Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The People's Choice

Everyone kept telling Ogulewicz that he should meet with Springfield Newspapers publisher David Starr. He finally decided he would ask his friends who worked for the paper whether or not he should do as everybody kept advising him. It amused Mitch that if the meeting with Starr was so all-fired important, then why didn’t Starr just call and make an appointment to meet with him? But apparently that was not the way things worked; the unwritten rule was that it had to be the candidate who contacted Starr.

Ogulewicz consulted with Daily News Editor Richard Garvey, who was one of the few holdovers from the days when the paper had been locally owned. Mitch knew Garvey through serving with him on the executive board of the Pioneer Valley Boy Scouts. Garvey explained that ever since the media and real estate conglomerate The Newhouse Corporation had purchased the Springfield Newspapers that this was simply the way things were done. Starr, a career Newhouse employee who had been assigned to Springfield in the late 1970’s, had become increasingly active in local politics, which meant he liked to meet personally with the major candidates and advise them on political affairs. It had become known that how well you took his advice could have a major impact on whether or not you received the newspaper’s endorsement.

The Springfield Newspapers at that time consisted of three papers, the Morning Union, the Daily News (which the Newhouse Corporation combined in 1987 to form the Union-News) and the flagship Sunday Republican (whose name contradicted the fact that the Newhouse Corporation was staunchly Democrat). Yet despite the corporate takeover, in 1983 the three papers still retained a little of their original independence. In fact, Garvey assured Mitch that no matter what Starr did or did not do, Mitch could count on the Daily News to endorse him. Garvey suggested that there was little to lose in meeting with Starr and possibly something to gain, since if Starr got a favorable impression of Mitch he might win the endorsements of both the Morning Union and Sunday Republican.

Another of Ogulewicz’s newspaper friends, Don Ebbeling, agreed. Ebbeling wrote “People and Politics,” a collection of tidbits involving political personalities, sort of like today’s “Cries and Whispers” but without the anonymity or mean-spiritedness. Mitch and Ebbeling were friends who sometimes socialized after work, and like Garvey, Ebbeling believed that no harm would be done by meeting with the publisher. So Ogulewicz decided to call Starr's secretary and make an appointment.

What happened at that meeting has been the subject of controversy for nearly two decades. The encounter took place in a conference room in the Springfield Newspapers building on Main Street, three weeks before the election. It was between three parties: Ogulewicz, Starr and editor Arnold Freidman, then considered to be Starr’s right hand man. The two newspapermen wore trademark bowties daily, although it was never clear who was copying whom, or whether they were both just coincidentally bowtie afficionados. It was Starr who did most of the talking, although Freidman was feared in some quarters as the suspected author of the paper’s more aggressive, unsigned editorials. If Starr was perceived as the gentleman publisher, then Freidman had a reputation as a vindictive hatchetman.

Upon being introduced to Starr, Ogulewicz found the publisher to be charming and intelligent. David Starr was in many respects a typical liberal Democrat of his generation. He believed in a high level of government intervention in the economy, but would reject the label of socialist. He saw the government as a tool useful in acting on behalf of the disadvantaged and as a stimulus for economic development. Starr was a passionate supporter of the arts and considered being a booster of high culture a duty of the more well-off members of the community such as himself. He also believed that the media should play a role in both political and cultural advancement, and described himself as an “activist editor” who uses his paper to promote noble ends. The problem is that what Starr considered noble ends were not always universally viewed in that light. What he has called “activist” his critics accused of being manipulative and self-serving.

Yet, Ogulewicz went to that meeting with no particular positive or negative preconceptions. He had worked for the Springfield Newspapers as a paperboy for all three editions and had always had friends working there, like Garvey, whom he greatly respected, and Ebbeling, whom he considered one of his closest friends. If he had any bias toward the paper it was a positive one, and while he had heard some negative rumors about Starr and Freidman, he personally considered them as just another pair of politically active businessmen that he would have to deal with if he were elected to the Council.

At first the meeting seemed to go well. Starr asked Mitch to elaborate on his political views and why he was running for the Council. Mitch’s conception of public service as a way of giving back to the community that had done so much for him was just the sort of rhetoric that was in tune with Starr’s own strong concept of public duty. Mitch’s mainstream Democrat views were also pleasing to Starr, who was known to dislike extremism of any kind. Mitch had the feeling that he was making a good impression, until just when it appeared that the meeting was winding down, the conversation took an odd turn.

Starr asked Ogulewicz what he thought about the importance of having minority representation on the Council. This was a prominent issue that year because of the retirement of the Council’s only black member, Paul Mason. Mitch told Starr that he felt that it was important to have diversity on the Council, since that would help to insure that all aspects of the community were represented. He explained that as a white middle-class male living in 16 Acres, he could not always feel confident that he understood the day to day realities of life in the minority communities. That answer appeared to please Starr, who then stunned Ogulewicz by asking, “Would you be willing to publicly endorse Morris Jones for City Council?”

Mo Jones was a black postal worker and community activist whom the newspaper was pushing to replace Mason. Mitch was stunned and couldn’t believe what Starr was asking him to do. Was Starr really suggesting that he support one of his own opponents - in essence committing political suicide - on behalf of a candidate Starr supported?

“Uh, well, I think my supporters who have been working for me for the past year might be disappointed if I did that,” Ogulewicz replied. The expression on Starr’s face told Mitch that he had given the wrong answer.

“It is my intention,” Starr explained, “to manipulate and cajole the public into voting for Morris Jones. If you get hurt in the process Mitch, please understand that it is nothing personal.”

The meeting ended with the three exchanging polite good-byes, but Ogulewicz left the building with his head spinning. Was it arrogance, ignorance, aggression or all three that had made Starr think that he could get away with such a request? In any case, Mitch had the feeling that Starr had put him to an important test and that he had failed it.

He was right. While the feisty Daily News gave Ogulewicz their endorsement just as Dick Garvey had promised, the Starr/Freidman dominated Union and Sunday Republican did not. Mitch also suddenly found it difficult to get his press releases published, which had never been a problem in the past. He complained to Dick Garvey about it, who told him he would bring the subject up with political writer Carol Malley. Despite the fact that Mitch had dropped off the releases in person, Garvey reported back later that Malley had inexplicably claimed that she had never received any Ogulewicz press releases.

This version of events as described by Ogulewicz is contested by Mr. Starr. In a rare statement to the Valley Advocate, Starr has publicly denied making the request Mitch described, claiming that he doesn’t operate that way and wouldn’t have said the things Mitch says he did. Arnold Freidman is now deceased.

Yet despite having two thirds of the local press urging his defeat, Ogulewicz felt his campaign surging in the final weeks. On Election Day Mitch not only matched his ninth place primary position but moved up two slots to number seven. Election Night was a delirious blur of congratulations, congratulatory handshakes and congratulatory beverages. It was perhaps too much of the latter that led Mitch to get sick out the car window while his wife Cyndi was driving him home from a victory party.

A few days later Mitch’s wife told his friend Don Ebbeling about how Ogulewicz had got sick to his stomach in the middle of Catalina Drive on the way home on Election Night. A few days later, an item no doubt puzzling to most of the public appeared in Ebbeling’s "People and Politics" column. There was a paragraph stating that if anyone on Catalina Drive had found a “package” in the street in front of their house the morning after Election Day, to please return it to Mitch Ogulewicz.

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