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In Springfield Mayoral Race, Sarno Sees No Need To Engage

Updated at 8:38 p.m. 

After little in the way of campaigning, Mayor Domenic Sarno is seeking a fifth term in Tuesday's mayoral election in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In Sarno's last four years in office, one big moment stands out: the opening last year of the MGM casino, a project championed by Sarno to help revitalize the city's image, and its economy.

"I'm gonna tell you a good four-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S," Sarno said to applause in August 2018.

These four years haven't been all celebration. Sarno is often at odds with other city leaders and community activists — like on immigration, when he criticized a church for offering sanctuary to people facing deportation.

"They enjoy non-taxable status because they're a house of worship," Sarno told WWLP in the spring of 2018. "They're not a house of worship anymore now."

Sarno battled city councilors — perhaps most prominently ignoring new ordinances on police oversight — amid brutality lawsuits, damning videos and officer indictments. While the mayor has said some police are bad apples, by and large he's defended the department.

"Many of times, our men and women in blue are not dealing with patron saints here," Sarno told reporters. "They're dealing the dregs of society."

And those jobs at the casino? At last check, it employed about a third fewer people than promised. While noting the city would eventually hold MGM accountable, Sarno has stood by the company.

"They continue to ramp up," he said in June. "They continue to adjust."

But even with perhaps plenty of fodder for a political rival, no established politician ran against the well-funded mayoral incumbent.

Facing little-known opponents, he won more than 76 percent in the preliminary. And for the second straight election year, he's refused to debate.

"I have a very demanding schedule," Sarno said. "And I'm also — and I think it's been public, too — I'm dealing with a family health situation, also."

That explanation does not fly for clothing designer and part-time club manager Yolanda Cancel, Sarno's opponent on the November ballot. 

"It's our civic duty to make sure that our voters in the city of Springfield know what our future, what our platform is, and what's the difference between the two of us," Cancel told WGBY, which had invited both candidates to debate.

There was a time when Sarno would debate. In 2011 he participated in as many as a half-dozen debates, ultimately winning 72% against then-City Council president and now-state Rep. Jose Tosado.

But Cancel is moving along and talking about her agenda. It includes addressing violence, in part, by instituting a year-round gun buyback program. And, Cancel said, the city needs to do a better job to prepare its workforce.

"When I'm knocking on doors and I'm asking, 'Hey, did you get hired at MGM?' 'Yes.' But they didn't last. And it's like, 'Why didn't you last?' 'I didn't understand it or I didn't know how to do [the job],'" she recalled. "So you hear these different things and it's like, 'OK. So now you're back out and now you're unemployed.'"

It's of note that Cancel isn't necessarily siding against Sarno in his many disputes with the City Council.

"They're like two siblings, arguing," she said. "When is somebody going to get along so we can get things done?"

For his part, Sarno is mostly ignoring Cancel, and in some ways, the election. Except on TV, where one ad boasts a "comeback city" and "the Sarno story."

It also includes video of that big celebration outside MGM.

Take a look at the NEPR voter guide for contested municipal elections in six western Mass. cities.

Correction: In an earlier version of the election results chart, we accidentally transposed the candidates' vote percentages in the 2007 election.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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