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Isn't it nice when the good thing happens?
Kennedy's win is wind in the sails of a growing progressive movement
As you probably know by now, Robyn Kennedy won on Tuesday. And not only did she win, she won big. It wasn’t a nail biter! Not a close one! It was a thorough ass-kicking—11 points. Vote tallies were barely trickling out of clerks offices when Petty made the call to concede. There was no gray area here.
For someone to enter a race as the clear (and self-professed) underdog then walk away with the mandate of more than 55 percent of the vote is a rare and beautiful thing. Even more rare and beautiful is that there was a contested race for this seat in the first place, but more on that later.
The important thing is that voters chose the right person for this role. I won’t bore my regular readers with a rehash of why I feel that way. If you’re curious, just go read this. If you think I’m biased, yes I am. Next question. Harriette Chandler is leaving this seat in capable and motivated hands, and with this win the budding progressive movement in Worcester secured crucial momentum and staying power.
Kennedy does have a general election to win in November and an “independent” opponent in Berlin’s Lisa Mair. But a win is more or less assured. As is often the case in Massachusetts, the primary was the hard part, and now this is her race to lose. Like she could actively campaign against herself—“Please do NOT vote for me”—and she’d still win. Without even getting into Mair or her pitch (some interesting stuff to dig into though), this is just the political reality. Mair would have to pull off an upset about 10 times as impressive as Kennedy pulled on Petty to take this seat. Conversations with Kennedy and several staffers have left me with the impression they’re still going to campaign just as hard as they did for the primary, but more for continuing momentum and engaging people than for fear of losing. Smart, and very in line with the campaign style that secured Tuesday’s victory.
I don’t see any need to dance on the grave of Petty’s campaign too too much. I’ve already spent enough time outlining the bizarre decisions and underhanded tactics which proved ultimately futile. Some life lessons to be learned there! But by all accounts he’s a nice guy and can be reliably dragged to the right side of most issues. That makes him a fine enough mayor in a style of government which affords the position only slightly more power than any other city councilor. And in the mayor’s public-facing role as cheerleader-in-chief, Petty’s great! Gotta hand it to him on that front.
A Petty win would have put the state senate seat in less competent and less progressive hands while giving Donna Colorio, the worst city councilor we have by a mile or two, a year to see what wretched things she could accomplish with the mayorship. We dodged a big bullet there, and anecdotally the Colorio Question seemed to be one of the bigger motivating factors turning non-voters and undecided voters and maybe even a few Petty voters into Kennedy voters.
Leading up to the race, I expected a very close contest and, while optimistic, braced for a Petty victory. I figured Robyn would do well in the towns, but Petty would handily win Worcester, and that might be all he needed to do. Though parts of the city were cut out in the 2020 redistricting, the First Worcester District still included most of the neighborhoods where voter turnout is reliably high— “single family zoning” land, if you catch my drift. It’s no secret that municipal elections are decided by the relatively affluent and Anglo-Saxon neighborhoods north of Park Ave. Those are the neighborhoods in this senate district, and those are the neighborhoods that made Joe Petty the mayor for the past decade. Stands to reason he would outperform a first-time candidate in those neighborhoods.
But he didn’t. Not even close. Looking at the votes on the precinct level, Kennedy’s win becomes all the more commanding. Out of 38 precincts in the district, Kennedy took 24 to Petty’s 13 and one was a draw. Kennedy outperformed Petty in the precincts with the highest turnout. In Ward 1 Precinct 4, an area north of Highland Street and east of Pleasant Street, Kennedy had her strongest showing, at 407 votes to Petty’s 229. Petty got the most votes in Ward 9, Precinct 5, just to the northwest of 1-4, at 292. But Kennedy won that precinct with 354. Petty’s highest vote total in a precinct he won was 201 to Kennedy’s 190, in 2-4, on the east side of the city, just north of Greenhill Park. The majority of precincts that went for Petty were in the northeast quadrant of the city and around Webster Square. What we would loosely call the “West Side” went resoundingly to Kennedy. It’s almost the mirror opposite of the outcome I anticipated, and while precinct-level data is certainly deep in the weeds, the numbers tell an encouraging story: A first-time progressive candidate outperformed a six-term mayor in the neighborhoods that make or break a mayoral campaign. Anyone who’s thinking about running for city council or school committee next year on a progressive platform should take this as a clear sign that it’s not such a bad idea. As I’ll get to later, there’s some mojo brewing on the left flank of local politics.
