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Springfield: No Thrills, Some Chills

The unexciting race to be Springfield's mayor

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

A few days ago, one of my favorite Springfield politicos (yes, I have a few, and yes, the list is short) asked me what I thought of next week's mayoral contest between incumbent Domenic Sarno and his challenger, city councilor Bud Williams.

"Not exactly the 'Thrilla in Manila,'" my source noted.

Sarno's first term in office has been filled with the kinds of bumps and bruises that are a challenger's dream. There's the recession, which, while any reasonable person will acknowledge that it cannot be pinned on Springfield's mayor, nonetheless creates a pessimistic, anxious climate that often taints the current elected leaders by association.

There's the uptick in street violence in the city—much of it gang-related—which, like the economic crisis, has deeper and more complicated roots but which still is easily dumped on the mayor's doorstep (in this case, perhaps, more justifiably, given that day-to-day law enforcement decisions are made locally).

Then there are the relatively minor missteps by the Sarno administration that have taken on larger significance than perhaps they ought—most infamously, the mayor's contretemps with John Verducci, the downtown hot dog vendor who became the city's cause c?l?bre last summer after Sarno shut down his curbside operation.

At the heart of that controversy (as pointed out by the Reminder's Mike Dobbs, while the rest of us in the local media were too busy enjoying the spectacle of the mayor squaring off with "the Hot Dog Guy") there was a valid issue for City Hall to consider, about crafting an ordinance that treats mobile food vendors and restaurants equitably. Unfortunately for Sarno, that issue was overshadowed by Verducci's accusations that the mayor was motivated less by a desire for equity and more by complaints from his cousin, who just happened to have recently opened a restaurant close to Verducci's cart.

Then, just as that embarrassment was dying down, Sarno found himself having to take the stand in a lawsuit filed against the city by the owners of the Skyplex nightclub. The owners contend that the mayor unfairly denied them permits to hold under-21 nights at the club, and that his refusal was retribution for their decision not to hold a political fundraiser for him in 2007. Sarno emphatically denied that charge.

All told, the first two years of the Sarno administration have provided plenty of ammunition for a motivated opponent to use against him. And one has—although luckily for Sarno, it's not actually the guy whose name will appear next to his on the ballot.

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If Bud Williams does win next week's election, his first order of business should be to send a big thank-you fruit basket to his City Council colleague, Tim Rooke.

Rooke, it should be pointed out, is not working for the Williams campaign. Indeed, earlier this month, Williams had to issue a clumsy retraction of his claim that Rooke and another councilor, Jimmy Ferrera, had endorsed him in the race. Nonetheless, Rooke's persistent criticisms of Sarno have been more stinging, and more effective, than anything Williams has offered during his campaign. Rooke protested the mayor's attempts to shut councilors out of last year's budget drafting process, questioned why City Hall didn't seek public bids for a lease for a new School Department office, and generally expressed his belief that Sarno is not up to the tough job of being mayor.

What's the difference between Rooke's approach and Williams'? Some of it comes down to style. Rooke (as any reporter who's ever covered City Hall can attest) is like a bulldog with a bone when he takes up an issue. In contrast, his finger-wagging and head-shaking aside, Williams rarely shows much passion for the issues he takes up, suggesting that perhaps he's motivated more by political opportunism than a strong commitment. For instance, would Williams be championing the cause of angry Forest Park residents who don't want the former Longhill Gardens complex rehabbed into mixed-rate housing if Sarno hadn't backed that plan?

Indeed, the defining characteristic—and apparent underlying principle—of Williams' campaign is simply to set himself in opposition to anything Sarno has done. The mayor supports the Longhill project? Well, Williams is against it. The Sarno administration begins seizing city-issued trash cans from residents who haven't paid their trash fees? Williams thinks that's wrong. Sarno likes Cocoa Puffs? Williams is a Lucky Charms guy, all the way.

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It doesn't help that Williams has built a less-than-inspiring track record over his 16 years on the City Council. During the eight years of the Albano administration, Williams was a dependably malleable supporter of Mayor Mike—an association that should give considerable pause to any city voter who remembers the corruption and mismanagement of the Albano years. (Albano, who now lives in East Longmeadow and works as a "public affairs consultant," has contributed $600 to Williams' campaign war chest over the past year, suggesting that perhaps he suspects a Williams administration would be friendlier to his clients than Sarno has proven to be.)

Williams' attacks on Sarno have been hampered by his own political shortcomings. Recently, for instance, he accused Sarno of playing "election-year politics" by delaying this year's trash bills until after Election Day. (Sarno said the delay was due to a change in the city's billing process from a quarterly system to an annual one.) Whatever mileage Williams might have gotten from that charge—which, let's face it, had a grasping-for-straws quality to begin with—was undercut by the embarrassing revelation that he had falsely claimed to have been endorsed by Rooke and Ferrera.

In an article in the Springfield Republican, Williams offered a vague, "mistakes-were-made" excuse: "These things happen in campaigns." Would they also happen in the mayor's office?

Williams also hasn't made much of what is perhaps Sarno's biggest vulnerability: a wishy-washiness when it comes to taking positions on certain hard issues. The mayor's stock reply—that he's giving "long and careful consideration" to whatever the tough topic of the day is—has become a joke among local reporters and political observers. Throughout the fierce debate over whether the city should take the former Mason Square library from the Urban League by eminent domain, Sarno would not be nudged into taking a definitive position. Meanwhile, after taking the tough definitive position to support the controversial Longhill Gardens project, he had some apparent last-minute misgivings, introducing the (since abandoned) idea that perhaps the land should be used for a new middle school instead.

Prior to taking the mayor's office, Sarno was a popular city councilor who consistently finished at or near the top of the ballot. Much of that popularity could be traced to his unfailing politeness and solicitousness toward constituents, and the sense that he truly cared about the city where his immigrant parents raised him and where he and his wife are now raising their own kids. Lots of residents just plain liked Councilor Sarno, and he seemed to like being liked.

But mayors are rarely universally beloved figures. As one of nine (or, starting with next month's election, one of 13), city councilors can find some cover for their less-than-popular votes; a mayor does not have that luxury. And while there are certainly valid questions to be raised about some of Sarno's decisions (really, why didn't that School Department lease go out to bid?), perhaps his biggest failing as mayor has been the decisions he hasn't made, the positions he hasn't taken, and the general impression he still sometimes gives that he's reluctant to take on a true leadership role.

But here, again, Williams has failed to exploit the opportunities laid in his lap. Of course, even if he tried, it would be hard to pull off: Williams has been a notoriously slippery politician even by Springfield standards, flip-flopping on such crucial issues as ward representation and needle exchange. And that plasticity makes his connections to the Albano crew even more worrisome. At the end of the day, Williams has failed to define his grand vision for Springfield—other than a vision of himself, instead of Sarno, in the mayor's office.

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