Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Ms. Mayor

The victory of Mary Hurley over Vincent DiMonaco was a significant political development for a number of reasons. Foremost, Hurley was the first woman to ever be elected Mayor of Springfield, a fact that she was very proud of. Unfortunately, she now had to face the terrible financial crisis left in the wake of the departure to congress of her predecessor, Richard Neal. Hurley was in a somewhat stronger position to deal with that crisis than Vinnie DiMonaco had been in his role of acting-Mayor, since the acting-Mayor does not possess the full authority of a mayor who is chosen by the voters in a municipal election. For the first time since Neal left, finally someone with the full power and authority of the mayor’s office could tackle the task of trying to clean up the Neal deficits.

However, Hurley’s elevation to the mayoralty also resulted in a change on the City Council by creating a vacancy. According to city ordinance, the unsuccessful candidate who came closest to winning in the last election is invited to fill the seat. In this case it was Anthony Ravosa Jr. the son of a well-known downtown lawyer and entrepreneur. The young Ravosa was a Republican, thereby bringing to an end total one-party dominance on the City Council. As a political outsider, the arrival of Ravosa would eventually alter the dynamics of the Council in important and controversial ways.

But for the time being, Mitch Ogulewicz and his fellow Councilors were primarily focused on trying to determine the magnitude of the financial devastation left in Neal’s wake, with the situation quickly deteriorating as more information came to light. Everywhere the councilors looked there was more red ink. Especially annoying to the council were the wildly contradictory statements from the city’s Auditor/Budget Director Henry Piechota. For example, at one point Pichoeta actually argued that the city had a surplus, but with a state revenue spokesman quickly stepping in and putting an end to that fantasy by publicly declaring the city massively in debt.

Soon after Hurley was elected, Piechota vanished altogether, taking a sick leave for unspecified heart ailments. The result of his sudden absence was that the person who was the chief source of information on the financial practices of the Neal Administration was no longer available to answer questions. What caused eyebrows to raise was that Piechota left after making the statement that he had been personally responsible for a multi-million dollar deficit in the employee medical insurance account. Previously Piechoeta had vehemently denied it was his fault, which had caused fingers to point in the direction of the man who gave Pichoeta his orders – Richard Neal. Now Piechota had suddenly reversed himself and let Neal off the hook – only to suddenly disappear with no further explanation.

At times it appeared as though no one had any idea what was going on. Yet Mayor Hurley felt that even in the absence of all of the information that she needed, she still had to take immediate action to stop the city’s slide toward bankruptcy. There appeared to be only two options open to her in order to create an emergency cash flow – either get money from the state to bail the city out or a Proposition 2½ override. The state government was not hostile to the idea of additional aid for Springfield, but wanted to know how the city had fallen on hard times so quickly and so unexpectedly. The lack of non-contradictory explanations caused the state to withhold a bailout for Springfield until a report could be prepared by the state Department of Revenue to determine in a non-partisan, independent manner why Springfield’s finances had suddenly gone so terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, Hurley lacked the option of waiting for the state to complete its report. In the meantime, she needed an immediate influx of cash, which she tried to obtain by holding a special election, in which Hurley asked the taxpayers to give her $10 million dollars in additional tax money. By a 56% to 44% margin the voters said no. Not many people were surprised by that outcome. The citizens of Springfield were mad, and many felt they had every right to be. For years they had been told by the politicians and the Springfield Newspapers that the Neal Administration was a model of good government, that Neal himself was one of the rising stars of Massachusetts politics and that his mayoralty was a “golden age” in Springfield’s history. How could it be that they were now being told, just a few months after they had elected Neal to congress on those glowing recommendations, that the city was flat broke and pleading for a taxpayer bail-out? The voters were angry and disgusted, and they expressed their displeasure at the polls by defeating the override by a twelve-point margin.

The override defeat left Mayor Hurley facing a possible financial Armageddon if she couldn’t get her hands on some funding quick. The only option left open to her was to go back to the taxpayers and beg them yet again, but this time for a smaller override of 2½. For this second referendum, Hurley hit upon a novel approach in order to try and win the taxpayers over. Instead of just asking for a flat ten million, Hurley broke her request down into the individual departments that would receive the money if the voters approved. Voters were able to choose, as if from a menu, the departments of the city that they wanted to give an increase to. It was a brilliant move, since voters who may turn down an open-ended request for ten million bucks might still respond positively to say, a smaller increase that would insure their trash pick-up. The trick was to try cobbling together a majority coalition behind each of the city services needing funding.

