Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Friends of the Mayor

Of the many candidate forums Ogulewicz spoke at during the election campaign of 1983, few made a more lasting impression on him than one that took place at St. John’s Congregationalist, a predominantly black church on Union street. At first there was little to indicate that it would be anything more than a typical "Meet the Candidates" night.

Running for mayor that year virtually unopposed was Mayor Richard Neal (his opponent was William Montana, a mysterious political fringe candidate who almost never campaigned, and who didn’t seem to be able to even articulate why he was even running). Neal made a standard two-minute stump speech and then left the building. The forum then turned to the City Council candidates.

With such an unwieldy field of 24 contenders, it was difficult to cover many issues, so to give the event some focus, the candidates were asked to answer only a couple of questions of special concern to the black community. The first of those questions was an inquiry as to why so much taxpayer’s money was being spent on revitalizing Downtown, while so little was being spent in neighborhoods such as Winchester Square (now called Mason Square).

As one by one the two dozen candidates rose to give their two minute replies, the event became a boring drone-a-thon as each contender made vague promises to do more for the neighborhoods, some day, some way, details to be provided later. By the time it was Mitch’s turn, he was sick of all the meaningless blather and decided he would shake things up with a little bit of honesty.

“The reason you receive so little economic development money in comparison to the Downtown business interests," Ogulewicz explained, “ is because you don’t count.”

The audience gasped with surprise at Mitch's blunt honesty.

“If you ever expect to compete with the Downtown insiders for a bigger piece of the pie,” he continued, “then you are going to have to be a lot more active, a lot more vocal, and vote in much greater numbers than you currently do. But if you will do your part here in the community, I promise that if I am elected I will do my part in City Hall to make sure the voices of the neighborhoods are heard.”

The congregation erupted into loud applause with shouts of “Amen,” and “Tell it, brother!” After the forum was over activist Roger Williams approached Mitch and asked how he and others could help with the campaign. Prior to that night, Mitch had only a weak campaign organization in the black community, but after that forum and with the help he got from Williams, Ogulewicz was well on his way to a solid showing in the Winchester Square precincts in November.

That candidate forum impressed upon Mitch to what an extent it was a sore point with voters the conflict between Downtown and the neighborhoods. It wasn’t just in places like Winchester Square that Mitch heard these complaints, in every neighborhood people seemed to feel that the Downtown political insiders were getting all the attention, while the residential areas were being allowed to decline. Mitch felt that there had to be some way to bridge thia gulf of alienation that existed between the neighborhoods and City Hall.

Once he had been elected, Ogulewicz was finally in a position to do something about it, so he soon came up with a plan. Ogulewicz realized that part of the problem was that City Council meetings took place at City Hall, meaning that any citizen who wished to participate in their city government had to come Downtown. Ogulewicz wanted to see what would happen if somehow people could share their opinions and concerns with a City Councilor without having to go all the way to City Hall. Mitch concluded that the best way to overcome this would be to start holding "office hours" in every neighborhood in the city. Of course State Senators and State Representatives had been holding office hours in the neighborhoods for years, but no City Councilor had ever done so. Mitch wondered what would happen if city residents could just walk down to their local school, library or fire station and greet a City Councilor waiting there to answer their questions and deal with their concerns.

On January 2nd, 1984, Mitchell James Ogulewicz Jr. was sworn in as a City Councilor representing the nearly 350 year old City of Springfield. In the weeks that followed, Mitch set up a schedule of office hours that would bring him into direct contact with every neighborhood in the city. The reaction to his announcement of office hours surprised him. On the one extreme there was Yolly Nahorniak of the Pine Point Community Center, who did everything but hire a brass band and roll out a red carpet for Mitch’s arrival, while at the other extreme was Karen Ledger of Indian Orchard, who seemed to discourage Mitch from coming to her neighborhood. Mitch later heard from some who attended his office hours that Ledger felt that people should come to her civic association if they needed help instead of talking to a City Councilor directly. Her negative, self-serving attitude surprised Mitch, who had expected his office hours to be completely non-controversial. But Ogulewicz was insistent on going into every neighborhood and not allowing petty political turf wars to undermine his access to the citizens he served.

The East Forest Park listening session at Nathan Bill Park turned out to be the largest turnout of all. When Mitch arrived he was amazed to see the entire Community Center packed to the walls. Mitch couldn’t imagine what neighborhood problems could cause the mostly affluent residents of East Forest Park to flock to see him in such numbers.

