for this race. What flowed from those riches was an overpaid but cartoonish, Mayberry-esque onslaught on television. It was out of step with a residents’ lived experience and a Springfield still dead last or second to Holyoke in wealth in Massachusetts. Yet, he won.

“We’ve come a long way and there’s more to be done, but it’s a solid sweet victory looking forward to continuing to working with each and every one of you,” Sarno said at his victory party.

The mayor spoke around 10pm at his headquarters, a former bank in 16 Acres Center. The early numbers showed a close race before glacially widening as the night went on. The final dump of numbers from East Forest Park solidified Sarno’s victory. Hurst conceded around 9pm from his party at the Cedars, flanked by his wife and sons.

“We fell a little short, but oftentimes in life, you fall short. It’s not about falling short. It’s about what you do when you fall short,” he said. “We are going to fight until we break the systems down,” he said, attributing the loss to the power of the establishment.

Justin Hurst

Hurst and family at his concession. (still via Facebook/Hurst campaign)

The Springfield Election Commission reported final numbers a little after 9pm. Sarno gathered 12,077 or 57% per unofficial results. Hurst 8,945 or 42%. There were 125 write-ins. Despite the margin, it was a precipitous drop from Sarno’s last major challenge when he scored 72% against then-Council President Jose Tosado.

Turnout in Springfield was 19%, lower than 2011, the last serious mayoral contest. Although, in absolute terms, more people voted this year. The Election Commission reported 21,338 ballots cast over 20,623 from 12 years ago. That number may rise slightly as the Commission counts late, mail and other outstanding ballots.

The race had come down to Hurst and Sarno after the two survived an unusually busy five-way preliminary brimming with serious candidates. Voters left therapist David Ciampi, Council President Jesse Lederman and State Rep Orlando Ramos on the cutting room floor.

The general was quieter than the preliminary. Still, the themes and rhetoric of Hurst and Sarno were largely the same throughout.

Down ballot, there were relatively few surprises. Incumbents Malo Brown and Victor Davila won reelection in Wards 4 and 6 respectively. All three at-large incumbents, Sean Curran, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield, also won another term.

At least two at-large challengers were certain win a seat due to Hurst and Lederman’s retirement. Yet, Jose Delgado, a former mayoral and gubernatorial aide, placed second ahead of Curran and Whitfield.

Jose Delgado

Jose Delgado snags second, a rare coup for a challenger even when there are open seats. (courtesy Delgado campaign)

“I couldn’t in my wildest dream, ever to think that I’d be that high, but I’m just super humbled at this moment,” he said at an interview at his watch party at Sophia’s Pizza.

Rounding out the five was Brian Santaniello, a former councilor who left office over 20 years ago.

“I’d like to thank the voters of Springfield. I was out for 22 years and they realized the work that I’d done on the Council in the past,” Santaniello said in a phone interview.

On the subject of the margin, Santaniello shrugged off his fifth place, which was one lower than in the preliminary.

“The difference between 2nd place was only 700-odd votes. Everybody was bunched into together,” he said.

In the mayor’s race, the difference was greater but not as great given how Sarno feted his tenure.

Aside from advertisements and pulling what levers he could from office, Sarno’s campaign was, to put it kindly, passé. People were asking what would be next after MGM, Union Station and the Court Square Hotel in 2019, the last time he faced voters. This time, having scratched out the bottom of the idea barrel, Sarno plugged Picknelly’s loony courthouse scheme. The mayor also talked up his pandemic response and recycled hits from the tornado.

In his victory remarks, Sarno offered few new clues other than continuing to build new schools and fighting to keep the courthouse in Springfield (which remains quite likely).

He unapologetically touted the doling out of American Rescue Plan Act funds to businesses with dubious need but plenty of cachet among voters. Hurst had counterattacked him for rewarding supporters and donors. Yet, Hurst had failed to capitalize on scrutiny the Council’s ARPA oversight committee, rendering his barbs less sharp than they could be.

