Not long after her election to the Springfield School Committee in 2003, Antonette Pepe began pushing for mandatory uniforms in the city schools, a trend that was being adopted by many public school systems.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2007-2008 school year, 18 percent of the country's public schools, the majority of them in urban areas, required uniforms. Proponents said uniforms would cut down on social pressure by eliminating competition between kids over clothes, and would save families money. They would also circumvent the wearing of gang colors in schools, allow staff to identify quickly outsiders who'd entered a school building, and instill a sense of order and discipline in the classroom.
But in Springfield, not everyone was sold on the idea—including a number of Pepe's fellow School Committee members. When Pepe presented the idea to her colleagues at a meeting, she recalled, she was met with obstructionist behavior. "They started asking silly, silly questions," the answers to which were in the information she gave them before the meeting, she said. "I said, 'I'm sorry you didn't remember it was in your package; I'll explain it to you again,'" Pepe said, adding: "They weren't getting my goat, and they were getting mad."
Eventually, Pepe gave up on her colleagues. Instead, she said, "I proceeded to go my own route," meeting with principals, parents and church groups to make her case. It worked. "The School Committee said, 'Holy moly, she's getting the people to go along with the damn uniforms,'" Pepe said with a laugh.
In 2008, several years after the issue was first raised, the School Committee unanimously approved mandating uniforms for all city students, with several members publicly praising Pepe for her work to make it happen.
Next week, Pepe will face off against incumbent mayor Domenic Sarno and City Council President Jos? Tosado? in Springfield's mayoral preliminary election; the two who get the most votes will go on to the Nov. 8 general election. In a recent interview, Pepe pointed to her lengthy and difficult campaign for school uniforms as an example of one of the strengths she'd bring to the mayor's office: the ability to get things done, with or without the political support of other elected officials.
During her time on the School Committee, Pepe has often found herself swimming against the political tide. She's fought with Sarno, had strained relationships with other committee members, been highly critical of the superintendent, and, generally, made public stinks about failings she's seen both in the School Department and City Hall.
To her devoted supporters, Pepe is nothing short of a hero, a renegade who's willing to take on any issue and any foe to do what's right for the city's schoolchildren, its educators and taxpayers. Her critics, meanwhile, find her brashness offputting and suggest that she has a penchant for conflict that would prevent her from being the kind of leader the city needs. And some, no doubt, are probably just afraid of ending up in Pepe's crosshairs.
Perhaps they should be. "When you ask no favors, like me, you don't owe anybody anything," Pepe said. "You can say and do exactly what you want you to do.
"They can call me whatever they want," she said of her detractors. "I have accomplished more in seven years than some of them who sat on there for 20 years. ... I really know how to get things done."
Springfield, as a rule, prefers politicians of the regular-guy variety. All three mayoral candidates have everyman—or everywoman—credentials: Sarno is the son of Italian immigrants, his mom a seamstress, his dad a barber (thus explaining, perhaps, the mayor's affinity for spotless white shirts and his impeccable hairdo). Tosado was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the North End, serving in the Navy before going on to a career in social work.
The 70-year-old Pepe is the least polished—and the least an "insider"—of the three candidates. She grew up in the South End in a family with five kids and, she recently told the Springfield Republican, a physically abusive father. As a teenager, she began acting out, running away from home and eventually landing in what was called, in the parlance of the time, a home for "wayward girls," run by the Catholic Church—where, she said, she got as good an education as her better-off peers at the city's much lauded Cathedral High. Pepe went on to get her GED, married a boy from the neighborhood and had three kids. Once her kids were grown, she began working in the city schools as a paraprofessional, or classroom aide; before long, she was president of her union.
Paraprofessionals are among the least appreciated of municipal employees, doing challenging, often invisible work for little pay. (Pepe says she earned about $15,000 a year in the job, and $5,000 for her union work.) As union leader, Pepe was a fierce advocate for her members, ready to fight with principals and other school officials if she felt they were treating the aides unfairly. At the same time, she held her members to high standards, insisting that she wouldn't defend unprofessional behavior.
Pepe held the union position until 2003, when she was elected to the School Committee on a platform that promised to put the needs of students and staff before political considerations. And, indeed, during her time in office, Pepe has shown again and again that she's not afraid to ruffle feathers to do what she feels is the right thing.
