Ward representation was a long time coming in Springfield, and expectations for the changes the new system will bring to city government have been high. So, one week after Election Day, has ward rep lived up to the expectations?
Not so much, is the verdict from the Springfield Republican—at least not when it comes to reinvigorating the electorate. As reporter Peter Goonan pointed out in an article on Sunday, last week’s election—despite its historic nature—drew only about 25 percent of eligible voters to the polls. While that was a decided step up from September’s preliminary election, when turnout didn’t even hit double digits, it was a disappointing figure nonetheless, especially considering that there was a contested mayor’s race on the ballot, too.
“If voters were excited about the return of ward representation in Springfield, the thrill was not apparent at the polls on Tuesday,” Goonan wrote. And, he noted, the turnout was especially low in those neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates and the highest minority populations—the very neighborhoods that ward backers have long noted had been shut out of the old system of electing city councilors and School Committee members at-large. In Ward 1, which includes the North End and the downtown area, turnout was 15 percent, for instance, while Ward 3, which includes the South End, saw only 13 percent of voters cast ballots. In contrast, the more well-heeled Ward 7—historically perhaps the city’s most politically engaged neighborhood—had a turnout of more than 38 percent.
Not everyone’s ready to write off ward representation as a failure, however. Michaelann Bewsee, a leader in the long fight to bring ward rep to Springfield city government, pointed out in the article that it will take time to undo the effects of a system that left many voters feeling unconnected to City Hall. "I think it will take at least one cycle of councilors meeting with their constituents in the district, before folks really understand their vote does make a difference," Bewsee told the Republican. "After 50 years of an at-large system, it's going to take time to reverse this decline in voter participation."
Last week’s election did show more optimistic signs when it came to some of the other promises of ward representation—starting, of course, with geographic diversity. While under the at-large system, city councilors typically came from just a handful of neighborhoods (hello, East Forest Park), the ward system ensures that areas that historically have been unrepresented (the North End, the South End, Indian Orchard) will now have a councilor who answers directly to them.
The new council that will be seated in January will also be more racially diverse than the sitting council. Right now, the council is made up of seven whites, one Latino and one African-American. The new, 13-member council will have three Latinos (one of whom, Jose Tosado, is an incumbent who won an at-large seat), two African-Americans, and eight whites. Not much progress was made on the gender diversity front; only two of the 13 councilors elected last week are women: incumbent Kateri Walsh, and Ward 1’s Zaida Luna. The current council already has two women, Walsh and Rosemarie Mazza Moriarty, who did not run for re-election this fall.
Perhaps most important, the ward system forces a number of new faces onto a City Council that was in desperate need of an overhaul. Still, voters seemed unwilling to introduce too much change: All four incumbents who ran for re-election won at-large seats; the fifth at-large seat went to School Committee member Tommy Ashe, who, while new to the council, is not exactly a fresh political face.