Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Baptism by Fire

Mitch Ogulewicz was hoping that he would have a chance to rest and recuperate from his exhausting election campaign during the time between his victory in November and when he was sworn-in in January. That hope was quickly dispelled however, as he found himself thrust almost immediately into the center of his first major controversy. Ironically, the controversy stemmed from the election itself.

School Committee member William T. Foley had been promoted by the election to a seat on the City Council. This meant that he had to resign his School Committee seat, thereby creating a vacancy on that body. When vacancies occur on the City Council, they are automatically filled by the highest vote getter who was defeated. However, no such provision existed at the time for School Committee vacancies, which required a Joint Session of the Council and School Committee to choose a new member. There were no restrictions on who the Joint Session could select, and as a newly elected Councilor Mitch would be required to vote on Foley’s successor.

Voters in the election of ’83 had chosen to remove from office one School Committee member, the Rev. Ronald Peters, and replace him with former State Representative Sean Cahillaine. Yet within a week of Peters' defeat, pressure began to build for the Joint Session to return Peters to the Committee by placing him in Foley’s empty seat. Most of that pressure was coming from the Springfield Newspapers, who had pushed hard, but unsuccessfully, to elect black postal worker Morris Jones to the City Council. Since the Council’s only black member, Paul Mason, was retiring that year, Jones’ defeat left the Council with an all white membership. Now the defeat of Peters would leave the School Committee completely white as well. No sooner did the newspaper make its selection of Peters known, then members of the Joint Session began falling into line.

But not Ogulewicz. For one thing, Mitch hardly knew Rev. Peters, and he wanted first of all to acquaint himself with Peters' record. Secondly, while Mitch considered diversity on government bodies to be desirable, Rev. Peters seemed to be being treated as though his skin color was his primary qualification - that and the fact that he had a reputation for always voting with the newspaper. Finally, the voters themselves had removed Peters from his seat. Wasn’t it showing disrespect for the electorate to invalidate the voter’s decision to remove Rev. Peters from office?

Mitch went to the School Department and asked the executive secretary to Superintendent Thomas Donahue if he could examine the files on Rev. Peters voting record and the minutes of the School Committee meetings. The secretary expressed surprise at Mitch’s request, saying that no one else who was eligible to vote in the Joint Session had shown any interest in doing research on Peters’ background. What Mitch discovered in Rev. Peters’ record did not impress him. Ogulewicz discovered that Peters had shown up late or left early for 75% of the School Committee meetings, and as a result he had missed over 40% of the School Committee’s roll call votes!

In Mitch’s view, the newspaper was attempting to steamroll back into office a man who appeared to take his responsibilities as a public servant very lightly. Yet, no one on the joint committee besides himself was resisting Peters' return. In fact, Mayor-elect Richard Neal informed Mitch that the vote for Peters would occur immediately after the New Year at the Council’s second meeting and that the he wanted the vote to be unanimous. To Mitch the indifferent manner in which the position was being filled by someone who was apparently lax in their duties and seemed to be beholden to the Springfield Newspapers was completely unacceptable. He refused to promise Neal that he would help to make the appointment unanimous.

To Ogulewicz, the Peters nomination defied common sense. If the goal was to provide representation for the black community, then how well could they expect to be represented by a person who was not only under the thumb of the Springfield Newspapers, but who showed up late and left early on the occasions when he bothered to show up at all? Nor was Peters the only person interested in the seat. Western New England College Professor Elinor Hartshorn had expressed a desire to serve and was considered extremely qualified. Also, the voters had clearly expressed at the polls their desire to remove Peters from any further responsibility over the public schools, but somehow that sentiment as expressed by the electorate was being completely ignored.

Yet nothing that Ogulewicz could say could sway any of the other Councilors to reconsider Peters nomination, so it looked as though Mitch would be the only one voting against Peters candidacy. That nay vote would be a brave but futile gesture, and Mitch didn’t want his first major issue to be a lost cause. If Peters victory was inevitable, as apparently it was, then at least Mitch could try to insure that Peters would be a better public servant in the future than he had been in the past. Therefore Mitch arranged to meet with Peters at Friendly’s on Riverdale Road in West Springfield. He wasted no time in laying it on the line, if Peters wanted to be chosen by a unanimous vote, then he had better start taking his responsibilities more seriously. Once Peters assured Ogulewicz that he would clean up his act, Mitch agreed to announce that he was withdrawing his objections to Peters candidacy.

The Peters controversy taught Mitch several important things. One, it showed him the extent of the power of the Springfield Newspapers to set the agenda for the local political scene. It was amazing to Mitch how easily and how quickly his colleagues had caved in as soon as the newspaper made its opinion known. Secondly, by meeting with Peters privately he was able to work out a solution that at least resolved some of the issues that had made his opposition to Peters necessary. This taught him that in spite of overwhelming opposition, it was still possible to be effective behind the scenes. Finally, Mitch also realized something very disturbing – how little the will of the people counted for in Springfield politics. In the final analysis the public had voted to remove a politician from office, only to find that same politician being handed right back to them as their representative, like it or not.