“I’m forever grateful to you for what you’ve been able to do for myself and what we’re going to be able to continue to do to the city of Springfield,” Sarno said.

Hurst Sarno

Turnout was about historically normal (read: low), not at all impressive for this mayoral ballot. (stills via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

For all of Sarno’s faults, the choice in the general election garnered little enthusiasm. While Hurst had a multitude of fans, long gone were the days he topped the 2013 Council ticket as a non-incumbent.

The son of one of the city’s most prominent Black power couples, Frederick and Marjorie Hurst, and married to Denise Hurst, a magnetic pol in her own right with a seat on the School Committee, Hurst’s first joined the Council amid great optimism. After an unsuccessful bid in 2011, Hurst returned in 2013, campaigning to make the city more livable for young families like his. He placed first, which squeezed out then-Councilor Jimmy Ferrera.

Initially, Hurst would become a key part of the durable supermajority on the City Council that would restrain Sarno. The pinnacle of this was the reinstatement of the Police Commission in late 2016. At the time, the Gregg Bigda situation had just frothed to the top of public consciousness. However, the leaders of that bloc tended to be now-Senator Adam Gomez or Hurst’s later mayoral rival, Lederman.

Hurst did take on a more visible role during the pandemic as Council President, leading the body into remote function. He also led some protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Although the city broadly embraced reform thereafter, including the return of the Police Commission, Hurst could never convince voters he deserved credit for it. Other councilors bristled at his attempts to attribute progress to himself.

In one remarkable moment during a debate in the preliminary, Hurst described the Council’s suit to enforce the Police Commission ordinance. As president at the time, he was a prominent figure, but Lederman countered that it was a team effort, recalling how he drove to Hurst’s home to discuss how to make the suit happen. Hurst visibly nodded in agreement.

However, there is no doubt, given the mountains of money and hard sell Sarno made, that Sarno and company were nervous, if more in the lead up to the preliminary.

“If you look at the numbers, they felt scared,” Hurst said in his remarks Tuesday.

Marring the race, however, were late allegations that Hurst was part of a vote-buying scheme. Last week, The Republican reported on video and affidavits, which the city later released, that purport to show an associate of Hurst’s handing out cash to voters, many of them homeless, after they voted early.

Hurst denied that he was part of the effort. Nevertheless, the video and sworn statements suggested at least something untoward happened. Rather, the challenger accused the mayor of drumming up the whole thing. In the days that followed, Hurst supporters mocked the allegations and claimed the mayor was trying to steal the election.

It appears likely the Sarno administration took extraordinary and questionable steps to get the material out. That merits an investigation itself, but there was no steal. Moreover, there was sufficient evidence to call for law enforcement to conduct a full probe.

Holyoke peaking from behind the political curtain.

Up in Holyoke, there was no mayoral contest. However, the City Council races were something of a midterm test for Mayor Joshua Garcia, the first Latino to become Holyoke mayor. Three councilors with a combined 90 years of experience were retiring as well. At-large councilors Kevin Jourdain, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti and Israel Rivera won reelection. However, their at-large colleague Jose Maldonado Velez was defeated. The new at-large councilors are former Councilors Patricia Devine, Howard Greaney and Michael Sullivan (not the former mayor).

All incumbent ward councilors seeking reelection won. Holyoke’s Ward 2 elected Carmen Ocasio will replace scandal-tarred Will Puello-Mota, who did not seek reelection. In Ward 7, where longtime councilor Todd McGee retired, Meagan Macgrath-Smith was triumphant.

Neighboring cities with mayoral races had few surprises. In Agawam’s open mayoral race, City Council President Christopher Johnson was triumphant over colleague Cecilia Calabrese. Chicopee Mayor John Vieau won reelection by holding off Ward 3 Councilor Delmarina López. The only significant mayoral upset in the Valley was up in Greenfield where Precinct 3 City Councilor Virginia DeSorgher denied Mayor Roxann Wedengartner a second term.