The Year in Springfield, 2023…
The election dominated 2023 in Springfield in a way that elections rarely have. Only the rise of ward representation stands as a fair comparison. But while 2009, as an election year, changed Springfield, 2023 revealed and not necessarily in ways that should flatter the city.
On the state and national levels, there was impact on the city. Yet, it was somewhat less when compared to other years. The city’s congressmen no longer chairs Ways & Means. A new governor took office. Yet, the political action affecting Springfield was mostly from within.
Indeed, the election was already underway when 2023 began. At-large Councilor Justin Hurst had announced in 2022. His announcement mobilized a printing press for Mayor Domenic Sarno’s campaign war chest in a way like nothing else had. No recent city election would cost as much, even adjusting for inflation.
But would it matter?
In the following months, Council President Jesse Lederman joined the race as did State Rep Orlando Ramos. All three challengers raised noteworthy sums. Therapist David Ciampi also ran, but he self-funded.
In February, another actor entered the Springfield political stage. Its impact would not become apparent for many months. Home care services mogul Cesar Ruiz, a former School Committee member, founded Hispanic Latino Leaders Now (HLLN), a SuperPAC, to elect more Latinos in Massachusetts.
Outside Springfield, the commonwealth inaugurated a new governor. Maura Healey, who had become attorney general in an insurgent campaign in 2014, took office in January. She was the first women and first openly gay person to hold the highest office in Massachusetts.
In a prelude to the shelter situation that would envelop her administration later, Sarno would blast Healey for warning that it may house people in a hotel in Springfield. Ultimately, nobody would be temporarily so housed. There was no indication then that these were migrants. The episode has no direct connection to that challenge Healey would face.
Rather, it would set the tone for city-state relations. Whereas Sarno maintained a good gubernatorial relationship by lying prostrate before Charlie Baker, he decided blasting Healey a political astute move.
Later in the year, the administration graded Sarno’s preferred courthouse replacement poorly. Peter Picknelly, of motor coach fame, was behind the project of a courthouse and homes—and a marina!—which he would wedge between the river and I-91. Essentially a giveaway to a Sarno donor, the state showed more interest in either the current site or one near Union Station.
With two at-large councilors running for mayor, the citywide race for Council attracted a huge field. Twenty-one candidates appeared on the preliminary ballot for the five at-large seats. The field included newcomers, returning challengers from 2021 and even a former councilor.
On the federal level, Springfield Congressman Richard Neal was settling into the minority on Way & Means. Now with Missouri Congressman Jason Smith at the wheel, the panel took part in several odd episodes of Hunter Biden: The Series. Without any control over the agenda, Neal and his fellow Democrats could do little more than point out when Republicans stepped on rakes.
On the other side of the Capitol, US Senator Elizabeth Warren was in the majority, but made a significant political decision. She would seek reelection in 2024. Unlike with Senator Ed Markey four years earlier, there was no indication of any primary challenge to her. However, Massachusetts Republicans, struggling to reform after years of mismanagement, closed out 2023 without anybody announcing a run.
Back in Springfield, Sarno’s campaign cash was burning a hole in his pocket. He paid for advertising for his own monochromatic kickoff. Enthusiasm for his reelection would not be organic.
His opponents had a different game to play: survival. The perception was Sarno would emerge from the preliminary regardless. The fight was for second place. Ramos called for the city services to be more accessible digitally such as via app. Hurst called for an athletic center. Lederman demanded more pedestrian safety measures, such as the deadly crossing near the Central Library.
However, the revealing part of the race was how much it never seemed to permeate city life. This was due to two factors. Civic virtue had been draining out of Springfield for decades, but Sarno’s reign has torpedoed the municipal hull.
Whether deliberate or not, it left residents, business leaders, communitarians, some reporters and officials outside the other candidates’ orbits in a strange place. The very idea that anybody but Sarno, despite his faults, could be mayor was incomprehensible. The election, then? Irrelevant. This is a terrifying prospect in a democracy.
The other factor, which fed off the first, was the incredible decline in Springfield area media. While The Republican welcomed a new executive editor, the paper has shrunken dramatically in the last decade. The Reminder, a weekly sister publication, had effectively surpassed it on day-to-day city coverage. Nearly all Valley television reporters with experience in the political realm had retired or died (e.g. Sy Becker). The TV stations seemed terrified to even cover the race other than candidate announcements, anyway. New England Public Media underwent painful downsizing.
Press coverage of the race did not match the size or significance of the field. Candidates would say prospective voters would ask where they could learn more. Valley media had little to offer.
The result—Sarno’s closest preliminary and general showings since 2007—would disprove the idea that a non-Sarno world was impossible. Still, elites’ posture perpetuated an atmosphere that suppressed public debate and turnout.
Perhaps the public was open to alternatives due to a major spike in homicides. That provided fodder to remind voters that Sarno continued to thumb his nose at a Supreme Judicial Court ruling about the Police Commission. Sarno appointed the commission, but denied the panel its full powers. The mayor also insisted that his bail reform legislation, a modest bill to let the state appeal low bail, would make a difference.