Helping to form those pro-override coalitions was the Springfield Newspapers, which at times seemed to resort to almost Orwellian tactics in order to promote the override. The paper ran a series of articles on each of the possible menu choices, but every article discussed only the reasons that the request should pass with never so much as a sentence devoted to any of the reasons why someone might oppose it. At the same time, a temporary blackout was imposed on all letters to the editor on the subject of the override. On the Sunday before the Tuesday vote, an entire page was devoted to printing excerpts from what turned out to be the many letters they had received on the override but had never published. In this format, both pro and con letters were printed in equal number, thereby giving no clue as to what the actual pro vs. con ratio had been. Many of the opposition letters were so heavily edited that it was impossible to for the override opponents to present any in depth arguments, which was, of course, the whole point in the newspaper presenting the letters in that format.

Even with these heavy-handed measures, on Election Day not all of the questions on the “menu” passed, although enough did to give Hurley a little breathing room. However, it became increasingly apparent that the city would never have the resources on its own to dig itself out of the hole Neal had left it in, and that the state would simply have to come through with some money. In the meantime, Hurley became increasingly angry about the mess she had been left to clean up and began criticizing Neal in public.

This was something she would have preferred to avoid, because a mayor is heavily dependent on working with their local congress person to acquire money from Washington. But the crisis was so overwhelming that at times Hurley simply couldn’t hold her tongue. Neal caught wind of her comments and suddenly appeared one day at Hurley’s home, expressing anger that she had publicly accused him of fiscal mismanagement. Hurley was unintimidated by Neal's unannounced visit and ordered the congressman off of her property. Later, when a journalist asked Neal to comment publicly on Hurley remarks, Neal replied only, “What goes around, comes around.” Congressman Neal refused to explain himself further, but many interpreted his statement as a thinly veiled threat to Hurley to shut her mouth or else.

Meanwhile, the political fall-out from the ocean of red ink that the city was drowning in was beginning to be felt by the public, and many of Mitch’s fellow Councilors were now running for cover. Some Councilors bent over backwards to blame whomever they could, from Ronald Reagan to Mike Dukakis, anyone that is, but the person who had been in charge of the city’s finances – Richard Neal. Vinnie DiMonaco and Kateri Walsh had long been privately critical of the situation, but up to that point had refrained from attacking Neal personally. Ogulewicz was the sole exception, boldly rising in the council chamber and openly identifying Neal as the cause of the city’s woes. Knowing the intense pressure Hurley was under from the Neal camp to disassociate the congressman from the fiscal crisis, Mitch later told Hurley that he was sorry if he had caused her grief by condemning Neal in public. Hurley simply smiled and said, “Mitch, there is nothing wrong with telling the truth.”

However, the few brave voices taking Neal to task were more than obscured by the fog machine hard at work at the Springfield Newspapers, which were doing everything they could to protect the congressman they had so long supported. Leading the charge was political columnist Carol Malley, who left nothing to the imagination by declaring in the headline of her "Perspective" column, “Fiscal Problems Not of Neal’s Doing.” Critics said the column was a masterpiece of evasion and convoluted thinking, much of which contradicted what Malley herself had said at the beginning of the crisis (see previous chronicle). In that earlier column she had identified Neal as being primarily responsible, but now she was complaining that “those who continue to blame Neal for the problems that occurred after he left City Hall and for the problems in the present budget have their own questionable political agendas.” In other words, Malley was saying that the problems facing the city were not anything Richard Neal did or did not do. According to Malley, the city's problems were somehow the result of those who were trying to point out what Neal had done. Essentially Malley was urging the public to ignore the message and blame the messengers, a theme that would be developed repeatedly by the newspapers as the municipal election of 1989 approached.

Then something happened that not even the fog machines at the Union-News could conceal. The state Department of Revenue finally came forward with its long awaited report on the causes and recommended cures for the fiscal crisis. The report would set off a firestorm of controversy that would leave the Neal camp scrambling for damage control.

This video features Mitch Ogulewicz placing the blame for the fiscal crisis squarely on former Mayor Neal.

New Councilor Tony Ravosa Jr. addressing the City Council at one of his first meetings.

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