To Mitch's surprise, it turned out that the public was in an uproar over an adult basketball league. According to the chief spokesman for the aggravated citizens, retired police captain Jim Williams, there was this basketball league of guys in their 20’s and 30’s who were using the courts at Nathan Bill Park for their nighttime games. Capt. Williams explained that not only were the games noisy, but there was lots of drinking by both players and spectators, illegally parked cars, blocked driveways and problems with people urinating on lawns and cutting through yards. The neighborhood was very forceful in making it clear to Mitch that they were fed-up with the problems caused by this basketball league.

The entire situation puzzled Ogulewicz. Hadn’t the citizens tried to get the city to enforce the noise, drinking, parking and trespassing ordinances already on the books? Yes, the residents explained, but they had been repeatedly put off or handed promises that never came true. It occurred to Ogulewicz that maybe this was the sort of problem that was best handled outside of official channels. Mitch suspected that there was simply a lack of communication between the East Forest Park community and the leaders of the adult basketball league. Perhaps if he were to talk with the leaders of the league one on one then some sort of accommodation could be worked out that would be satisfactory to all parties. Mitch was given the names of two men whom he didn’t recognize who he was told were the persons who were in charge of the league.

Their names were Kevin Kennedy and Mike Graney.

Ogulewicz contacted both men and asked to meet with them men wherever they wished. They told Mitch to meet them at Jilly’s, a popular but tough Parker Street bar notorious for its rowdy clientele. That evening however, the only fisticuffs would be verbal. Over beers Mitch laid out the neighborhood’s concerns as they had been explained to him by the irate crowd at his East Forest Park office hours. He was taken back by the seeming indifference of Kennedy and Graney to what he was telling them and appeared to scoff at what Ogulewicz said. Wouldn’t they make at least some attempt to accommodate the concerns of the residents, Mitch asked?

Kennedy and Graney made it clear that they didn’t have to. They frankly told Mitch that they were personal friends of the new mayor, Richard Neal, and as such did not have to worry about any interference from City Hall or the neighborhood itself. When Mitch persisted that the people of East Forest Park had a right to protect the serenity of their neighborhood regardless of the political connections of the league’s organizers, Kennedy addressed Mitch in the tone of a person talking to someone who has a hard time understanding reality. “We are close friends of the Mayor,” Kennedy said. “F*** those people.”

When Mitch left Jilly’s that night, after having accomplished nothing, he was very disappointed in what had transpired. Mitch was politically sophisticated enough to understand that a little bit of favoritism by politicians toward personal friends and supporters was only natural and could be overlooked if within reason. But it surpassed all reasonable bounds for Kennedy and Graney to feel that their relationship with the Mayor meant that they could dismiss the public's concerns with a crude obscenity.

But if that was the attitude of the friends of the Mayor toward the legitiment concerns of the residents of East Forest Park, then Mitch concluded that those citizens deserved to know exactly where they stood. When he reported back to the citizens of East Forest Park at another packed meeting at Nathan Bill Park, he spared them nothing. After recounting his fruitless attempts to relate the neighborhood’s concerns to Kennedy and Graney, Mitch told them their final response.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Mitch said, “I hope you will forgive my language, but I believe you should be told precisely what they said. They told me, “F*** those people!”

The audience erupted in shouts of rage at this news, as some residents began calling for ways to raise money for a court action to be taken against the city demanding the enforcement of the local ordinances. While nothing was resolved that night, City Hall was bombarded over the next several days with angry phone calls and threats of legal action. The public outcry threatened to create a major political embarrassment for the newly elected Neal Administration, and so, quietly and without comment, the adult basketball league moved their games elsewhere. It was a significant political triumph for Mitch on behalf of the people of East Forest Park, but it did not come without a price. The successful resolution of the neighborhood's problems had come at the cost of some of Mitch’s respect for the Neal Administration and his faith in the Administration’s commitment to treat all citizens equally. It had also no doubt strained his own relationship with the Mayor, since in all likelihood Kennedy and Graney had complained to Neal about the uppity new City Councilor who did not show the proper respect for the Mayor’s friends. Mitch had the suspicion that there was likely to be some kind of political confrontation between himself and Mayor Neal, but little did he guess how soon that confrontation would occur.

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