Friday, August 5, 2016

A New Mandate

In January of 1985, longtime City Councilor Rose Marie Coughlin resigned from the Council after she was elected Hampden County Treasurer in November of 1984. It was a position she would hold until the Hampden County government was abolished some fourteen years later. Her departure created a vacancy, which according to Council rules meant that the next closest defeated candidate in the last election had first rights of acceptance for the seat. Happy to accept was Morris Jones, a thirty year postal employee and well known Winchester Square (now Mason Square) political activist. The arrival of Jones also ended criticism from some quarters that the City Council consisted of all whites.

Jones assumed the office right in the middle of a raging controversy involving the Baystate Medical Center. The hospital wanted to expand and construct new buildings, but the surrounding well-to-do and politically active neighborhood of Atwater Park was opposed, claiming that the new high-rises would spoil their view, increase traffic congestion and lower property values.

Whether the hospital would be allowed to expand was uncertain, since many Councilors, including Mitch Ogulewicz, were undecided. Politically it was a hard call, since the angry neighborhood was very politically active with high voter turnouts. On the other hand, the hospital expansion would create hundreds of new jobs and greatly enhance the quality of health care facilities in the city.

Adamantly opposed was Councilor Betty Montori, the wife of a prominent physician. In fact Montori had run for office specifically with the intent of being a “no” vote on the hospital issue. Equally determined to support the project were Councilors Bill Foley, Frank Keough, Brian Santaniello and Vincent DiMonaco. In many ways Vinnie DiMonaco was considered the leader of the pro-hospital advocates. DiMonaco was a former labor union leader, and advocated the expansion because of the construction jobs it would create and the quality medical coverage it would provide for the poor. Despite some initial hesitation, Morris Jones also joined the supporters. That left in the undecided category Mitch, Bob Markel and Mary Hurley as the swing votes who held the fate of the hospital in their hands. Because it was a special permit, a total of six votes instead of the usual five was required.

With five councilors already in support of the expansion and only one opposed, it was within the power of any of the undecideds to determine the outcome. The three Councilors met on the issue often and it was agreed that if any one of them decided to vote in favor, then the other two would vote yes also. Somewhat cynically considering the political realities, they felt that if it was going to pass, then there would be no point in voting against the project and incurring the political wrath of the unions and other special interest groups over a lost cause.

One day Ogulewicz was in his office at the bank when he received a request to meet with Bank President Karl Walzak. Mitch assumed that it was something to do with routine bank business, and was very much taken aback to discover what the real topic was. Walzak informed Mitch that he had just received a phone call from a very high ranking public figure, urging him to ask Mitch to please vote in favor of the hospital expansion. Mitch was totally surprised and asked Walzak, “Do you mean someone called and asked you to apply pressure on me to vote yes?"

The bank President stressed the fact that he was personally indifferent to how Mitch voted on that or any other issue that came before the Council. Walzak said that he merely felt that Mitch should be aware of the fact that the phone call had been made. Mitch was furious that someone would attempt to pressure him politically through his employer, and demanded to know who had made the call. At first he resisted, but finally Walzak relented and revealed the identity of the attempted blackmailer:

David Starr.

Mitch considered the discovery that it was the publisher of the daily paper who had applied this pressure as beyond the pale and something that Ogulewicz couldn't overlook. He left work immediately and marched straight down Main Street to the corporate headquarters of the Springfield Newspapers. When Mitch arrived, he demanded to speak with the publisher. Ushered into the office, he found Starr was smiling and welcoming.

“Mr. Starr,” Mitch said trying to keep his calm, “I need to have a word with you.”

“Of course,” Starr replied pleasantly, “and don’t call me Mr. Starr. Call me David.”

Mitch was angered by Starr’s friendliness, which he saw as hypocritical considering the phone call he knew Starr had made that morning. It seemed to Ogulewicz indicative of Starr’s arrogant belief that Mitch’s quick arrival at his office apparently meant that Mitch was coming to surrender.

“No thank you, Mr. Starr,” Mitch said, rejecting the offer of moving their relationship to a first name basis, “I don’t want to be too friendly with anyone who puts pressure on the place where I work in order to try to force me to vote their way! Frankly, I don’t appreciate the implied threat!”

The expression on Starr's face revealed that the publisher was caught completely off-guard. At first Starr tried to deny that he had made the call, but Ogulewicz then asked why Walzak, whom he had known since they were youngsters growing up on Hungry Hill, would lie to him about such a matter. Still Starr continued to insist that he had not made the call. The conversation became very heated, with at one point Mitch’s voice becoming so loud that nearby employees gathered outside Starr’s office, concerned about the shouting they heard coming from inside. Mitch finally stormed out of Starr’s office in a rage, aware that what little friendly relationship he had ever had with Starr was now irreparably damaged.

Ironically, despite that ugly incident Mitch ended up voting for the hospital expansion anyway, eventually concluding that the medical needs of the community outweighed the resident’s objections. The other Councilors voted the same way, except for Betty Montori, and the measure passed 8 – 1. Montori suffered for her lone dissenting vote, when the Springfield Newspapers wrote a strident editorial calling for her defeat in the next election.

The Baystate expansion controversy played against the background of the Municipal elections of 1985. Mitch felt confident of his re-election, but the field was far from unchallenging. All nine incumbents were seeking re-election, and it was feared that one of them might be ousted by Patricia Corriera, a popular school committee member who was attempting to make the leap to the Council. If she succeeded, which Councilor would she force out? Also on the ballot that year for Council were candidates with famous last names, like Thomas Brunton, nephew of former Mayor Daniel Brunton, and Donald Whitney, son of former State Representative Frederick Whitney. Also running and considered electable was local labor leader Antoinette Pepe and neighborhood activist William Christophori.

Despite the ugly incident with Starr, Ogulewicz was amazed to see that he received the endorsement of the Springfield Newspapers, although its endorsement was so restrained it was almost useless. In a one sentence statement, the paper feebly stated that Mitch had “focused on neighborhoods and is learning how to become an effective Councilor.” With praise like that, who needs insults?

As it turned out, the threat from Correria proved unfounded, as all nine Councilors easily won re-election. A surprise victory also occurred in the School Committee race when a candidate who had not done well in the primary went on to win a seat in the general election. His name was Michael J. Albano. Considering all Ogulewicz had to struggle through in his first term, his re-election was a gratifying renewal of his mandate and proof that the public did indeed recognize how hard he had worked for them.

Yet as Mitch looked forward to his second term, he was innocently unaware of the terrible political storms that lay ahead.

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