Monday, July 11, 2016

Mayor Vinnie

The year 1989 began a period of unprecedented political change as the result of the departure of Mayor Richard Neal to Washington following the mysteriously abrupt retirement of Edward Boland. When Neal was sworn in by House Speaker Jim Wright, the Speaker noted with astonishment that he couldn’t recall ever seeing a wide open congressional seat go so uncontested as Boland’s had. But then Speaker Wright was unfamiliar with the insular political culture of Springfield.

Under the city charter, whenever the Mayor’s office becomes vacant the President of the City Council becomes the acting-Mayor until a new election can be held. This made the choosing of the Council President in January unusually significant, since the winner would also become the city’s new acting Mayor. Councilor Vincent DiMonaco, a thirty year veteran of city politics, announced that he wished to be elected president by the Council. At the same time he also announced his candidacy for Mayor in the special election to be held April 25th. To Mitch Ogulewicz, DiMonaco’s political plans presented a number of conflict of interest issues. For one, Mitch didn’t believe that it was proper for a candidate in the special election to serve as acting mayor, since that would give DiMonaco a special advantage. Secondly, Mitch also believed that it would be too difficult for anyone to serve simultaneously as both Mayor and Council President while also running for office.

However, Vinnie clearly had the votes to win the Council Presidency without Mitch’s support, and therefore enormous pressure was applied on Mitch to back DiMonaco in order to make his election unanimous. That pressure was increased even more so by the fact that Vinnie’s opponent in the special election, Councilor Mary Hurley, had agreed to make the conciliatory gesture of voting for DiMonaco despite the fact that she was hoping to replace him at the ballot box.

Yet Mitch felt that most of his fellow Councilors were acting in an insincere manner, since nearly all of them, like Mitch, were actually supporting Mary Hurley. Secondly, because the Council President assigns all committee chairs, Mitch felt that the DiMonaco backers were cynically covering all the angles by voting for Vinnie for acting-Mayor, and then voting for Hurley in the special election. It was exactly the kind of cynical and calculating political pragmatism that Mitch had always disliked. So although he knew it would probably cost him a committee chairmanship, he voted on principle against DiMonaco and was outvoted 8 to 1.

There was nothing personal about Mitch’s vote against Vinnie. From his first days on the Council, DiMonaco had made an effort to help guide Ogulewicz through the sometimes byzantine world of Springfield politics. Vinnie said that Mitch reminded him of himself when he was a young rebel just beginning in politics three decades earlier, with DiMonaco sometimes attempting to play the role of Mitch’s mentor. Early in his first term, Ogulewicz surprised Vinnie by invoking Council Rule #18 (which allows any Councilor to delay a vote on a financial matter) a rule that DiMonaco had not expected a freshman Councilor to know. Later Vinnie told Mitch he was impressed because over the years he had discovered that few new Councilors bothered to read the rules of Council procedures, instead relying on the City Clerk to guide their conduct. Vinnie said that it was refreshing to see a Councilor who actually did his homework.

The only problem was that DiMonaco was far more conservative in his political views than Mitch was, so it was sometimes difficult to accept Vinnie’s advice when that help took forms that would’ve required Mitch to support issues he did not agree on. Perhaps because of Vinnie’s attempts to play a mentorship role, DiMonaco took particular offense when Mitch disagreed with him, sometimes leading to some very lively and even heated exchanges between them over the years.

DiMonaco's unique ability to adjust himself to changing political circumstances was what enabled him to survive for so long in the dog eat dog world of Springfield politics. DiMonaco was somehow able to be both a respected inside player and something of a reformer at the same time. His public persona was aggressive and blunt spoken. No one ever had to ask Vinnie DiMonaco to explain himself twice. He had a way of making his views very clear, often at a tone just below a shout. Vinnie spared no one’s feelings if he felt in the right.

When Springfield Advocate reporter Al Giordano, a former associate of 60’s radical Abbie Hoffman, entered the council chambers one day dressed in what Vinnie considered to be "raggedy hippie garb" DiMonaco ordered him to leave and not return until he was respectfully dressed. When Giordano refused, DiMonaco had him bodily removed from City Hall by security.

A big bear of a man who cared nothing for public opinion, DiMonaco was a throwback to an earlier age of plain-speaking, tough talking pols who loved a good fight and who always fought to win. On one occasion DiMonaco was out walking when he was attacked by a pit bull. Not only did he manage to beat the beast into submission, but he then got his revenge against the entire breed by ordering the Council to enact legislation banning pit bulls from Springfield.

Yet Mitch felt he sometimes saw another side of DiMonaco, a softer side that cared deeply about people and who would help others in quiet, non-publicized ways. Like others of his generation such as Tommy O'Connor and Charlie Ryan, Vinnie believed that public service was a noble profession. These old-timers were capable of doing things for others without holding a press conference first and demanding that photographers and reporters be on hand to record their good deeds. Helping people was just something that you did, and in their view if you had no interest in helping others you should choose a different profession than public service. With this attitude, DiMonaco was increasingly out of step among the new breed of politicians like Richie Neal and Frankie Keough, whose every move seemed carefully calculated to advance their careers and enhance their power.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to describe DiMonaco as an outsider. He often socialized with the power players in town, and he could hold a barroom in rapt attention with his fascinating and often hilarious tales of past labor union struggles and colorful accounts of the local political figures he had known in his youth. When he retired from his position as a union boss at the Van Norman machine shop, it was none other than the Springfield Newspaper's David Starr who got Vinnie a new job with the United Way. For that reason among others, Vinnie often praised Starr, and would attempt to do him political favors. Mitch was never comfortable with DiMonaco’s relationship with David Starr, and warned Vinnie not to trust him. But DiMonaco, a grizzled veteran of many labor battles and political wars, had too much self-confidence to feel that he had to heed Mitch’s warnings.

Ogulewicz feared that he may have ruined his friendship with Vinnie by his stand alone vote against making him Council President. Mitch suspected that DiMonaco's feelings had probably been hardened further by Springfield Newspaper columnist Carol Malley, who seldom missed an opportunity to skewer Mitch in her poison-pen political column “Perspective,” and who predictably took Mitch to the woodshed over his vote against Vinnie. According to Malley, the city needed to present a united front against the uncertainties of the post-Boland era, and interpreted Mitch’s actions as divisive. Ogulewicz defended himself in a letter to the editor, which of course only kept the controversy going.

At the Council meeting where DiMonaco would announce his choices for the committee chairmanships, Mitch fully expected to be snubbed. Yet to his surprise, DiMonaco conferred upon him without comment the chairmanship of the Administration and Internal Affairs Committee. When Mitch later tried to express his gratitude, Vinnie gruffly muttered “Forget about it.” DiMonaco never asked Mitch for a favor in return for that chairmanship and never brought up their disagreement again.

So Vincent DiMonaco, tough-nosed former labor leader, now executive of a local charity, legendary political figure of over three decades and sworn enemy of all pit bulls, was duly sworn in as the acting-Mayor of Springfield in January of 1989. His tenure in office would be as stormy as it was short, beginning with a series of unpleasant surprises as DiMonaco, the Council and the citizens of Springfield began the painful process of coming to terms with the financial wreckage that would soon be discovered in the wake of the departure of Richard Neal.

Here is a City Council meeting from early in 1989.

Two videos about zoning changes from 1989.

Mayor Richard Neal gives his farewell address to the city as he departs for congress.

Vincent DiMonaco's Inaugural Address.

The crowd cheers their new Mayor.

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