Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Robbed!

In the aftermath of Ogulewicz’s re-election victory, speculation began almost immediately over whether Mitch would run for the Council Presidency. He had already served as Vice-President under Mary Hurley, and now with Hurley showing no interest in seeking another term, it seemed natural that as her Vice-President Mitch should succeed her.

In fact, the votes for an Ogulewicz presidency came together on election night, when Hurley officially endorsed Ogulewicz as her successor. He had already received the endorsements of Councilors Robert Markel, Brian Santaniello and Betty Montori, so with Mitch voting for himself, that gave him the five votes necessary to put a lock on the Council Presidency. However at one point during the election night revelry, Hurley took Ogulewicz to one side and whispered to him privately, “Get yourself a sixth vote.” Mitch didn’t know what she meant, since on a nine member body only five votes were needed for a majority. “Don’t trust Markel!” Hurley warned.

Mitch remembered the unpleasant run-in with Markel he had soon after he was elected to his first term, in which Markel had deceived him into inadvertently derailing the presidential ambitions of former Councilor Rose Marie Coughlin. Yet Mitch had been something of a greenhorn back then and hardly knew Councilor Markel. He now had what he felt was a solid working relationship with him, and felt he had little to fear from Markel’s sometimes Machiavellian ways. With his election seemingly assured, Mitch began setting an agenda for the new Council. He intended to make some significant changes.

As much as he admired the dedication of Mary Hurley, she was hardly an anti-establishment figure and had served during her presidency pretty much in harmony with the powers that be. On the contrary, Mitch was becoming more and more disillusioned with the city’s political power structure, and was determined to be more reform minded during his presidency, especially regarding opening up the process to include the average citizen. Unknown to Mitch, there were people maneuvering behind the scenes who wanted keep things just the way they were.

Shortly before Ogulewicz was to be elevated to the presidency by a formal vote, Springfield Newspapers reporter Susannah Pugh called and asked for Mitch’s comment on some startling news. According to Pugh, Robert Markel had formally announced that he was seeking the Council Presidency and that furthermore, he already had the commitments of five councilors! Mitch was dumbfounded and immediately got on the phone to Markel. Robert Markel admitted everything, telling Mitch that he had the votes of machine insiders Francis Keough, Bill Foley, and Morris Jones. Generally independent Councilor Vincent DiMonaco had also been brought onboard. With his own vote, Markel would become the new Council President.

“Bob, you are absolutely unbelievable!” Mitch exclaimed, along with some other, more colorful comments. Ogulewicz told Markel that if he wanted the presidency he should have told Mitch so at the beginning and not gone scheming behind his back. Although Mitch wanted the position, he was not willing to get into a big, ugly fight over it and would have deferred to the more senior member Markel if he had simply been asked. Now Mitch felt that he had been publicly embarrassed, since it had been reported in the media for weeks that Ogulewicz would be the new Council leader, only now it wasn’t going to happen because Markel had stolen the presidency in a backstabbing backroom deal.

Since there appeared to be nothing he could do about it anyway, Mitch decided to accept what had occurred as gracefully as possible, but felt disillusioned by what had happened. Vincent DiMonaco, the dean of the Council who sometimes liked to imagine himself as Mitch’s mentor, tried to console Mitch by explaining that it was all just politics and praised Ogulewicz for the mature way he had accepted the unexpected defeat. DiMonaco admitted to Mitch that it had been himself, in concert with the Springfield Newspaper’s Arnold Friedman, who had put together the coalition to elect Markel. Vinnie chuckled over the fact that Markel had always lacked the ambition to become President in his eight years on the Council, but took the post only after it had been orchestrated for him by the Springfield Newspapers.

DiMonaco also confided that at one point he had approached Councilor Brian Santaniello and asked him to defect, considering Santaniello to be the weakest link in Mitch’s coalition. Mitch was gratified when DiMonaco said that Santaniello had indignantly refused, insisting that he would never betray his word to another Councilor. Santaniello did this even though he probably would have been rewarded by Markel with a plum committee assignment had he done so. Although Mitch and Santaniello were not political allies on many issues, Ogulewicz always respected Santaniello for the loyalty and courage he had shown despite the intense pressure that he was under to betray Mitch. In the end Ogulewicz decided it was best to just put the entire incident behind him, resigning himself to working with Markel as best he could (but never quite trusting him) and instead focus his attention on carrying out his duties to his constituents.

One day Mitch brought a proposal to Councilor Betty Montori to allow the City Council meetings to be televised on cable TV. Today, when virtually every legislative body on every level of government is televised routinely, it is hard to appreciate what a radical idea this seemed like at the time. A special committee was formed to look into the proposal, with Ogulewicz and Montori serving as its co-chairpersons and Building Department head Gene Laino, City Clerk Bill Metzger and Brian Lambert of Continental Cable serving as committee members. Francis Gagnon of the Historic Commission was also onboard to help insure the preservation of the historical integrity of the Council chamber.

Council meetings in those days were run quite loosely, with an informality that many feared wouldn’t appear very flattering on television. As Vinnie DiMonaco remarked to the Springfield Morning Union, “After some of the proceedings we’ve had in here, this council would not be long in office if meetings were televised.” Indeed, there were real reservations about whether the Springfield City Council were ready for prime time players. As City Hall reporter Carol Malley wrote in her political column “Perspectives”:

“For instance, if the full chamber were in view at all times, councilors might feel obligated to remain in their seats throughout the meeting, which would mean that they would have to listen to debate and testimony rather than walk around chatting with the public, with city officials, and with each other. It would also limit the number of times they leave to make telephone calls or check on the Red Sox score. It might also decrease the number of trips to the bathroom, which became a source of laughter Monday night when one councilor was looking for a missing colleague. It might also limit the chatting, fooling around and laughter that now highlights Council meetings.”

Despite all these misgivings, Mitch believed that the people’s right to know how their elected representatives conducted the public’s business outweighed any concerns about whatever inconveniences or personal embarrassments televising the meetings might cause. Under Ogulewicz’s leadership, the Special Committee voted to recommend that the meetings be televised on a regular basis. Soon the full Council adopted the recommendations by a vote of 8 to 1, with Vincent DiMonaco casting the sole dissenting vote. The first televised meeting went off without a hitch, despite taunting from Vinnie that many Councilors appeared to have bought fancy new outfits for their television debut.

Yet as Mitch was soon to discover, the new openness he was working to bring to city government would have its critics - critics who had no intention of having their behind the scenes power threatened and who would act aggressively to defend it.

Councilor Robert Markel in 1987.

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