Another matter concerning Ogulewicz as he waited for his inauguration was the role he would have to play in choosing the new City Council President. There were two candidates contending for the Council Presidency that year. One candidate was a young Brian Santaniello, while the other was Rose Marie Coughlan. Coughlan had served on the Council for years and had been prominent in the anti-busing movement in the '70's (she would later go on to be elected Hampden County treasurer, a position she held until the county was abolished in 1998). She had shown Mitch a number of kindnesses over the years, so he was happy to lend Coughlan his support for Council President.

One day Ogulewicz was visiting the City Council office in City Hall when his fellow Councilor Bob Markel (who was a college professor at American International College) stopped in. Markel and Ogulewicz began discussing the race between Santaniello and Coughlan and to Mitch’s surprise, Markel told him that the contest was over. According to Markel, a majority of the Councilors had already committed to Santaniello. He went on to inform Mitch that a long standing Council tradition required that once a person had attained a majority of the votes for President, that it was customary for their opponents to vote for the victor and make it unanimous as a gesture of goodwill. Markel asked whether Mitch intended to honor this tradition and give Santaniello his vote. Having already gotten heat for hesitating to make the Peters nomination unanimous, Mitch said that if that was the custom then he would agree to go along with it.

Just then Rose Marie Coughlan came walking into the office. Seeing her, Markel made some excuse to leave and then hurried out the door.

“What did he want?” Coughlan asked Mitch, the tone of her voice dripping with suspicion.

Mitch explained to her what Markel had said and then expressed his disappointment that she would have to withdraw her candidacy. Coughlan let out a shriek that according to City Hall reporter Carol Malley, “could be heard two floors below.” Considering that City Hall is a building made primarily of stone, that’s yelling pretty loud.

“HE DOESN’T HAVE THE VOTES!” she cried.

Coughlan angrily explained that Mitch had been sandbagged by Markel into committing to Santaniello. She accused Markel of claiming that Santaniello had the votes of Councilors who were actually undecided, and then embellishing his nonsense with a bunch of malarkey about Council traditions. Although Coughlan ran to a phone to try to undo the damage, it was too late. By the time Coughlan could contact the wavering Councilors, Santaniello had successfully used Markel's news of Mitch’s support to win all the undecideds to his side, where they remained even after hearing a last ditch appeal from Coughlan.

Although Santaniello had been favored to win anyway, Ogulewicz felt badly about his role in the derailing of Coughlan’s campaign. What Markel had done to him was undoubtedly clever politics, but was this the manner in which fellow Councilors treated one another? Did Mitch have to be constantly on guard with his colleagues, carefully scrutinizing every word they said against the possibility of some kind of political intrigue? This was not how he had imagined that interacting with his fellow Councilors would be like.

Then on December 1st 1983, Mitch picked up the Springfield Daily News and was startled to see his photograph accompanying Carol Malley’s “Perspective” column. He was even more taken aback by the headline:

“Brash Novice Has Much to Learn”

What followed was a blistering attack on Ogulewicz. Starting out by stating that “there are rules that members must honor” on the Council, she then accused Ogulewicz of having taken a “flying start toward breaking some of those rules.” Malley went on to blast him for his role in the Peters School Committee seat controversy, accusing him of “making a lot of noise” over Rev. Peters even though Peters “appears to have the votes all locked up to replace Foley.” She also blamed Ogulewicz for the ugly incident in the Council office, despite the fact that it was Coughlan who was upset and whose shouts “could be heard two floors below.” The article concluded with a suggestion that Mitch should seek guidance on future issues from Mayor-elect Richard Neal, who according to Malley had generously offered to take the new Councilors “under his wing and give them practical advice.” The real message of the article was clear: Hey Ogulewicz, stop thinking for yourself, join the herd, go along to get along and if you’re ever not sure what to do, ask Richie.

Ogulewicz was stunned. He didn’t know quite what to make of it all, so he turned to his newspaper reporter friend Don Ebbeling for advice. Ebbeling told Mitch to ignore Malley’s attacks and simply accept the fact that harsh criticism was sometimes just part of political life. “You’re in the big leagues now!” Ebbeling said. “Just stick to your principles and do what you think is right. As long as you do that, you’ll always come out alright in the end.”

Mitch felt heartened by his friend’s comments, but it was still pretty overwhelming how harshly and how soon he had come under attack. He was already a center of controversy and under siege by the Springfield Newspapers as the “brash novice” who would not obey “the rules.”

It was less than a month after the election, he hadn’t even been sworn in yet. If this was what it was like before he even took office, what could he expect afterwards?

One issue that has come up again and again in Springfield politics to this day is the enforcement of residency requirements. Here is the debate the Council had on the issue during the 1980's.

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