But first, it should be said that the district isn’t just Worcester. There are five other towns. In those towns, free as they are from having to care about whether Petty is the mayor, Kennedy did even better. She took Boylston 372 to 314. In Berlin, 360 to 124. In Bolton, 625 to 193. In Northborough, 1090 to 787. The only town she lost was West Boylston, where Petty won 522 to 401. Petty’s campaign was heavily centered around his time as mayor and the general narrative that Worcester has been “on the rise” during his tenure. At times, it seemed as if he positioned himself as the incumbent in the race despite it being an open seat for an office he’s never held. That this message didn’t resonate outside of Worcester is not surprising. But, as the results show, it didn’t really resonate in Worcester either.
This calls into question a few things but the most important one, I think, is whether the “Worcester Renaissance” was ever a narrative that tracked with anyone outside the small circle of people around City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce and the sycophants in the local press who uncritically propagated it. We can say as a matter of fact that it wasn’t a winning message for the Petty campaign or else he would have won. And we can slightly less matter-of-factly say it’s a confirmation of something I’ve been shouting into the void for years: That the “Worcester Renaissance” is nothing but an advertisement for real estate speculators and developers cynically propped up by people with skin in the game. It is not a real thing, and it cannot be made a real thing by laundering it through The Telegram and MassLive. It’s not something that most people living here feel. And if you happen to be a renter in this city as most of us are, statistically speaking, you have only ever felt the “Worcester Renaissance” by way of a rent increase—brought to you by a narrative concocted to artificially inflate property values, and thereby rents, on the promise of big returns for people who treat cities like the stock market.
But enough about all that. Back to the matter at hand.
Kennedy’s victory here was an encouraging surprise and bonafide Good Thing That Happened if ever there was one. It’s worth celebrating. Just to bask in it for a while is important. Gloating is in fact good for you.
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.
Because that’s the truth of it. This isn’t Kennedy’s seat, it’s the movement’s seat, and that’s something she’d happily admit. She said as much when she came on Worcestery Council Theater 3000 Tuesday night for a short interview that positively radiated with joy.
“In a democracy there’s no such thing as anointments,” she said. “We deserve to have conversations. We deserve to hold all our candidates accountable. To ask questions. To be heard. And to be able to make the case. And so for me it was about the campaign strategy. We just put our head down and we got out across the district and just talked to voters.”
Heavy emphasis on the “we,” you’ll notice. Later in the call, as a sort of closing note, she underscored the sentiment.
“And it’s for us. It’s our community. And it’s about making sure we’re held accountable to that.”
Statements like this show that the people with their names on the ballot and occupying seats on city boards are just the most visible characters in a larger story that hasn’t been adequately told. Behind all of them—Kennedy and the progressive council bloc and many of the new School Committee members—is quite a large group of motivated volunteers, community groups, activists and organizers. And it’s diffuse. There’s no real name for it as far as I know and the organizing is not limited to any one candidate or cause. The boundaries between a “Kennedy campaign team” and a “Haxhiaj campaign team” and a “King campaign team” are quite blurry. It’s a racially and economically diverse bunch tied together by a common dissatisfaction with business as usual in Worcester politics. As an analog, Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition comes to mind, though this is much smaller in scale, and uhhh let’s just say less likely to catch the attention of the FBI. In a phone call a few weeks ago, Cara Berg Powers put it best: it’s a group of people whose motivations can all be traced back to the moment City Hall told them to kick rocks (her words were stronger, I’m just trying not to swear so much)—and there’s been a lot of those moments over the years, from the destruction of the community pools way back when to the police department’s recent drone acquisition.
