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If we don’t understand 2022 we’re doomed to repeat it
Lessons for the year ahead in Worcester Politics
Gotta be honest year-in-review articles are not my favorite thing in the world to write. Most of the time I don’t think they really do anyone any good. However, in the context of understanding Worcester city politics ~from the left~ 2022 is a very important year to reflect upon. It was a year in which important players had to really show whether they were a good guy or a bad guy. Political mores, conventions and modus operandi in this provincial little backwater were given the first real stress test they’ve felt in a long time. So it might be a week or so late as it’s been pulling teeth doing it but that’s what this here post is. What’s that thing they say about history... if we don’t understand it we’re doomed to repeat it. That’s 2022: a year we’re doomed to repeat unless we realize why it was the way it was.
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For a long while—at least as long as I’ve been reporting on Worcester and I have it on good authority that it goes back a lot further than that—anyone of a sort of left-wing persuasion active in Worcester politics was systematically (though often politely) ignored. Issues were downplayed and activists were made to run the runaround. (MassWatcher recently ran a piece on the 2014-2015 City Council’s handling of BLM-related demands, and it servers to illustrate the point.) They would be promised things by City Hall to placate them, then the promises would be ignored and the lefties would moan about it but not loud enough to make City Hall worried.
We came into 2022 however with an idea that things were going to be a bit different around here. In January, a new city council and school committee were inaugurated after a surprisingly good election the previous November. We had a majority on the school committee and a strong three-vote block on a City Council which remained pretty much center-right and happy to follow Mayor Joe Petty in following City Manager Ed Augustus wherever they were going.
There was a new kid in town and back in January that new kid was bright eyed and bushy tailed and excited to see what laid in store for the year ahead. The year that followed was a slow realization that every other kid in the school was a bully and any attempt to establish a presence would be met with bullying. The only way through unfortunately was to bully back.
We popped em on the nose good in September, when Robyn Kennedy won over Joe Petty for the First Worcester District State Senate nomination. And there were a couple smaller but still crucial wins along the way. But for the most part, the past year was the process of losing on a variety of issues in variously frustrating ways.
A crystalline example of this comes by way of Thu Nguyen, who in January submitted an order requesting warming and cooling stations for the city’s unhoused population. Then freshly inaugurated, the order was enthusiastically supported by a council which was still pretending to be one big happy family. The order was praised, councilors signed on to support it, and it went to the city administration with an 11-0 mandate.
Fast forward to December and the council has heard absolutely nothing from City Hall about these warming and cooling centers, despite it being quite hot and quite cold at times in the intervening months. At the end of the Dec. 20 meeting, fittingly the last of the year, Nguyen brings it back up.
“I just want to bring this up as we talk about the cold weather outside and that it;s the holiday season. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be inside and to have shelter. So I know my first order when I became a councilor was about warming and cooling centers. And tragically I’m here a year later, bringing it up again. And so I would just like to request the city manager provide the council with an update on a plan for the warming and cooling centers this year. I just hope that we have something set up for this winter. And of course have something as we talked about to be able to just trigger whenever there’s warm or cold weather.”
And then nothing! May as well have disappeared! Poof! The mayor unceremoniously brought the meeting to an end and wished everyone a happy holiday. The next meeting is on Jan. 10 and it’s anyone’s guess whether there will be a substantial update on this proposal.
Nguyen took the issue up in a part of the meeting last month that typically happens right at the end called “under suspension” during which any councilor can talk about anything regardless of what’s on the agenda. So no one was obligated to chime in and our new city manager was not expected to provide the update Nguyen requested then and there. But he could have, and the fact he didn’t suggests he didn’t have much progress to share.
The contrast here, between the initial order being received with enthusiasm back in February and the radio silence some 10 months later, is indicative of a large overarching problem in the way our city government works. Structurally, the council is the city administration’s boss and, by nature of elections, the council’s boss is the voting public. Functionally, the city administration drags the council along while doing what it wants and councilors are put in the position of being cheerleaders or naysayers. “Consensus” becomes the stated goal and the naysayers are made to be the problem should the body fail to reach said consensus. Dang ol tail waggin’ the dog.
Thu’s order on warming and cooling stations is just one of many examples throughout the past year which serve to illustrate this troubling dynamic. So let's take a look at one or two such instances from each month in 2022 in chronological fashion.
In January we got our first glimpse of this new city council and the dynamics at play. It was obvious right away that what we were dealing with was a fundamental split in the 11 people on the board in terms of how they saw the job. Three councilors—Nguyen, Etel Haxhiaj and Khrystian King—wanted to push the board in a more progressive direction, while the others were content to continue business as usual, which is mostly the business of being useless.
While King, Nguyen and Haxhiaj testified at the State House on a rent control proposal, the rest of the council submitted a rash of completely useless issues on the mundane, routine issues of city life, like how there are rats in the city.
Then later in the month, we got to see Candy Mero-Carlson, one of the councilors most content to be useless and quickest to be petty, throw a full freak out on public access TV for getting yanked from her role as chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Economic Development.
It was, in the end, a consequence for her publicly supporting the city council campaign of walking punisher logo and then-police union head Rick Cipro. Oops!
