Today Arise had a press conference with some of the Springfield's most stalwart warriors for ward representation, to talk about what's gone right so far with the new system and what still needs to be done.
- We now have geographic representation. In the 10 years previous to changing to ward representation, an astounding 89% of at-large candidates came from only three of the city's eight wards. Now every ward has a councilor.
- We have increased racial diversity. In the 45 years previous to ward representation, only four African-Americans and one Latino had ever been elected to city council-- in fact, Jose Tosado got his first seat on the council when a councilor resigned and he moved up from 10th place. Now we have three Latino/as and two African-Americans in ward seat.
Still to be done:
- Increase voter turn-out. Voter participation has been declining for decades, and ward representation is not going to turn that around in just two years. However, in the 2008 election when ward representation was on the ballot, an astounding 74.2% of those who voted said YES to ward representation.
- Get more candidates running. 2009 was a truly competitive year for ward seats, but 2011 has only one ward with a contested race. But instead of considering that a failure, it may very well be that people in each ward are pleased the with performance of their representative!
In the "fair and balanced" category, Pete Goonan of the Springfield Republican got comments from the two people who voted against placing ward representation on the ballot-- Tim Rooke, still currently serving in an at-large seat, and Bud Williams, who hopes to regain an at-large seat this November. Bud gives ward representation a "C+." I wonder if he enjoyed the good old days of the at-large system, when he got to be the only African-American on city council?
Yesterday's press conference featured some of the real heroes of ward representation. Frank Buntin and Gumersindo Gomez, Exec. Dir. of the Puerto Rican Veterans Center, started meeting about ward rep in 1992, and we built on their experience. Both stayed involved for the long haul. Joe Fountain tried to file a lawsuit against the at-large system in 1996, but was denied standing as a white person. He brought the lawsuit to Arise and we recruited the NAACP and the Spanish American Union (now sadly defunct) to join with us in the first federal lawsuit. Rev. Talbert Swan II was a plaintiff in the second lawsuit, and involved his network in pushing the work forward. Council president Jose Tosado, a long-time supporter of ward rep, got the city council to approve placing the ward rep question on the 2008 ballot. And there were so many more that if I get started, I'll be bound to forget important people, but I do have to give a shout-out to E. Henry Twiggs, Min. Yusuf Muhammad, Nick Camerota, Norm Oliver, Alan Howard and Mable Sharif, to name a few, and, within Arise, most especially Joe Oliverio, Tory Field and Liz Bewsee.
We have a lot more to do to make sure democracy really works in Springfield. I called the Election Office last week to see if there were any community groups leading the charge on voter registration, and sadly, there were not-- not even, to date, Arise. But we're going to turn that around. We need a new coalition in Springfield that focuses on voter education and participation, that helps identify potential leaders and that mentors them through the electoral process. The Springfield Institute and MassVOTE have already offered support. Who else would like to join us?
Photo from the Springfield Institute.