Pepe officially announced her candidacy in April, although her campaign really took off this summer, when she called attention to controversial details in Superintendent Alan Ingram's 2008 employment contract.
Ingram replaced Joseph Burke, whose tenure leading the school system will perhaps be best remembered for his numerous job applications for positions back in Florida, where he lived prior to coming to Springfield. Many had high hopes for Ingram, who had been a school administrator in Oklahoma City. He was selected for the Springfield job by a unanimous vote of the School Committee and the state-imposed Finance Control Board (which oversaw the city's troubled finances from 2004 to 2008) at a salary of $190,000 a year—the highest on the city's payroll, and more than double what the mayor earns.
Pepe initially supported Ingram. But over the years, she became critical of Ingram's job performance, as the school system continued to flounder. Springfield has a dismal graduation rate (53 percent, compared to 82.1 percent statewide), low test scores, and 10 schools considered "chronically underperforming" by the state. This spring, when the School Committee voted to boost Ingram's salary to $212,000, Pepe cast the sole dissenting vote. "It's nothing personal, Dr. Ingram; I know you're trying," Pepe said, according to a Springfield Republican article at the time.
In July, Pepe began raising questions about a little-known "side letter" to Ingram's 2008 contract. The letter—signed by Stephen Lisauskas, at the time the Control Board's executive director—guaranteed Ingram an unspecified amount of "relocation expenses" to move his family to Springfield from Oklahoma, as well as up to $2,000 a month, for a maximum of eight months, in rental assistance, "until you move into your permanent residence in Springfield." (A year later, Lisauskas approved a two-year extension to the moving expenses benefit, writing in a letter to Ingram that while "[y]ou have been unable to move to Springfield during the first year of your agreement ... there remains a public benefit to your moving to the City.")
Most controversially, the 2008 deal gave Ingram $30,000 "in recognition of the additional expenses you will incur in acquiring a residence in Springfield ... to compensate for the higher cost of real estate in Springfield." Ingram, however, has never bought a house in Springfield—he rents an apartment in the city—nor has his family moved from Oklahoma to join him here.
Pepe went after Ingram hard, calling for him to return the $30,000, a call later echoed in a non-binding resolution passed, 4 to 2, by the School Committee. The city Law Department, however, issued an opinion saying the superintendent had no legal obligation to give back the money. Ingram, meanwhile, announced that he won't seek a new contract once his current agreement expires next year.
Pepe has called on the state auditor to review Ingram's contract. And she's been especially critical of Sarno's role in the matter. While the mayor released a statement saying he "[did] not recall receiving copies of the letters signed by Mr. Lisauskas," Lisauskas recently told the Republican that Sarno was involved in putting together Ingram's employment package.
Pepe scoffed at the notion that the mayor didn't know about the deal: "He doesn't know he signed a $30,000 contract?"
The dispute over Ingram's contract has been an especially high-profile—not to mention fortuitously timed—battle of Pepe's School Committee career. But it's certainly not been the only one.
"I walk through the schools. I see what's going on in the schools," she said. And if she doesn't like what she sees, she raises hell, about problems ranging from the poor job done by a private company hired by the city to clean school buildings to the numerous errors found in final exams given last year to high schoolers—exams prepared not by teachers, but by an outside vendor hired by the city for $374,000.
And then there was the controversial decision in 2009 to move the School Department from a rundown building at 195 State Street to space in the former federal building at 150 Main Street, left vacant when a new federal building was built. When City Hall first set out to find a new home for the School Department, both the School Committee and the City Council called for the city to request competitive bids from potential landlords. In the end, however, the administration opted to forego a bidding process and instead simply move the department to the old federal building.
That decision was decried as bad business by critics, including Pepe and City Councilor Tim Rooke. Without seeking competitive bids, they said, the administration was missing an opportunity to get the best deal; instead, taxpayers would be stuck paying large amounts in rent, as well as spending millions for renovations to a building that the city doesn't even own.
Before the dustup, Pepe said, Sarno (who, as mayor, is ex officio chairman of the School Committee) had promised to vote for her to be the vice chair the following year. But when she began to publicly criticize the School Department move, she said, Sarno threatened to withdraw his support. The mayor, Pepe said, told her, "You will only get my vote for vice chair as long as you support Dr. Ingram at all costs," and "You have to keep your mouth shut about the federal building."