While the council was going about its regular tomfoolery, the nurses at St. Vincent were staving off an attack from their corporate overlords to destroy their union by way of a bad-faith decertification effort spearheaded by an obvious corporate plant.
On this issue I had my debut piece in The Intercept which was a career highlight I will take to my grave.
And former City Councilor Gary Rosen was proving that councilors can take the tomfoolery to other boards with this hilarious gaffe re rescinding the city’s mask mandate. They had to redo the vote because Gary Rosen just forgot to get sworn in lol
March was a crazy month, frankly.
It started on a high note, with the St. Vincent nurses handily beating back the aforementioned bad-faith decertification effort. But then City Hall started to show its true colors. A push to install a municipal eviction moratorium died. Along with heating and cooling stations, it was one of the first such progressive ideas to wash against the old guard of the city council like a storm wall.
And then the city’s chief diversity officer loudly stepped down, citing a workplace culture deeply resistant to the idea of reform.
Then, quite abruptly, Ed Augustus announced his resignation. Still really do not know why that happened! His subsequent move—to the chancellor position at Dean College, a small community college in Franklin—is quite lateral if not a downgrade, calling this resignation of a widely (though I’d argue wrongly) revered leader into further question.
Like clockwork, then-Assistant City Manager Eric Batista was appointed to an “acting” manager role, which he would start in June, and a search was announced. We all know how that went. The search was initially supported by all but one councilor. Over the course of the year, the support for such a novel bit of professionalism would slowly dwindle. In retrospect, it’s a wonder they even announced a search at all. The succession of Batista seemed predetermined, likely before Augustus even announced he’d be resigning.
In April we got the drone proposal from the WPD. This went the way everything tends to go with the council. The cops get what they want and the people asking valid questions are ignored and brushed to the side. This was just one of several police issues throughout the year that showed a complete dearth of leadership from the City Council.
If there’s one thing that needs to change on the council, Kate Toomey needs to be removed from her role as chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Public Safety. She is completely useless, and I would argue intentionally so. The way her committee handled this issue in particular serves to illustrate that.
Over on the School Committee side, members took their jobs a bit more seriously. In May, the fruits of a search process taken seriously paid dividends. The committtee appointed Dr. Rachel Monarrez to superintendent, picking from four finalists who were all head-and-shoulders more qualified, professional and ambitious than outgoing superintendent Maureen Binienda. Ray Mariano, Maureen Binienda’s friend, would spend the rest of the year using his ill-gotten column in the Telegram to take pot shots at Monarrez for doing such dastardly deeds as hiring administrators.
And just for fun Worcester was named the The 69th City in America which is... nice.
In June we got confirmation of what we all knew going in: the city council is unable and unwilling to hold the police department to account. The cops got their drone!
On his way out the door, Augustus won a prestigious honor. Dan Kennedy, in his yearly Muzzie Awards, gifted the fearless leader of the Worcester Renaissance with an award for being completely untransparent and resistant to public scrutiny. Great!
Augustus wins a muzzle https://billshaner.substack.com/p/and-the-award-goes-to
In July, the state senate campaign between underdog Robyn Kennedy and assumed nominee Joe Petty began to shift in Kennedy’s favor. Petty reacted poorly with an ill-conceived pot shot at the Kennedy campaign for accepting support from a political action committee supporting women in politics. How dare they!
This was also the month that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to go full religious authoritarian and overturn Roe v Wade. In response, Nguyen filed an order asking what the city can do about the crisis pregnancy centers in the city which trick women into forgoing real medical reproductive care. Shouldn’t be a surprise that this order went to City Hall and has not come back out. Still waiting for a law department memo on this! Wouldn’t hold your breath. City Hall once again demonstrating that they do what they want, regardless of any mandate from the council.
In August, tragedy befell the tenants of an apartment building on Mill Street when roofing material collapsed the roof and careened to the basement. The landlords responded by taking all of the tenants to court. So we responded by digging into their sketchy rental unit empire, of which I still struggle to understand the legality.
Then the city decided to demolish another homeless encampment, continuing an insane policy of shuffling the unhoused around the city one routine camp demolition at a time. There has not been a significant reckoning with this policy of routine cruelty.
In September, Kennedy beat Petty in the state senate primary. It was one of those all-too-rare moments of pure and surprising joy that make something like following local politics worth it. As I wrote at the time:
The day-to-day work of giving a shit about your city and trying to make it better is more often than not exhausting and demoralizing. If the routine drudgery was all there was to it, you couldn’t blame anyone for tuning out, and you’d have to question the sanity of anyone still tuned in. It is by no means fun, and claims that it is rewarding can often feel quite tenuous. Few incentives for caring, myriad incentives for not caring. But for those of us cursed with the necessity of belief in a better world—who can’t tune out—it’s looking more and more like the city is the only power center left with any semblance of responsiveness to the public will. The federal government? Fuggetaboutit. The state? I mean just look at how the primary went. Dismal. Every statewide race went the wrong way. Everyone I know who’s involved in state-level progressive organizing is in the midst of processing a deep and demoralizing failure. If you can’t do something about a guy like Bill Galvin, you can’t rightly expect to do much of anything. If you’re at all excited by a Maura Healey governorship, I’d suggest spending more time outside.
