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Between the Lines: Tom Walsh's Curious Candidacy

The candidate's not running--but his backers are campaigning.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

When Tom Walsh decided last summer not to go through with plans to run for the Springfield City Council, he told the Advocate he'd decided to defer any political aspirations of his own to concentrate on his day job. Walsh is communications director for Mayor Domenic Sarno, who faces a re-election fight next week against City Councilor Bud Williams.

But just because Walsh withdrew his name from contention doesn't mean that his supporters have given up the idea of his name being on the ballot. A group of Walsh's Forest Park neighbors have launched an effort to get voters to write in his name on the Nov. 3 ballot, both for the Council's Ward 6 seat and for one of its five at-large seats. The group had launched the write-in campaign shortly before the September preliminary election, with limited, but impressive, results: while Walsh did not finish as one of the top two candidates that day—Amaad Rivera and Keith Wright did, so their names will be on the Nov. 3 ballot—Walsh came in a close second in his precinct, 6A.

Last week, Walsh told the Advocate he's "humbled" by those efforts, but doesn't intend to campaign himself.

The campaign leaves Walsh in a somewhat awkward position, in no small part because some of his support comes from residents who oppose controversial plans to redevelop the old Longhill Gardens housing complex into a mix of affordable and market-rate housing. Sarno supports that project, which has created divides in the neighborhood—and, perhaps, in the mayor's office. Bill Dusty reported last month in the Springfield Intruder that a "No Longhill Gardens" sign sat on the lawn of the house where Walsh lives with his mother. (Walsh declined comment when asked by Dusty about the project.)

Adding to the awkwardness, a recent press release from Walsh's supporters include laudatory quotes from some of his boss' higher-profile nemeses. Tim Rooke, Sarno's strongest critic on the Council, offered this endorsement: "[Walsh] is the type of candidate that would serve not only Ward 6 well but the entire City. ... I may not agree on many issues with Mayor Sarno but I can tell you we agree on one thing, Tom Walsh is a good candidate!"

The release also includes this decidedly more tepid semi-endorsement from Bud Williams: "Williams stated that he has contacted Walsh on several occasions and has 'always received an appropriate response.'"

While write-in campaigns are notoriously tough to win, Walsh's resume suggests he's a plausible candidate. He's an attorney, co-captain of the Forest Park Neighborhood Crime Watch and a board member of the Forest Park Civic Association. He began in Sarno's office as the mayor's constituent services aide and previously was an aide to state Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera. Walsh has also worked for a Hartford insurance firm and for Springfield political consultant Tony Cignoli.

If Walsh does win a Council seat, he could legally retain his job in the mayor's office, although, by law, he couldn't accept two city salaries. In reality, however, it seems likely he would resign his job in Sarno's office, given the potential for conflict of interest if a city councilor also reported to the mayor.

From a purely selfish point of view, I'd hate to see Walsh leave his communications job. After Sarno took office in January of 2008, the Advocate quickly became persona non grata in the mayor's office. After months of silent treatment, however, Sarno extended an olive branch to the paper, inviting me to come by his office for coffee and a chat—an invitation, I couldn't help but notice, that came right around the time Walsh took over the press aide job from his predecessor, Azell Murphy Cavaan.

Since then, Sarno has been the gentleman I remembered him being during his years as a city councilor. Walsh, meanwhile, has been quick to return calls and emails, answer questions and provide requested information—which, coupled with his general good nature, has made him popular with local reporters.

Of course, those are pretty good traits in a city councilor, too.

 

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