So there will be a mayoral contest after all. When incumbent Mayor Charles V. Ryan announced he was seeking a third and final term last month, some predicted that Ryan would be allowed to make his final appearance on the political stage with no or minimal opposition. As it turns out a serious challenger had emerged in the person of Springfield City Councilor Dominic Sarno.
I doubt that Ryan is too dismayed not to have gotten a free ride his last time in the arena. Every race he ever ran was a barn-burner on some level, from his first successful run for Mayor in 1961, where he challenged and defeated Tommy O'Connor of the infamous Boland Machine, to his most recent race in 2005, when he unexpectedly trounced School Committee member Tommy Ashe, who had allegedly been anointed the next mayor by local machine boss Frankie Keough. Ryan beat 'em all, except once; his comeback attempt in 1995 which he lost to Michael Albano. But even that loss is not accepted by some, who point to subsequent voting scandals, while one former official told me at the time, "I don't trust any returns coming out of Mason Square or the North End" - the very areas where Albano ran up his margin of victory. So there will always be those who will question whether Ryan was truly defeated in 1995 and whether Albano was ever legally elected.
So what positives does Sarno bring to the race? He has always been one of the more popular Councilors, always finishing in the top tier of vote getters. He has managed to avoid getting any mud splashed on him, despite having served during the Albano years. Previous challengers to Ryan, Linda Melconian and Tom Ashe, were obvious stooges for the corrupt local political machine, but Sarno is not known to have any such baggage. Even his critics do not accuse him of being personally dishonest or corrupt. He served adequately, if undistiguishedly, on the Financial Control Board for a year, and surprised observers by not being the obstructionist many feared he might be. Sarno is a sharp dresser who looks younger than his 43 years, and he has a refreshingly upbeat attitude in a local political culture dominated by whiners.
But what about the negatives? Some critics say that Sarno's popularity is based upon him not really taking any strong positions on anything. As a Councilor he's been able to get away with some fence-sitting that will not be possible under the harsher scrutiny of a mayoral campaign. Ryan has already shown that he can make the tough decisions, even when there are political costs. Sarno has yet to demonstrate that he can do the same.
While no one accuses Sarno of a personal lack of integrity, there are people around his campaign that do not inspire confidence. Key Albano era figure Charlie Kingston, a man with a long history of scandal, was disturbingly prominent at Sarno's announcement. So was Ray Jordan, the controversial former state rep. who some have characterized as the black Chris Asselin. Senator Gale Candaras, another former Albano crony, is also a prominent supporter.
In fairness to Sarno, some of those in the sleaze scene are bound to be drawn to his campaign purely out of necessity. Since Ryan has firmly slammed the door in their face, the only hope the crooks have of a comeback is to get Ryan out. For that reason they would support any credible candidate opposing Mayor Ryan. The question is whether Sarno will repudiate these supporters so that voters can be reassured that they will not have a role in a Sarno administration. On the contrary, at his announcement Sarno praised Ray Jordan as "born to lead." Well yes, but only if Springfield wishes to be led over a cliff.
This municipal election takes place in a climate of great uncertainty. To the deep consternation of many, Governor Deval Patrick has inexplicably dismissed the members of the Financial Control Board, despite their extraordinary record of achievement. Stranger still, he did so without yet naming who will replace them. Whoever these rookie replacements are, they will have to learn the history of the whole situation in Springfield and pretty much start from scratch. Why the Governor is doing this, essentially replacing a winning team in the home stretch, is unclear and raises fears that the FCB seats are being turned into political plums for Democrat party hacks. God help us if that's true.
But these unsettling changes only underline the importance of keeping at the helm someone who has known the process from the beginning, and who can guide and advise the new Control Board members without being influenced by a political agenda while the crucial transition is made, as it will be under the next mayoralty, back to full city sovereignty. Charlie Ryan has already announced that he will not run in 2009, thereby leaving him completely free to make the decisions that are in the city's best interest without any thought of his own political future. That way the process of phasing out the Control Board and returning to full sovereignty can be carried out without political drama or hidden agendas.
At the very least, it will be extremely difficult for Councilor Sarno to convince the voters that he can top Mayor Ryan's qualifications for performing that statesmanlike role.
Gee, maybe Spring really is here, as the flowers are blooming in front of the Student Union at UMass.
Then again, the forecast calls for frost tonight! But it may only be winter's last stand, as the forecast for the rest of the week shows the steady warm temperatures we have long prayed for arriving at last.
Here's a video I made while walking out of the Science and Engineering Library at UMass.
A guy goes into an adult store and asks for an inflatable doll.
Guy behind the counter says, "Male or female?"
Customer says, "Female"
Counter guy asks, "Black or white?"
Customer says, "White"
Counter guy asks, "Christian or Muslim?"
Customer says, "What the hell does religion have to do with it?"
Counter guy says, "The Muslim one blows itself up!"