But here in Worcester, we have had back-to-back elections with surprising and encouraging outcomes. Last year’s municipal election established a new progressive bloc on the city council and a progressive majority on the school committee, the fruits of which we’re already seeing with a new superintendent who is head-and-shoulders better than her predecessor. Now, a year later, Kennedy comes out of nowhere to mount a progressive challenge to a guy who seemed poised to waltz through a clear cut field from mayor to senator like it was some divine right. Then she trounces him. An 11-point margin. No room for ambiguity. A clear mandate. A powerful position (nearly) in the hands of a local progressive movement.
Buuut then it was back to reality. The next big issue that month was inclusionary zoning, and it was a new skin on the same old story. Progressives wanted to do something that was actually useful, the old guard was petrified of doing anything at all, and the City Manager’s Office wanted to do whatever it was the developers wanted.
We’re still waiting to see whether or not City Hall is going to alter the policy substantively or leave it in a draft state which rendered it entirely useless. Reform in name only.
In October, after a frustrating couple months of going along to get along, King started to push the issue of actually searching for a city manager. Around this time King and Petty started playing a long and frustrating game of chess with the city council process. The search would be “held” and otherwise passed around for a few months before it ultimately died.
(I)t appears the City Council is still stuck in the quagmire of cronyism and political jockeying that the School Committee so resoundingly smashed its way out of earlier this year. We need only look to the City Council meeting Thursday to see that a majority of the council, including Mayor Joe Petty, simply do not care to take the search process seriously. They don’t really want to see what kind of talent $260,000 a year (after a generous package of perks are added) can attract, because they’ve found their guy in Acting City Manager Eric Batista. And that’s that.
The city manager search process (or lack thereof) was a depressing but highly illuminating glimpse into the real culture of the City Council and the way councilors really see what it is they’re doing with that job. It led me to develop the working theory that there is a “normative six” on the city council which maintain an insane and petty culture and who prevent anything good from happening. Then there are the other five, which coincidentally (?) includes all of the people of color on the board.
Meanwhile graduate students at Clark University unionized and scored their first contract in short order!
Another good surprise in November as the city handily passed the Community Preservation Act in the general election despite the bad faith consternation of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce. Yet again, the electorate showing us that there is more of an appetite for progressive ideas than the city council seems willing to consider. Everything else about the election went as planned and this week I believe we’ll be inaugurating our new delegation, which now includes Kennedy.
But the most exciting news of the year came not from the local or the state level but from the feds. Later in November, the Department of Justice announced a patterns and practice investigation into the Worcester Police Department. We still don’t know exactly what they’re looking at and we’re expecting it to take a couple years. But what we do know is the department gets sued a lot and loses the city a lot of money. It would be nice if the City Council took a look at something like that but so far it’s been just one little comment from Khrystian King and a bunch of hemming and hawing from the normative six and that’s been it on the DOJ investigation. This investigation more than anything has the power to expose just how bush league, powerless and petty the city council has become. They can’t even search for a new city manager! They just handed it to Batista after deciding against doing anything at all to have some agency in the matter.
The big thing in December, which will continue to be a big thing for some time, is the proposal for a charter school on Grafton Hill by the organization which runs Old Sturbridge Village. I wrote a piece breaking down the trouble with charter schools in general and the things about this one which make it particularly bad.
Then I brought on Cara Berg Powers to go even further into the proposal from the perspective of an expert in education and the situation grew even more grim.
To close out the year, Chris Robarge went deep on a particularly thorny problem with the police department: they keep getting into high speed chases which are dubiously necessary and fatal.
And that was a wrap!
The year ahead
In the context of Worcester politics, this year is make-or-break. We’ve got an election coming up where we have a chance to turn what is currently a minority block of progressive councilors into a majority. There’s good reason to think we can get there. We only need three more new faces with the right kind of politics and with Joe Petty on the fence and Sean Rose and Sarai Rivera officially out of the picture, it’s looking like the field will be pretty wide open. We won’t know what the landscape of candidates will look like yet, but we know from the past two elections that local voters are very responsive to new and progressive ideas. So as we head toward November, the thing to do is to keep hammering on the differences between the elected officials who want to actually do something with their power and the ones who are content to keep playing the petty little games the council has historically played while leaving actual governance in the hands of the city manager’s office. It’s going to be a fun year! I for one am excited.
Thank you for all the support over the two and a half years I’ve been doing this. In 2023, I’d like to try to really build this out into something that can last, and a big part of that mission is convincing some of 2,500 subscribing to this newsletter for free to join the 600 who are paying for it! Direct subscriptions are the only thing powering this little experiment in alternative local journalism 🙂
What do you have your eyes on in 2023?
Keeping the post script brief today because I have a big and exciting freelance story for a publication you probably know coming up in a couple weeks. Going to be very very cool and I can’t wait to share!
More soon! The council meets for the first time this year on Jan. 10 and we’ll have a first look at that agenda this Friday afternoon. Holiday rest time is over. Time to get back on the grind baby.