Wednesday, August 24, 2016

In the Arena

Like many who served in the armed services during the Vietnam era, Mitch Ogulewicz became increasingly disillusioned with that conflict after his return to civilian life. In fact, Ogulewicz had been skeptical of the United State’s involvement since his college days, when he’d watched the Fulbright hearings on the war on television. Following his discharge, Mitch began participating in activism involving fellow veterans who shared his opposition to the war.

One of the most prominent figures in that movement was a decorated combat veteran from Massachusetts named John F. Kerry. In 1982 Kerry was launching a campaign for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts, and it would be through the Kerry campaign that Ogulewicz was later drawn into the political arena himself.

The late Neil Phillips, father of the scandal plagued former Police Commissioner Gerald Phillips, invited Ogulewicz to meet Kerry at a fundraiser being held at the home of Attorney Stan Szlachetka. At that event, Mitch met a Kerry operative named Mike Whouley, who several days later contacted Mitch and asked him to be the Western Mass co-ordinator for the Kerry campaign. Mitch agreed, but had little sense at the time that through this volunteer work he would ultimately establish the political connections that would lead to the launching of his own political career.

Mitch’s campaign role gave him the opportunity to meet some of the Hollywood celebrities who were lending their glamour to Kerry's fundraisers. At one Boston event, Mitch met Chevy Chase and Robin Williams. Ogulewicz and his wife Cyndi even got to socialize with the two comedians later that evening. Williams impressed Mitch with his seriousness and reserved manner, which was in sharp contrast to his outrageous stage persona.

At one particularly memorable fundraiser, Mitch met the folk band Peter, Paul and Mary, while on another occasion Peter Yarrow of the same group gave a solo concert at a pre-convention party Mitch organized at Tilly’s in Springfield.

The night of Kerry’s election victory, then City Councilor (later District Court Judge) Phillip Contant told Springfield Newspaper reporter Carol Malley that Kerry’s victory left Ogulewicz in a good position to enter local politics in Springfield if he wanted to. Malley later listed Mitch among the rising stars of local politics in her political column “Perspectives.” While Mitch was flattered by the mention, he was not yet ready to take the suggestion very seriously.

Then in December of ’82 Ogulewicz received a visit from Agawam activist (later Kerry senatorial aide) Jim Shear. Mitch was impressed when Shear presented him with a complete outline of what Shear insisted would be a winning campaign for the City Council. While Mitch was impressed with Shear’s arguments that he could win, he still declined to commit himself to the campaign. Yet, after some soul-searching and discussion with family and friends, Mitch informed Shear that he would be willing to run if two conditions could be met. One was that Mitch, who had two young children at home, would not have to campaign on Sundays, leaving that day completely free to spend with his family. The other was that Jim Shear agree to be his campaign manager. Shear accepted both terms.

In January of 1983, Mitch told his friend Paul Robbins (later a well known local political consultant) about his intention to run. To his surprise, Robbins, who knew all about the political culture of Springfield through his former job as an aide to the City Council, tried to discourage Mitch from running. Robbins told Mitch he lacked the right kind of personality to get along in what Robbins described as the dishonest, petty and often backstabbing world of Springfield politics. Robbins told Mitch how he had seen Councilors fight over such things as who was receiving the most publicity, sometimes engaging in shallow, mean-spirited gossip behind one another's back. He told Ogulewicz that frankly he thought Mitch was too honest, too easy-going and not sufficiently devious to survive in the cutthroat environment of Springfield politics. Although taken aback by Robbins appraisal, Mitch refused to believe that things were as bad as Robbins had described. He thanked his friend for his advice, but chose not to heed his warnings.

In February of ’83 Mitch stood on the steps of City Hall and announced his candidacy. Coverage of the event led to an amusing media blooper when reporter Sy Becker misspoke as he was cutting to a commercial and announced the upcoming story of “the new candidate for mayor" while a photo of Mitch was shown in the background. Becker quickly apologized to the viewers when he came back from break, but Ogulewicz couldn’t help but laugh when imagining what Richie Neal, who was running for mayor virtually unopposed that year, must have thought had he been watching.

