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With McKnight Challenge, Rep Williams Has a Buddy in the Primary, Too…

UPDATED 3/17/24 8:15AM: For clarification on McKnight’s plans and to remove a quote misattributed to an interview.

Williams McKnight

Bud and Johnnie’s excellent adventure begins. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—There are still no legislative retirements among state lawmakers here, but the number of contests has only grown. Johnnie Ray McKnight, a former municipal candidate, has pulled papers for the 11th Hampden District. That puts him on track to challenge four-term state rep Bud Williams, who had previously served on the City Council for two decades.

The challenge is the second to an incumbent within the Springfield delegation. Williams’s aide, Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown, has pulled papers to run against Senator Adam Gomez. Both nascent bids have crossed another threshold. Taking papers from the Secretary of State’s office is not always a definitive act. While filing with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance is hardly irreversible, it telegraphs firmer intent. Both Brown and McKnight took this step this week.

“I feel like we need new leadership in that district, because it’s changed,” McKnight said in a brief interview Saturday.

Redistricting pushed the 11th Hampden deeper into East Forest Park and away from its historical heart in Mason Square, once the epicenter of Black Springfield. Although McKnight is himself African American as Williams is, he noted that his daughters are Black and Latina and wanted to reach all people in the district.

“I feel we need to unify and really start thinking about the district and how we can push things forward in Springfield as a whole,” McKnight said.

McKnight and Williams were at Central High School for the unified Springfield Democratic caucus and to gather signatures. Both spoke with WMP&I prior to the caucuses formally beginning. Democratic caucuses are open to the public, but only Democrats registered in the respective ward can vote for or run for delegate. WMP&I editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski, as a ward chair, presided over an uncontested caucus.

In its current form, the 11th Hampden covers Bay, McKnight, Old Hill and Upper Hill neighborhoods as well as a sweep of East Forest Park and Pine Point. Its periphery reaches into East Springfield, Forest Park and 16 Acres. The district is entirely within Springfield.

11th Hampden

Just a little jog south for the 11th Hampden as of January 2023 (via

To McKnight’s point, the district made a visible lurch southward after 2020. While it had long had precincts in East Forest Park, it now dives further south of Sumner Avenue. That scooped up McKnight’s precinct on the East Longmeadow border. The new 11th Hampden also ceded chunks of East Springfield and Pine Point to State Rep Orlando Ramos’ district.

For his part, Williams did not betray much concern.

“Everybody has a right to run. This is America,” he said. “We will treat each opponent very seriously.”

Williams said he believed his record would resonate with voters on the September 3 primary. Though Republicans have run for the district as recently as 2020, the primary is tantamount to election.

McKnight is not Williams’s first challenge since redistricting took effect in 2022. That year, the rep defeated Jynai McDonald who also had unsuccessfully sought municipal office. Incidentally, two of her prior runs were against Brown, Williams’s aide. Rather, Williams’s most serious race before that was in 2018 when he defeated three opponents, most prominently the like-named son of outgoing Rep Ben Swan. Before that, Williams spent 22 years as an at-large city councilor.

As candidates, McKnight and Williams had the opportunity to address the citywide portion of the caucus. Williams rallied the crowd about the stakes of the election, but did not mention McKnight directly. He also invoked many of the prominent leaders, mostly though not exclusively Black, that had passed away in recent years.

Ray Jordan

1983: Representative Jordan’s version. (via wikipedia)

Among them was Ray Jordan, a longtime figure on the state Democratic Party executive board. Jordan had held the seat before Swan and was Springfield’s first African-American state rep.  The perch helped him ascend the ranks of the Democratic party both in Massachusetts and nationally. Jordan retired in 1994, but remained visible and relevant in city politics, if decreasingly so in the runup to his 2022 death.

For much of his time in office, the district encompassed the city’s Black population. However, it came to include the part of East Forest Park where Williams lives now. Now redistricting has brought it to McKnight’s end of the neighborhood.

Speaking to the caucus, McKnight said he was seeking to shake up the status quo, as he had hoped to do when running for mayor in 2015. (He ran for City Council in 2019). However, he also suggested that much of what he discussed in those elections had a better fit on Beacon Hill rather than City Hall.

On Williams, he insisted the bid was not about the incumbent in particular, but just the need for change.

Speaking about issues, the challenger highlighted education, noting he has been a teacher in public and charter schools. In terms of the campaign, he indicated during the caucus he will continue teaching through at least this semester. He later clarified to WMP&I that if successful in his bid, he still intends to teach through the end of the year.

However, McKnight also highlighted the recent violence in the city. Last year the city suffered a spike of homicides. Pearl Street claimed improvements toward the end of 2023 and so far 2024 has seemed quieter. Still, there have been high-profile bursts of violence such as the recent shooting at the High School of Science & Technology.

“You got kids and young black men that are getting killed every single day,” he said. “I really feel we like need to get a hold on that [and] see what we can do in the legislature to come up with some policies to really curb the violence in our city.”

Williams concurred on violence, although he also wants to go further than Governor Maura Healey’s blanket pardon of simple possession of marijuana. He cited a bill that would facilitate more expungements of marijuana charges.

“If you read The Boston Globe yesterday, their editorial, it’s up to the legislator to give the expungement because possession of marijuana is not illegal. Not anymore, so it’s on folks’ records,” he said.

McKnight pulled papers on March 4, only days after Brown did. The motivations for Brown’s bid remains somewhat opaque. However, he pulled papers in Boston days after Senator Gomez all but promised to tank Police Superintendent Lawrence Akers’s age waiver pending passage of a City Council compromise on the Police Commission. Gomez and McKnight have ties but both have indicated McKnight’s move had no connection to Brown’s challenge.

Springfield’s rep districts before 2022. The 11th Hampden, in light brown, barely reached over Sumner Avenue then. (via

Indeed, defeating Williams under the best of circumstances would be a tall order. Despite the district’s crawl southward and a growing Latino population in historically Black neighborhoods, a true guided-missile candidacy would likely arise from Mason Square.

Moreover, Williams’s longevity and name recognition powered him through tough reelection fights on the City Council in the open 2016 race convincingly. His losses came when he challenged incumbents like Swan in 2002 and Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2009. Alternatively, they came when he was an unknown early in his municipal career.

That leads to perhaps the most daunting challenge for McKnight: money. His old mayoral and Council campaign accounts have long since lapsed so he opened a fresh one with OCPF. However, Williams has nearly $165,000 in the bank as of February 28.

McKnight attributed Williams’s war chest to his limited opposition over the years. He did not dismiss the importance of money and said he would raise what he could. Still, the challenger assured he would win by knocking on doors.

“Yeah, it’s daunting to have somebody at $150,000,” McKnight said, “but I feel like if you just put the work in, use the ground game, things will happen for you.”