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Hampden County Sheriff's annual cookout brings region's politicians to Springfield

Politicians from across the region gathered in Springfield on Wednesday for the area's premier political event: Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s annual cookout.

The cookout is a tradition dating back to 1977, when Cocchi’s predecessor, Michael Ashe, first organized what would become a yearly clambake. Elected officials and hopefuls alike attend, from governors to local candidates for municipal office. Part campaign rally funded by Cocchi’s political war chest and part community event, it is an opportunity for powerful politicos to mingle with law enforcement, the public and the media.

“It lets people know what the sheriff is doing,” said Ashe, who served as sheriff for 42 years before Cocchi — who he endorsed as his successor— was elected to the office in 2016. He said the event is crucial for building relationships with state leadership in Boston, which then helps the Hampden County Sheriff's Department secure a strong budget. “If you don’t have a good budget, you’re limited and restricted in what you can do.”

This year, only one statewide office holder showed up: state Auditor Diana DiZoglio, who called the cookout “an opportunity to hear directly from the people” and to get feedback about what her office should focus on.

Cocchi himself was absent this year after catching COVID-19. But with a competitive preliminary election approaching on Sept. 12 for Springfield mayor and City Council, plenty of candidates for those seats showed up to shake hands, take photos and chit-chat.

And one topic in particular was on the minds of many attendees on Wednesday.

Over the weekend, there were two homicides in Springfield. Then, on Monday, a man shot to death his neighbor and wounded two children before turning the gun on himself. According to reporting from The Republican, that brings the city’s total homicides to 23 this year — the most in almost a quarter century.

State Rep. Carlos González, D-Springfield, said that some of the solutions state lawmakers are pursuing to stem gun violence include supporting local law enforcement financially and cracking down on illegal gun sales, including so-called “ghost guns” that are assembled from kits and untraceable. He also called for Springfield to return to a model of “community policing.”

“We cannot police from a police car,” he said. “We need to have boots on the ground and hopefully have relationships with people before incidents happen so when we go out to a neighborhood, we are not investigating, we are working with the community to address the crime issues.”

González urged Springfield residents to get out and vote in the city’s preliminary elections, highlighting the importance of the City Council and mayor’s office when it comes to solving local issues.

“From paving your street to getting a tree cut in your neighborhood or fighting crime or a better education system – it comes down to local politics,” he said.

State Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, was also in attendance at the cookout and highlighted the importance of the Sept. 12 preliminary election.

“You can vote early, you can vote by mail and also you can encourage your neighbors to go out and try to find easier ways to vote,” he said.

The preliminary election will cut the mayoral field from five candidates to two. It will also cut in half the 20-person field currently running for five at-large City Council seats.

Voters can already cast a ballot by mail. Early in-person voting begins Aug. 30.

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.
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