I'm saddened to hear that former Springfield State Representative Frederick Whitney has died. Among his many distinctions was that he was the last white person to represent the neighborhood then known as Winchester Square (since re-named Mason Square). Whitney voluntarily stepped aside to allow Ray Jordan to become the city's first black representative, perhaps recognizing that the changing demographics of the Square made his defeat inevitable anyway. Still, it was considered a classy exit that avoided what might have been a divisive campaign. Whitney later ran against former Congressman Ed Boland and was defeated. Whitney never ran for public office again, but often threatened to, even well into his seventies.
I first met Fred Whitney as a result of receiving an angry letter from him. Indeed, being a Republican in Springfield meant Whitney's career was punctuated with angry letters. He had seen me on television one night in the early 1990's when I was filling in on Channel 40 for Dan Yorke. I was presenting this shtick I used to do at the end of each year called "Heroes and Villains of the Year." Making my "Villains" list was the Springfield Republican Party, which I ridiculed for being so ineffective in winning elections, despite having the advantage of competing against such an obviously corrupt and incompetent Democrat Party machine. I believe I even used the word "pathetic" to describe the local Republicans, a strong word perhaps, but I was only saying publicly what everyone said in private.
Shortly afterward Channel 40 forwarded to me a letter they had received and it was from former Representative Whitney, who was at that time the president of the Springfield Republican City Committee. He lambasted me for being so critical, complaining that I had never been to any Republican functions nor had I any first hand experience of their activities. So how could I know enough about the local GOP to call them pathetic?
Well, I knew for certain that they were losing elections even when running against obvious crooks, but I called Whitney anyway and he invited me to join him and some of the local Republican leaders for lunch at the Mass Mutual Insurance building on State Street. In those days the Pioneer Valley Republican Party was pretty much run out of Mass Mutual, where the late insurance executive Bill Barbeau used to hold regular luncheons at which political figures would gather to plot in vain for the overthrow of the local Democrat Party machine.
I soon found myself a regular at these gatherings, which I enjoyed almost as much for the chance it gave me to explore the architectural majesty of the Mass Mutual building itself, which is as impressive on the inside as you might expect from its exterior. I also enjoyed meeting many old time pols from Whitney's state rep days, some of whom could tell intriguing, sometimes shocking, and often very funny stories of local political lore, many of which can no longer be told by anyone now living.
Personally I've never been much for political parties of any stripe, and my inclusion in the Republican party's innermost sanctum was a sometimes uneasy one, myself being a bit more liberal on a number of issues than your typical GOPer. Still, the hapless Republicans were in no position to be choosy about their friends, and besides I had media connections that they desperately needed, the area GOP being all but censored by the local mainstream media.
But the real connection was between myself and Whitney, because we were both "good government" crusaders. Whitney was originally from Wisconsin, and he was a Republican in the tradition of the 19th century reformer Robert LaFollette. That reformer tradition inspired Whitney to focus on issues of process more than policy, and he was primarily concerned with honesty and transparency in government. He and I both shared the view that one of the main problems in the Valley in general and Springfield in particular was that there was no balance of power, no loyal opposition to keep the Democrats honest and responsive. With Democrats occupying all of the major offices by lop-sided margins, it was hard to get anyone in political office to hold anyone else accountable because everybody was on the same team. The result was that even the honest Democrats, few as they were, could not effectively challenge the corrupt machine. Or as I wrote at the time using cold war terms, "One party rule has not worked in Russia, or in China or in Cuba, and it ain't working in the Pioneer Valley either."
Whitney's great crusade was ward representation in Springfield. He felt that the at-large system had made downtown special interests too powerful at the expense of the neighborhoods. It was exactly the powerful versus the little guy sort of issue that he relished. Whitney fought for many years for ward representation, railing against the downtown power players even with no one else showing any interest in the issue, until finally some local liberals took up the cause primarily from the perspective of increasing minority representation. In a cruel irony, those liberals had little desire in joining forces with a Republican, and Whitney, who had been a lonely voice for ward representation for decades, found himself shoved to the sidelines by the new ward representation activists. Yet he was still thrilled when ward representation finally passed, and felt no resentment that no one acknowledged his activism. "It is amazing what you can accomplish in politics," he told me, "as long you don't care who gets the credit."
I fell out of touch with Fred Whitney in recent years, as had most people. As Whitney entered his late eighties his hearing went bad, and he couldn't see well enough to drive at night, so it became hard for him to attend political functions. Of course there were many who would have been honored to drive him to any function he wanted to attend, but then he couldn't have left whenever he wanted, which was important to him if the proceedings turned, as political events are known to do, into what he used to call "hogwash" but which a less genteel man than Whitney would have called "bullshit."
Yet even in his final decline, if anyone in our Valley could be called "Mr. Republican" it was Fred Whitney, and not everyone realized what a sometimes difficult role that was to play. There were many politically barren years when it was hard even to find Republican candidates, let alone get them elected, and many Democrats laughed openly at their Don Quixote campaigns. It is not overstating it to say that there were years when the only thing keeping two-party democracy alive in Western Mass were the efforts of people like Fred Whitney. He never did live to see the Republican party revived, but someday, when the people of Massachusetts have had enough, the state's Democrats may finally get the good drubbing they so richly deserve. And on that happy day, I hope that the Massachusetts Republicans will remember to tip their hat to the tireless efforts of those like Fred Whitney, who carried the torch for them through the darkest years.
To read the obituary of Fred Whitney in the Springfield Republican click here.
The other day in the Haymarket I ran into local radio star Jaz Tupelo.
Jaz is teaming up with her old sidekick Bill Dwight for a new morning show on Valley Free Radio. I hear the show will feature music as well as politics! Starting January 24th, you can find it at 103.3FM - Monday through Thursday, 8am to 9am.
Newbury Records has left their longtime Amherst location and re-opened in downtown Hamp in a much bigger space on Pleasant Street.
If this sign were for real, the people of Northampton would be fighting for the space.
Demented lounge music in Easthampton.
Taped on a Northampton bus stop.