Editor’s note: Please continue to enjoy this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor, and be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends. Ray can be reached via email at Mariano@worcester.ma.
NOTE: The final day to decide who will be a candidate for mayor of Worcester is Tuesday, Sept. 19. In advance, I thought I would get things rolling with some thoughts about the two major candidates likely to be in the race. [So far, Petty is the only candidate to announce his intentions.]
Mayor Joseph Petty and City Councilor Michael Gaffney are as different as night and day. As I started to think about them, it was hard to find anything that they have in common. Here, as they say in the boxing world, is a quick “tale of the tape.”
In the last campaign for mayor, in 2015, Gaffney and Petty also faced off. The results were reasonably close. In the race for mayor, Gaffney received almost 8,000 votes and came within about 2,000 votes of Petty.
The race for councilor at-large was much closer, with Gaffney coming up about 500 votes shy of Petty. Given that only one in every five Worcester voters actually took the time to vote, a small uptick in turnout could have made a significant difference in the election.
One of the basic rules in campaigns is that candidates stand and answer questions as to their positions on the issues of the day. It is how a majority of voters get their information.
In my 40 years of experience working in campaigns, not just in Worcester but in more than a dozen states around the country, I have never met a successful candidate who refuses to answer questions from the media. I have known candidates who will not talk to a specific reporter or to a specific news outlet, but never anyone who refuses all profiles and questions.
That seems to be the case this year. Michael Gaffney told me, “I will not be participating in any candidate profiles, stories or endorsements with the local media.”
My intention was to send the candidates for mayor a list of written questions and give them an opportunity to respond in writing. This approach gives the candidates time to think about their responses and also ensures accuracy. I will not get that chance with Gaffney, and apparently no one else will either.
I understand how a candidate can feel about particular media outlets. I have had shouting matches with certain reporters, editors and publishers over the years who I felt treated me unfairly. However, with the exception of one reporter, in my 40 years in public service, I have never refused to respond and even in that instance I responded, but only to written questions.
In my opinion, Gaffney is making a mistake.
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The city manager
I believe the two most important things a city councilor does are tackle the annual city budget; and hire, fire and interact with the city manager.
Here the difference between the candidates is abundantly clear. Petty actually recruited Ed Augustus to take the interim job as city manager. And when Augustus said he would not be a candidate for the permanent position, Petty worked to persuade him to take it.
Petty has also been a strong supporter of the city manager’s performance – arguably his strongest supporter. He is reticent to offer anything that could be perceived as even a slight criticism of the city manager.
Gaffney, on the other hand, has not been shy about criticizing the manager. And while Augustus holds his tongue a bit, it is equally obvious that he has little regard for Gaffney.
In this election, the performance of the city manager might well be among the most deciding issues.
Social justice liberals vs. conservatives
Normally, national politics and broad social issues would have almost no impact on a local Worcester election. In my opinion, this year will be different.
Perhaps by design, both candidates have worked hard to appeal to very different constituencies. Gaffney called into question the city’s practice of not asking about a person’s immigration status when stopped by local police. He said the city was operating as a so-called “sanctuary city” and, if it was, should say so publicly.
Petty called on supporters of a liberal immigration approach to rally, and the entire issue was debated in front of City Hall, during a City Council meeting and on all local media.
[Note: The Worcester Sun asked readers to register their vote to a range of related questions.]
Then there is the issue of race relations. Gaffney has asked tough questions about a minority-run local nonprofit agency, Mosaic Cultural Complex, which accepted grant money from the city. Gaffney said the agency had used its facilities for political purposes, including being involved in a Black Lives Matter protest at Kelley Square.
An audit was conducted by the city and a serious management issue was found, including lack of proper documentation and reporting. Throughout the discussions, Petty and most of the City Council remained silent.
Because Gaffney advertises his legal services on local blog Turtleboy Sports, area liberal activists have accused Gaffney of being a racist. Telegram & Gazette columnist Clive McFarlane went way over the top by accusing Gaffney of cracking “the slave master’s whip.” That outrageous and totally unfounded language is an indication of the intensity surrounding Gaffney and the race issue.
Depending on who actually is motivated to vote on Election Day, it is likely that both Gaffney and Petty will garner votes from people primarily on the basis of the positions they have taken on broader national and social issues.
There are many things to like about Michael Gaffney. He is smart, a tireless worker and unafraid to ask tough questions. He has forced the City Council to look at issues it would rather ignore, and he has been unafraid to challenge the city manager when he disagrees with him. On more than one occasion, the City Council and the citizens of Worcester have benefited from his service.
But with the good comes the bad. Gaffney appears to go out of his way to get people angry. He picks fights for what appears to be, at least to an outsider, no apparent reason.
That may be acceptable for a city councilor who is looking to shake up the establishment, but it does not work for someone who wants to be a mayor and lead a city. To be effective, a mayor has to get people in city government to trust him or her and to follow his/her lead.
When Jordan Levy ran for mayor, most of the city councilors did not like him very much – I was one of the few who called him a friend. But they trusted that he had Worcester’s best interest at heart.
When I ran for mayor, most of my colleagues were hoping Councilor John Anderson would be elected – a few were actually openly campaigning against me. But after the election, they supported me and worked with me for the good of the city.
The question here is: Can Gaffney actually lead the City Council? Given how strongly many of the councilors feel about Gaffney, will they be willing to trust him to lead them? Perhaps the bigger question is: Does Gaffney have the inclination and skills to reach out to his colleagues, build consensus and work cooperatively with them?
Once in office, a mayor learns very quickly that being right on an issue means little if your colleagues will not follow your lead.
Most people acknowledge that Joe Petty is a “good guy.” People genuinely like him. That is his strength. Petty has a knack for quietly bringing people together. His colleagues on the City Council, for the most part, hold him in the highest regard.
When I asked Petty what accomplishments he was most proud of, he pointed to his role in bringing in Augustus as city manager and Maureen Binienda as superintendent of the school system. Few mayors have had such a direct impact on recruiting our city’s chief executives.
But Petty’s good-guy persona comes at a cost: He goes out of his way not to rock the boat or ruffle feathers. On more than a few issues, when strong leadership was needed Petty was reluctant to force action. His critics say he is afraid to lead. To a large extent, Petty has been comfortable letting Augustus and Binienda run the show.
Additionally, Petty is reticent to criticize either the city manager or superintendent. When I asked Petty where Augustus could improve, he said the manager takes “unfounded” criticism too personally. In other words, he has no areas for improvement.
The bottom line
In many municipal elections, candidates have to work hard to show the distinctions between them. Often the differences are a matter of degree – candidates agree more or less on what needs to be done. Not in this one.
If you like the direction of the city — if you feel Worcester is a safe place to live and raise a family, has reasonably good schools, and you are impressed with the development of downtown — then Petty will likely be your choice.
But if you feel Worcester should be safer, schools should be better, the neighborhoods should be cleaner and the city manager can and should do more to make that happen, then Gaffney will probably get your vote.
As I said, the difference is night and day.
Click here for a complete list of questions and responses from Mayor Petty.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.