Sarno denied the accusations, calling them "out of line" and "outrageous." Pepe, however, maintains that the mayor tried to blackmail her, and the rift between her and Sarno—who, in the small world of Springfield politics, happens to be her distant cousin—has not been mended.
But, Pepe said, she's not running for mayor out of spite. She's running because constituents asked her to, and because "the city was not moving in the right direction. You have a mayor that can't make a decision, and when he does make a decision he doesn't consider the ramifications of his decision, such as the burden to the taxpayer. After awhile I said, 'To heck with this.' ...
"When I make a decision, you better believe I do my homework," she added.
Pepe ticks off a number of bad decisions she believes Sarno has made, starting with the School Department move and the subsequent decision to sell 195 State to a private housing developer for just $1. She also criticized the mayor for trying to balance the city budget on a projected increase in the hotel tax despite the fact that the City Council didn't support the idea, and for voting to give Ingram a merit raise this spring.
Pepe said Sarno is unable to work with the City Council and School Committee, and instead "does things behind our backs." Committee members and councilors, she said, have a hard time getting information from the administration.
Earlier this summer, the Council cut $2.7 million from the mayor's proposed fiscal 2012 spending plan. While that was a small piece of the $545 million budget, it was a politically significant move. In response, Sarno held a press conference to chastise councilors and warn that the public would feel the effects in areas including public safety and street maintenance. Pepe called Sarno's claims an overreaction and said they "demonstrate[d] the mayor's inability to collaborate with the City Council."
That's continued, she said, with the recent battle between Sarno and councilors over a cost-saving plan to require municipal employees to take unpaid furlough days. Sarno initially proposed that all non-union workers take 12 unpaid furlough days; councilors countered with the suggestion of a "tiered" approach, under which higher-paid employees would take more days than lower-paid ones. While councilors say the mayor's finance team had agreed to the tiered plan, Sarno recently said that he will only go along with it if the Council restores some of the budget cuts it made earlier this summer. "He didn't keep his word," Pepe charged. "Now he's playing games."
As mayor, Pepe vowed, she'd work with city councilors. "If they have a viable issue, I'd support them. And they'd get the credit. It wouldn't be about Antonette Pepe. And that's not what's happening right now."
Sarno, Pepe said, engages in "a lot of rhetoric, a lot of ribbon cutting, a lot of posturing." But his "nice guy" image isn't sincere, she charged—and it's certainly not helping the city.
"It's nice to be nice, nice to have nicknames for everybody, nice to go to everybody's funeral, nice to do the cha cha," she said. "It would be nicer if we didn't have 15 murders, didn't have the robberies, didn't have the failing schools and the mess we have."
If she's elected, Pepe said, economic development would be a top priority: "First and foremost, we've got to bring businesses back in."
Pepe said she'd work with the City Council to lower the commercial tax rate (Springfield has the highest in the state), work cooperatively with neighboring communities on joint development projects, and take advantage of the city's "fabulous riverfront."
To address Springfield's high rate of violent crime, Pepe calls for more aggressive policing, and for expanding community police efforts, housing the cops in neighborhood council offices where they can build strong relationships with residents. And, Pepe said, it's time to replace Police Commissioner William Fitchet. "He's not getting the job done," she said bluntly.
Springfield also needs to demand more accountability from its well-funded but failing school system, Pepe said. Over the years, she said, "we spend billions on these schools, and we haven't anything to show for our money. I don't know anybody that would keep putting money after money into something when you're not getting anything out of it."
The School Department, she said, needs to get serious about fighting truancy, perhaps by imposing fines on the parents of chronic class-skippers. It also needs to better support its teachers, who find themselves trying to meet state-mandated achievement levels while also struggling with behavior problems in the classroom. And changes need to be made in the hiring and promotion process, Pepe said: "We can't put people in jobs because they're politically connected. We have to hire people who've been in the system a long time and know the system."
As the city prepares to find a new superintendent to replace Ingram, Pepe suggests a process she believes would eliminate favoritism: rather than spend money on yet another pricey consultant, a transition team should be given all the resumes, with the applicants' names and identifying features blackened out. The top three applications would then be passed on to the School Committee for a thorough review.