Eastfield Mall finally succumbed to its economic wounds. Its closure, however, came after years or decades of decline. On balance and because something will replace it, the blow to the city was more symbolic, but one worth meditating over.
Meanwhile Sarno picked a fight with Amtrak over the State Street grade crossing ahead of July 4. By all accounts, there was a paperwork issue (not Amtrak’s fault). In flash after flash of unclothed but limp fury, Sarno excoriated the railroad until federal officials found a way out of this burlesque governance.
A less farcical railroad episode would be the September announcement that Uncle Sam was awarding Massachusetts the $108 million grant it sought in 2022. Neal, Healey and a panoply of city official would fete the news. This followed an earlier commitment of state funds for Palmer after what had seemed like a setback. The money will pay for upgrades to start introductory rail service between Springfield and Boston. East-West rail will live!—once all the planning and reviews were out of the way. Will it be doomed to a glacial pace, though?
Back on the trail, HLLN began dumping money at a furious pace as the candidates began advertising on television. Of the $190,000 Cesar Ruiz put into the SuperPAC, $75,000 would be spent on backing Ramos. HLLN’s payments for consultants and polling indicate an assumption that more of Springfield’s Latinos, who make up nearly half of the city’s population, would turn out.
In the campaign, the candidates were trying to win on the doors and on the phones. Lederman plugged his long history of activism and productivity on the Council. He drew prominent union endorsements. Most prominent in his record may have been biomass. It was an issue that dated back years. Thus, both Hurst and Ramos had cast votes on it, but they sometimes overstated their role on the issue.
Ramos tried to invoke his brief tenure in the state House of Representatives. He was on firmer ground talking up his efforts back when he was on the Council. Ramos had sponsored legislation on civil rights, most notably facial recognition software, and reforms of tax breaks for developers.
Hurst’s argument centered more broadly on a call for change and a turn away from the status quo. While all challengers hit Sarno, Hurst did so the most directly. These criticisms were often substantive, but did not always explain how he would do better. Still, it was enough to consolidate the Black vote in the preliminary and much of the anti-Sarno vote in the general. Despite using some language of inclusion, he failed to strike the ecumenical chord necessary to defeat Sarno.
It was enough for Hurst to reach the general. He, Ramos, Lederman and Ciampi, would deny Sarno a majority in the September 12 preliminary. Despite last minute chatter about Ramos making the general, the city’s Latinos did not turn out as some polling assumed.
September also marked a major departure in city government. The longtime Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy “T.J.” Plante announced his exit from city service. Plante’s efforts to keep the city on fiscal track found plaudits from across the city’s various divisions. However, the reasons for his exit echoed, at least in part, what retiring officials nationwide have said about rising public rancor.
Although the Hurst v. Sarno race looked like something fate had ordained long ago, the general election was quiet. Many long-promised Sarno endorsements never surfaced. Hurst had a spurt of endorsements and then little else. Sarno only appeared at one debate. Having drained his massive war chest in the preliminary, even Sarno’s spending was muted if still much higher than Hurst’s.
The race seemingly stayed there until City Hall released documents alleging a Hurst associate’s vote-buying plot. As of this moment, Hurst’s connection is circumstantial. Still, he not only denied any claims of impropriety, but claimed it was all a contrivance of the mayor. Sarno’s office and allies likely had a role, but the evidence suggest something untoward actually happened.
Hurst would lose by 15 points. Despite incontinent campaign spending of half a million dollars, Sarno offered no promises or agenda for the term except the stillborn courthouse development. His slogan, “the mayor who really cares” either implied, with no evidence, that mayors elsewhere do not care or betrayed the hollowness of his reelection bid. Sarno may have well have run on “What the hell are you complaining about?”
Perhaps Sarno’s challengers did not earn election, but Springfield returned Sarno to office with no clarity of purpose. A clear mandate—but for what? Of course, the same was true in 2019.
The open at-large Council seats went to former gubernatorial and mayoral aide Jose Delgado and Brian Santaniello, who had been a councilor last millennium.
Meanwhile, homicides crossed 30, an all-time high. This may be serendipity, that is how soon medical treatment could reach victims. But city officials have offered no plan or hope other than that post-pandemic violence will drop as it did elsewhere.
In the final weeks of the municipal year, Lederman closed out his presidency with some wins on biomass and a honor for his mentor, the late E. Henry Twiggs. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton announced he had the votes to become Council President once more. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield took her challenge to the Council floor, but made no headway.
The body count obviously casts a tragic pall over the city, but the darker reality may be the the stress test of the election. The public debate was only marginally less meager than turnout. Despite complaints about taxes, violence, police misconduct, inequality, and more, the fabric of the city could not animate and force a true public conversation.
Keen observers would understand that there is only so much Springfield itself can do to fully thrive again. The state must do a lot of the heavy lifting. However, city government is not powerless. It can accomplish a lot and act like it recognizes something must change. For now, standing still will have to suffice as progress.