Friday, July 29, 2011

Moving on Up...

Councilor Rivera (WMassP&I)
The numbers out of the Election Commission indicate plenty of interest in the citywide races slated for this November.  At last count thirteen interested candidates have qualified to compete for the city's five at-large seats and three candidates have qualified for mayor.  As a result there will be a primary in September for both of those offices.  However, the relatively high interest in the city's elected offices at-large were only matched by a near-indifference on the ward level.  The only contested ward race will be in Ward 8 where Orlando Ramos will seek a rematch with current Ward 8 rep John Lysak.  Even ward 6, one of the city's most politically active wards is facing a one man race with Ken Shea seemingly destined to take that seat in January.  

The current occupant of that seat, Amaad Rivera, however, kicked off his campaign for election to one of the city's at-large seats.  At a somewhat humble, but intimate gathering of core supporters, Rivera formally launched his candidacy.  The event was held in the Hall of Local 108 of the Carpenters Union and attended by twenty-five to thirty people, many of them crucial backers of his  2009 run for the Ward 6 seat.

Several long-time supporters of Rivera spoke.  First up was Katie Stebbins a member of the Springfield planning board and wife to former city councilor Bruce Stebbins.  Stebbins, who described both herself and her husband as big supporters of Rivera, recalled several late-night conversations in her kitchen with Rivera regarding issues affecting the city.  Although her husband is a Republican and not necessarily in perfect political sync with Rivera's progressive values, she, her husabnd and Rivera are united in fighting for a stronger Springfield and good government.

Michaelann Bewsee (WMassP&I)
Michaelann Bewsee, the head of Arise for Social Justice, a Springfield advocacy group scolded Amaad for not running Ward 6 because there would be no race there after all (she made a point of noting no disrespect for Shea).  The faux criticism aside, Bewsee extolled Rivera's virtues calling him a "champion for progressive causes" on the City Council.

Arlene Rodriguez, a dean at Springfield Technical Community College called Rivera one of the most "honest, charismatic speakers" that she knows.  She also praised his "passion for people."  Dominic Basile who has known Rivera for years called him an "intensely loyal friend."

Rivera, trying not to play the politician with assurances of a short speech, spoke next.  He led off thanking his family which he described as a group of people where, "It was okay to express what you felt."  He also described how throughout his life in Springfield he felt there existed this (false) notion that there was something wrong with Springfield.  Instead he argued, "We can make a better, stronger Springfield.  

He also shared that in the wake of his original defeat, he felt that "we," as in he and his supporters had lost despite seemingly effective organization, community outreach, fund raising, and a first place finish in the primary.  However, with Keith Wright's resignation in December and the gross oversight of the city's ward representation law, Rivera was given a second chance.

Rivera boasted that, with his allies in the street and on the council, "In six months, we have made history."  Among the issues advanced, if not always passed, were LGBT causes, the language access ordinance, progress on the city's revolutionary foreclosure ordinance, and the civilian review board for the police department.  In explaining his decision to run at-large as opposed to in ward 6, Rivera was clear, "We have been working on issues bigger than Forest Park."  Forest Park makes up an overwhelming majority of Ward 6 save a few precincts technically in East Forest Park.

Also in attendance last night were Justin and Denise Hurst an at-large city council candidate and vice-chair of the school committee respectively.  Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards also attended.  The event broke up a little after eight o'clock as the candidate worked the room thanking supporters for attended the intentionally small event.

Rivera's shot at an at-large seat may have been unthinkable only five months ago when he forced a delay in a crucial vote for a renovation project at Forest Park Middle School that earned him ridicule and complaints from councilors and residents alike.  Although in the end, from a policy perspective, Rivera ended up achieving his goals and voted for the project overall.  Still, many observers thought that Rivera was wounded and unable to gain reelection in Ward 6, let alone citywide.  Some predicted he would fade into obscurity as an outspoken, but largely irrelevant member of the council.

At-large cand. Justin Hurst and Katie Stebbins (WMassP&I)
That did not happen.  While early moves by Rivera lacked the necessary political finesse that more successfully outspoken candidate usually employ, there is little doubt that he quickly shifted gears.  Rivera, who joined the council as its fourth Hispanic and its first openly gay member, worked with establishment members and its more renegade/good-government members  to pass historic cuts to the city's budget (unlike the federal government's access to a central bank, Springfield must protect its reserves lest it suffer even more dramatic cuts in future budget years).  Even more surprising was the consensus between Rivera and at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh (and others) on the issue of equitable employee furloughs.  Back in February, no political enmity in the city ran at risk from turning from simmer to outright boil than that between Walsh and Rivera.

Even outside the council chamber, Rivera's visibility has benefited his reputation.  He and others in the city's somewhat invisible gay community were able to reestablish a Pride week in Springfield after a decade-long hibernation.

This added attention bodes well for Rivera's campaign for an at-large seat.  Traditionally, notoriety (or infamy as Rivera in prone to joke) has greatly helped candidates for at-large seats.  By either measure, Rivera has plenty.  Although assuming all four incumbent at-large councilors take a seat once more, Rivera will be facing several well-knowns from years past including former councilor Bud Williams.

For all the excitement about the at-large races, overshadowing that is the lack of interest in the ward races.  Bewsee lamented that she did not work that hard for ward representation for interest to  sputter out so ignominiously.  Maureen Turner echoed that concern today, although she noted at the very least the council benefits from quality members among the wards, singling out Lysak, Williams and Wards 2 and 7 Councilors Mike Fenton and Tim Allen.  Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola confirmed in an email to WMassP&I that there will be no spot on the September primary ballot for interested write-on candidates for the ward races.  Write-on candidates, Oyola said, could compete in the general, however.

The dim prospects for ward races and the potential for former councilors and also-ran candidates does not appear to slow down Rivera.  His campaign, now slated to run city-wide, will likely once again shake the cobwebs off the city's democratic institutions (note the small "d") and hopefully translate that into a win and greater resident participation in civic affairs.

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