"Keep the politics out of hiring. That is what has got to stop in the city," Pepe said. "There are too many cover-ups and back-room deals."
To her critics, Pepe is too primed for a fight, too quick to battle for the sake of battle. Even some of her admirers question whether Pepe's fierce approach would work in the mayor's office. One long-time activist in city politics recently told the Advocate that he has a lot of respect for Pepe, and considers her an honest, hard-working and brave person who fights for what she believes in. Still, he added, while he's unimpressed with both Sarno and Tosado, he doesn't believe that Pepe could bring together diverse factions and work with adversaries, as a mayor needs to do.
But to her fans, Pepe's bluntness and independence are a powerful antidote to the insincerity and insularity of city politics. "She's not going to do things that are political, or do favors for people because it will get her somewhere. She's going to do what she needs to do," said Karen Powell, a long-time civic activist who serves as one of Pepe's two campaign managers. "She's really one of the few that doesn't have a political agenda, and that's the way the city has to be run."
Pepe won't hire people to city jobs because they're politically connected, and she'll demand accountability from municipal workers, Powell said. And Pepe's reputation as a government watchdog will serve her—and the city—well if she's elected mayor. "She'll watch over things," Powell said. "People will not get away with doing nothing while they're getting paid."
While some observers think Pepe has a divisive personality, Powell said, what they're really seeing is the frustration she feels "when she's at the end of her rope." And she sometimes gets there, Powell added, when political insiders try to silence her; "Right now, they all think they can knock her out of there, or shut her up."
Powell is confident that Pepe would be an effective mayor. "She works well with a lot of the city councilors," Powell noted. "They can't work with Domenic."
Tim Rooke is one of those councilors. While he has not endorsed any of the mayoral candidates, he has good things to say about Pepe. Recently, he said, he had coffee with her to discuss her plans if she's elected, and was impressed by her personal humility—"There wasn't a lot of 'I.' I don't think she used the word in the whole conversation"—and her acknowledgement that she'd need to surround herself with a strong team—"the best and brightest"—to do the best job for the city.
"She is driven to get answers and to find the truth, and when she finds that truth there's a burden that comes along with it, the responsibility to share the truth," Rooke said.
"People like to call her an obstructionist. But the people who claim she's an obstructionist are the people who want the usual course of business to continue—and she's not one of them," Rooke continued. "To me, that's very appealing. As a businessman and a voter and a taxpayer, that's very appealing to me."
At the end of August, Pepe had $12,805 in her campaign account, less than Sarno's $16,627 and Tosado's $20,162. And she hasn't spent nearly as much money as her opponents; while Tosado has paid more than $15,000 to an advertising agency, and Sarno recently dropped about the same amount on TV ads, Pepe so far has spent only $4,663, on things like fundraiser invitations and a few newspaper ads.
Pepe's largest campaign donations have come from organized labor—no surprise, given that she and her husband have both long been involved in the local labor movement. (Russell Pepe, a retired sheet metal worker, was also an official in his union.) Her campaign committee includes Tony Taylor, president of ASCME Local 1370 and a vice president of the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO.
Pepe's campaign chair is Terry Regina, a retired assistant school superintendent. Attorney Michael Kogut, who last year ran unsuccessfully for the Hampden County District Attorney seat, is co-campaign manager with Powell.
Pepe's fans also include one unexpected name: Jos? Tosado, one of her two rivals for the mayor's seat. "I like Antonette a lot," he recently told the Advocate. "I consider her a friend. I wish her the best of luck."
Pepe called Tosado, "a decent man ... a good family man," with whom she's had a good working relationship. But, she added, "Do I think I could be a better mayor than him? Of course I think I can be a better mayor than him. I can't think of any issues he's tackled, any controversial issues."
That's not a charge anyone could level against Pepe—and that won't change if she's elected mayor, she promised. "I'm not going to be a different person—I'm not," she said. "I'm still one of the people. I'm still a taxpayer, and let me tell you I know how hard it is to make ends meet."
And, Pepe said, she won't be shy about fighting hard battles, even if it means making political enemies, because she knows the public will be on her side. "I'm not afraid of anything but God," she said.