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In Springfield mayoral race, an incumbent with experience faces a candidate looking for change

Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.

Springfield's mayoral election on Tuesday features two familiar faces in city politics. Incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has been on the job 16 years faces longtime city councilor Justin Hurst.

The pair made it through a vigorous preliminary election. Now, Sarno is running on his record while Hurst says it’s time for a change.

"This is what I call my war room and this is where the campaign started and this is where it'll finish," said Justin Hurst pointing to a corner in his living room, which is the nerve center for his campaign.

The former city council president was the runner up in the five-way preliminary in September. He was well behind Sarno in that contest, but the mayor was just shy of the 50% mark, which could mean there are still plenty of votes to be had, especially if voter turnout is higher.

Hurst said it's time for him to make the leap, even if it means risking his city council seat.

"After 10 years, I felt like I had done everything that that I could possibly do on the council. I felt like it was time to certainly pass the baton to new leadership so we could do some of the things we couldn't do as a city councilor," he said.

Sarno has leaned heavily on his experience and said his administration has accomplished a lot.

"I have a proven track record. Battle tested track record and we made gains in all areas of the city but there's much more work to be done," he said, after his preliminary election win in September. His campaign declined interview requests for this story.

Late Wednesday, the campaign took an unexpected turn. The Republican newspaper reported on video footage showing a man associated with Hurst's campaign allegedly handing cash to people outside City Hall last weekend — when early voting was going on. Springfield officials are calling for a criminal investigation and claiming it represents voter fraud.

During a press conference outside his home Thursday, Hurst denied the allegations and said they are a "political smear job" by his opponent.

Distribution of federal funds

One of Hurst's top issues is how the Sarno administration has been distributing more than $120 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The challenger contends the process included conflicts of interest and patronage, while others were left out.

"It left a lot to be desired and you know while folks were excited originally to be a part of it, at this point in time I think you have a lot of people that are just really frustrated," he said.

Hurst even goes as far to allege misappropriation. He said, if he's elected, he'll investigate how the money was used. But during a televised debate on WWLP, Sarno said it’s a process he's proud of.

"It's been very fair. We've followed all the federal requirements. 88% of those funds have gone to minority or woman-owned businesses," he said. "We've helped out many, many businesses, non-profits, neighborhoods."

Board of Police Commissioners: "...They will never be as effective as they possibly can be."

Another subject of contention between the two candidates has been crime and policing. Springfield this year has seen a more-than-20-year high in homicides. The police remain under a consent decree with the federal Department of Justice, which is seeking reforms. And there's also been a battle between the city council and the mayor about oversight.

In 2020, the council including Hurst, sued Sarno to force the mayor to follow an ordinance calling for the reestablishment of a civilian Police Commission. The councilors won.

Sarno said he has followed through on the order from the state's highest court and complimented the members of the commission, who he appointed.

"The board of police commissioners... very professional, very diversified, well respected and they reflect the community," he said.

But Hurst contends since the mayor solely appointed the police commissioners, they are beholden to him. The challenger said, if elected, he'll have a committee review applications for the job. He also said the board has lacked necessary resources, and has had its powers limited to just handling police discipline. The council, Hurst said, also wanted police commissioners to be able to hire and promote officers.

"Until they get those powers, until they're supported by the administration, they will never be as effective as they possibly can be," he said.

Educational achievements in the district

On another big issue, the two candidates have strong feelings on the state of Springfield's schools.

The city's educational achievements have been a source of pride for Sarno who said his administration has made investments in the needs of students as well as infrastructure.

In this term alone he has inaugurated two hybrid elementary school projects — the $82 million Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary schools and the Swan-Deberry Elementary Schools which cost $95 million to complete. Both projects were funded in part by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

"When you look at our schools, $750 million, three-quarters of a billion dollars of new schools being built… When I took over as mayor, the graduation rate was 50%. We're nearly 86% now," he said.

Hurst argues that measuring school success should go beyond the statistics Sarno mentions.

"That can't possibly be the bar. That is what you should be doing. What is the bar is how it is our students are faring as it relates to other municipalities in other towns throughout the commonwealth," he said.

According to state data, three of the city's four largest public high schools are listed as "requiring assistance or intervention." That's based on results of student scores on the state's standardized testing system, known as MCAS.

Campaign life

The coming election will mean the end of months of long days of campaigning for both candidates — sacrificing a lot of time with their families.

Hurst said his family has made signs, knocked on doors and adjusted to the busier schedule. He said part of the reason why he wants to be mayor, is for his two young sons.

"They've got to understand at the end of the day this is about them and we're doing it for not just them but for every kid in the city of Springfield," he said.

Sarno’s family has also been supportive. After the preliminary election, he thanked them and is often seen at public and campaign events with his wife and two daughters at his side.

By any measure, this election cycle has provided Sarno with one of the stiffest political challenges of his tenure.

And he's taken it seriously, having spent about a half-a-million dollars from his campaign account so far this year. That's hundreds of thousands more than Hurst.

The general election will be held Tuesday. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.
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