Mitch found that he enjoyed campaigning more than he had expected. For one thing, financing the campaign did not prove to be a problem. With lots of small contributors, plus the help of people like John Kerry and Neil Phillips, Atty. Tom Murphy and businessman Phil Hallahan, they succeeded in raising roughly $28,000 dollars. Much of that money was spent on a Shear inspired TV ad that remains to this day one of the most famous political commercials in Valley campaign history.

The advertisement played humorously on the wide disparity that exists between the spelling of Mitch’s last name and how it’s pronounced. The ads were simple but effective. First they showed a variety of people from different walks of life mispronouncing Mitch’s name. For example, one scene showed the late South End activist Jim Izzo butchering Mitch's name with a thick Italian accent. Then there followed a series of other people's mispronunciations, until at the end the ad showed Mitch’s then five year old daughter Kristen swinging on a swing and saying “No, it's O-gul-lev-its!” It was the perfect combination of funny and cute, and while some of Mitch's opponents complained that the ad lacked substance, it did an effective job of bringing Mitch the name recognition that he lacked outside of the Hungry Hill and 16 Acres neighborhoods.

As in all successful campaigns, there was a lot of good old-fashioned legwork. Door to door campaigning began in Indian Orchard, whose large Polish population Shear hoped would give Ogulewicz a positive reception and a psychological boost. His walking tours soon spread throughout the city, where he frequently ran into some of his opponents. In particular he kept bumping into former mayoral aide Francis Keough, who was also running an aggressive door to door campaign. The two young candidates became friends and sometimes even worked the same street, with Mitch on one side and Keough on the other. Mitch also had to attend what seemed like an endless number of coffee hours, nearly 80 in all. Mitch also got some help from his friend John Kerry.

It was an extraordinarily tough field that Ogulewicz was competing in. There were four openings on the Council, one created by Phil Contant stepping down, another by the retirement of pioneering black councilor Paul Mason, yet another by the departure of Andrew Scibelli, who was leaving to accept the presidency of Springfield Technical Community College. Richard Neal, who was leaving the Council to run for mayor against only token opposition, created a fourth vacancy. The number of vacancies brought out a large field of 24 contenders. Besides Keough, the candidates included School Committeeman William T. Foley, former School Committeeman Nick Gioscia, future School Committeeman Kenneth Shea, popular ex-cop Bobby Brown, Springfield Action Commission director Buddy Langford, Mason Square activist Morris Jones and Pine Point gadfly Al Rivers.

On September 20th, Mitch finished 9th out of the 24 candidates, with popular Atwater activist Betty Montori close at his heels. The top nine are the preferred spots to finish in the primary because under the at-large election system in place at the time only the first nine finishers are elected in the final election.

But while the ninth place finish was very encouraging to Ogulewicz, it hardly insured an ultimate victory. For one thing, the turnout in the final election would be much higher than in the primary, with many voters coming to the polls who had not participated in the runoff. Those November voters might very well have different preferences than those who had participated in the September primary.

Still, the fact that Mitch had demonstrated his ability to finish ninth was a heads-up to the city’s movers and shakers, alerting them to the fact that Ogulewicz was a potential new Councilor. That made him suddenly interesting to members of the powers that be who had previously ignored his campaign. Mitch started hearing through the grapevine that there was someone he needed to meet with at the soonest opportunity if he expected to go all the way to victory in November.

The name of that person was David Starr.

Here is the famous Ogulewicz campaign ad with out-takes:

The 1982 campaign button below from the Ogulewicz Collection is a true rariety. Do you know why?

There never was a King/Kerry campaign because then Governor Edward King was upset in the primary by Michael Dukakis. The buttons that were mistakenly made in anticipation of a King victory became valuable collectables from a campaign that never existed.

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