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Between the Lines: Classic Higgins

Northampton's mayor leaves office prematurely and with controversy swirling.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

As even people who reside far from Paradise City may have noted, Clare Higgins left her job as mayor of Northampton on Friday, Sept. 9, handing off the job to City Council president David Narkewicz.

Higgins will become the new executive director of Greenfield-based anti-poverty agency Community Action, a job she began on Monday, Sept. 12. Higgins left her post as mayor four months before the end of her sixth term and less than eight weeks before the fall elections. The move puts her political ally Narkewicz in the interesting, perhaps enviable position of serving as acting mayor in his mayoral bid against Higgins' 2009 challenger Michael Bardsley.

Higgins announced her decision to cut her sixth term short in mid-April 2011, saying that though she "hadn't been really looking for work," when the Community Action job became available, "it was the right fit." She said that Community Action needed to fill the position in April upon the resignation of former executive director Jane Sanders, but was willing to hire her and wait for her to wrap up a few issues as mayor, including finishing the 2012 budget. But the agency couldn't wait until her term was officially over at the end of the year; the Sept 12. start date represented a compromise, she said.

At the time, Bardsley said he felt the move created an unfair advantage for Narkewicz, "but that's the way it goes. I've anticipated that this was going to happen for some time now." In fact, Bardsley predicted that Higgins wouldn't serve her full term even before she defeated him by 344 votes in 2009. The issue came up during a mayoral debate that fall, with Higgins saying she planned to serve her full term.

In early August, John Andrulis, a Northampton Republican, wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette relating concerns he'd heard from residents that Higgins' decision to leave office early amounted to "a crass political maneuver to aid in the election of her favored candidate." It was a move that could, he wrote, "add 5 to 10 percent to a candidate's vote." While Andrulis, an economics professor, said he didn't believe Higgins would "stoop so low," he was "writing to bring this whispering out in the open," and to propose that Narkewicz "squelch this rumor" by resigning as Council president, thus avoiding "the prospect of a neophyte acting mayor engaged in a full-time election."

Narkewicz did not heed Andrulis' suggestion, and took over the job of acting mayor last week. His opponent, meanwhile, continues to make his case to voters, using the campaign slogan "A mayor should be elected, not selected."

It is unfortunate that Narkewicz now finds himself saddled with the extra baggage of Higgins' badly timed departure. No matter how unfair it might be, Narkewicz will appear to some voters as Higgins' man, as her clone or crony. To the degree that he is sincere in his desire to make Northampton City Hall a healthier, more transparent and publicly accountable place, being saddled with baggage from the Higgins administration will, even if he is elected, make the job of healing deep and widening divisions in the polity more difficult.

I have watched Higgins' career with a lot of interest. Like a lot of people, I was very impressed with her when she was on the City Council and in her early days as mayor. Like a lot of people, I found my interactions with her increasingly uncomfortable the longer she was in office, particularly after I wrote pieces critical of her or her policies. Though I occasionally disagreed with specific policies or actions—her support for expanding the city's landfill over an aquifer; her support for a hotel development at Pulaski Park; her handling of a public records controversy in the summer of 2009—I became increasingly critical of her style, which seemed to lack the sort of humility that might have made even people she disagreed with feel respected and listened to. When I would share my reservations with some of her political supporters, I often heard that what I was really seeing was Higgins' natural reticence, her natural ambivalence about having to do the things politicians do to keep getting elected.

I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now.

Why, one wonders, did Higgins run for a sixth term if she wasn't going to finish it? Alas, we probably can never know for sure. But whatever the reality, the perception—the "appearance" of the matter, which is an important concept in the adjudication of ethical issues in the public realm—will not flatter her in the eyes of many voters, who will see it as a political move to help Narkewicz or to hurt her one-time-friend-now-nemesis Bardsley, or as a sign that, in the end, Higgins cared less about Northampton than her next career move.

Whether you take Clare Higgins' early departure on its face or look for deeper political intrigue, her exit will be seen by many as a classic Higgins move, one that, in the name of helping fight for underprivileged people, reads also as a demonstration of her determination to call the tune, to leave on her own terms and on her own timeline without regard for her city's needs or the abstract concept of fairness.

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