Saturday, August 6, 2016

Between Two Worlds

In the elections for City Council officers which were held in January of 1985, Mitch Ogulewicz was elected by his colleagues to the post of City Council Vice President and Councilor Mary Hurley was elected to replace Brian Santaniello as the Council's President. Yet, the election of officers which elevated Ogulewicz to the Vice Presidency came despite a year of intense political activities that in some ways had alienated Mitch even further from many of the players in the city’s power structure.

For one thing, the previous year had been a presidential election year. In 1984 most of the Valley’s Democrats were lining up behind Walter Mondale, who had been Vice President under former President Jimmy Carter. Mitch, however, was supporting Gary Hart, a Colorado Senator who was challenging Mondale for the presidential nomination. Mitch felt that Hart had a better chance of winning than Mondale, who besides being tied to the unpopular Carter Administration had also promised to raise taxes if elected. Ogulewicz felt that Hart represented a fresh face from a younger generation of politicians, so when Ogulewicz, who became Hart’s Western Mass co-chairman, introduced Sen. Hart at a pre-primary rally at Court Square, Mitch praised the Senator in Kennedyesque terms about “passing the torch to a new generation.”

At the same time, Mondale was attacking Hart as being all style and no substance, playing on a popular television commercial of the time in which Wendy’s Hamburgers was critical of their competitors for their skinny burgers. The ads showed a grumpy old lady looking at her hamburger and asking, “Where’s the beef?” Mondale appropriated that same catch phrase on the campaign trail to use as a taunt against Hart.

In spite of those attacks, Hart went on to win the Massachusetts primary. At the local victory celebration, Ogulewicz, his co-chair Lenny Wagner and a campaign worker posed for a photograph with Hart’s campaign platform between two slices of bread, as if to say, “Here’s the beef!” However, despite winning in Massachusetts, Hart soon lost both his momentum and the nomination to Mondale, who just as Mitch had predicted, went down to a landslide defeat in November to Ronald Reagan.

Although Ogulewicz’s support of Hart had annoyed those among the local power structure who were mostly Mondale backers, it was nothing compared to the negative reaction to Mitch’s role in the U. S. Senate race that year. Incumbent Senator Paul Tsongas shocked the state of Massachusetts when he announced that he would be unable to seek re-election because he had fallen ill with cancer. One night soon afterwards, Mitch received a phone call from Lt. Governor John Kerry, whose campaign for Lt. Governor Mitch had served as Western Massachusetts Chairman. Kerry asked Mitch for his advice on whether Kerry should seek the Senate seat made available by Tsongas stepping down.

Ogulewicz advised Kerry not to run, pointing out that Kerry had been Lt. Governor for little more than a year and suggested that it was too soon to seek another office. He warning that running might make Kerry appear opportunistic. Kerry thanked Mitch for his advice, but did not follow it, running for and eventually winning the Senate seat later that year. Once again Mitch had agreed to head Kerry’s Western Mass operations. Yet now that Kerry was running from the position of already holding a statewide office, the senatorial campaign was much bigger and more sophisticated than the hard scrabble, grassroots campaign that Mitch had headed the first time Kerry ran. By comparison, Mitch felt that his role was now more ceremonial, with the nuts and bolts of the race being run by paid professionals.

Many in Western Massachusetts were passionately opposed to Kerry’s Senate race. That was because Holyoke native David Bartley, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House, was challenging Kerry for the nomination. Bartley was the hometown favorite, and most of the Valley’s power elites aligned themselves staunchly behind him.

Ogulewicz felt that he couldn’t get behind the Bartley campaign for a number of reasons. His primary reason was his longtime friendship with John Kerry. David Bartley, on the other hand, was someone he hardly knew. Mitch also disliked what he perceived as Bartley’s lack of commitment to a single political role. Upon leaving the legislature, Bartley had assumed the presidency of Holyoke Community College, despite not having the academic credentials for the job at the time. Bartley had taken a leave of absence at one point to serve in the administration of Governor Ed King and now he was taking yet another leave in order to run for the Senate. Critics wondered whether Bartley had actually retired into academia or if he was using the college merely as a paycheck and a powerbase from which to launch his own political agendas.

Yet, what really disturbed Mitch was the behavior of some of Bartley’s supporters. He was shocked to hear Bartley backers saying things like calling Kerry a “flag burner" (although he participated in many rallies against the Vietnam War, Kerry denies he ever burned a flag) and in general implied that Kerry was not enough of a patriot to sit in the United States Senate. Mitch was annoyed that Bartley supporters who had never served a minute in the armed services themselves were being critical of Kerry, a decorated combat veteran.

As the Kerry/Bartley battle intensified, tempers started to fray and hard feelings began to form. Locally, much of the anger was directed at Mitch, who was thought of as disloyal to the hometown boy for leading the local fight on behalf of Kerry. Mitch tried to explain why he felt that Kerry was the better candidate, but no one would listen or even cut him any slack for being Kerry’s personal friend. As the Kerry campaign surged and the Bartley campaign sagged, Bartley’s supporters became increasingly embittered. Ultimately the race led to tensions with one of Mitch’s colleagues.

During the 1983 campaign, Mitch had run an aggressive door to door campaign, which is considered one of the most difficult and sometimes unpleasant ways to campaign because many citizens hate to be bothered at home by politicians and you can end up with many doors being slammed in your face. The only person matching Mitch’s door knocking pace was former Dimauro mayoral aide Francis Keough. They often ran into each other on the campaign trail and enjoyed talking and joking together about their campaign experiences. When both he and Keough got elected, Mitch had looked forward to working with his former campaign buddy.

It didn’t turn out as well as Mitch hoped. Keough was a team player, anxious to get ahead in politics fast. That meant he was usually concerned with positioning himself to be on whatever side was winning. Meanwhile, Mitch was becoming known as a boatrocker who would not sacrifice principle to ambition, which made Mitch's role on the Council almost the exact opposite of Keough's. One day Keough, a passionate Bartley supporter, walked up to Mitch and said something that struck Mitch as odd. “When all this over Mitch,” Keough said, referring to the campaign, “I want you to know that our friendship will be unchanged.” While there was nothing unusual in the exact words that Keough was speaking, there was something disconcerting about the manner in which he was saying them. While the words themselves suggested something nice, the odd tone in which they were spoken struck Mitch as having a facetious manner. In other words, he felt that what Keough really meant was the exact opposite.

So once again, Mitch had a hard time dealing with people’s petty political attitudes. It was almost as if he lived in two different political worlds, one where big issues were at stake on matters of principle, such as in the John Kerry campaign, and another world of petty political mediocrities who fought viciously over local issues. Why did it seem impossible for him to make political choices without his opponents taking personal offense? Was it possible to disagree without being disagreeable? Mitch rejected this herd mentality in Springfield that had virtually everyone blindly going in one direction, with rejection and animosity towards those who would not follow. The whole concept was foreign to Mitch’s style of independent thinking. How far were they willing to go in order to enforce political orthodoxy?

Mitch was about to discover just how far in a surprisingly unpleasant way.

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