After we wrapped up the stream Tuesday night, I went down to catch the tail end of Kennedy’s election night party at Nuestra. The room was filled with the people I’ve been talking about, the members of this as-of-yet unnamed and diffuse progressive movement, and the mood was as giddy as you would expect. I talked briefly with Kennedy’s campaign chair, Gina Plata-Nino, who carried herself with a visible pride as we talked about momentum and this victory’s impact on the next municipal election. Kicking myself that I didn’t jot anything about that conversation down, but let’s just say she exuded a well-deserved confidence that damage will be done. I congratulated Kennedy on the win. Before she was whisked away by another congratulator, she told me she got the seat because of the community represented in that room and she was going to use the seat to support them. She said it better than that but again I didn’t write it down because having fun took priority. I reminisced with Haxhiaj about arriving at the post-election party last year and getting immediately sucked into the traditional Albanian line dance she started. Everyone was having a good time. Everyone was approachable. Conversations had no lulls. It was a room reveling in the feeling of having had their hard work pay off—effort put toward a better world that yielded a tangible result—and I felt it too. It was intoxicating. Edifying. A confirmation that caring is indeed worth it, and that there’s a whole community of people in the city you live in who care in the same way you do and the only barrier to entry is showing up.
Outside the party, sitting in my car, I opened my notes app and took a crack at capturing the buzz in the air as I experienced it: “This feels like genuine hope at a time when hope is in such short supply–when the prevailing affect is cynical to the point of nihilistic–laughing at the absurdity of the ship as it sinks, knowing you’re helpless to plug the holes.”
And yeah, that’s probably a touch too much. Might sound nice but it leaves out that the hope in question is miniscule compared to the size of the holes in the ship. Even if we pull off exactly what we want to in this little irrelevant city and all our hopes are fully realized, it won’t make a lick of difference. We’ll still be on this sinking ship and the experience will still be coated in absurdity. The case for nihilistic laughter and its tacit surrender will be no less palpable. It won’t be any harder to paint earnest optimism as naivete.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to concede that part of myself. Do you? I’d trade a moment of the optimism I felt in that room Tuesday night for a lifetime of surrender hidden behind that thin veil of disaffection which is so in vogue right now. That sucks. I totally understand the impulse. But it sucks.
Here in Worcester, with this nascent little progressive movement we’ve got cooking, there’s a real case to be made for caring. There are tangible results directly related to people deciding to care. There are bigger and better things that could happen should more people decide to care. There’s a vision and an attainable goal and a reasonable expectation that getting invested in the process might lead to something that you feel good about and also proud to have helped make happen. That disillusionment and heartbreak aren’t the only inevitable outcomes in the risky business of giving a shit. That your participation actually means something.
The veneer of democracy has thoroughly washed off the majority of the American project. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who earnestly believes that most of our institutions are democratic in a meaningful way. The municipality, distant as it is from the demands of empire, might be the last place where there’s hope of real democracy existing. This is not a unique observation, and Worcester is far from the only city that’s seen a concerted progressive movement in recent years. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is a shining example. India Walton came so close last year to running Buffalo as an avowed socialist. Hugo Soto-Martinez is running an inspired campaign for Los Angeles City Council. All around the country, progressive organizers are turning toward the municipality as a potential bastion of enduring power.
In Worcester, we’re sort of on the vanguard of this approach. Keeping the momentum of 2021 and Kennedy’s win this week going, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we can emerge from the 2023 election with a progressive majority on the city council. We have three and we need six. Once we have six, we’re governing. We have a majority. With even four or five, we have much more serious weight. Good ideas will be easier to pass and bad ideas will be harder.
Six progressives on the council is not just a feasible goal, it’s damn near probable. If Kennedy can knock out Petty in a state senate race so resoundingly, then why should any of the centrist or conservative councilors feel safe? Why should we consider any of them insurmountable challenges?
Kennedy’s win this week is proof of what those involved in it already knew—that there is a real progressive movement in this city. It’s bigger than you might think, it’s diverse, and it’s full of politically savvy people. It’s organized primarily around a shared ideal of what leadership ought to look like and a shared passion for getting us there. But the real engine of the thing from my perspective is a collective understanding that there’s something brewing here which is genuinely worth caring about. And that’s infectious. It draws people in. You can’t feel the sort of joy bouncing around that room at Nuestra Tuesday night without caring in the first place and taking on the risk of disappointment that comes along with that.
If my read on ~the culture~ is correct, and we’re generally embracing disaffected and dissociative posturing as a way of rationalizing the surrender of hope, I probably have more than a few readers who are having a hard time going along with all that. Hope is a very natural and worthwhile thing to have! But there are precious few avenues where it can be genuinely experienced. This progressive movement here in Worcester is a real avenue. There are myriad ways to get involved but the easiest and most pressing would be to sign up to volunteer for the Kennedy campaign. Like I said earlier, the November election is a walk, but the campaign is going to keep at it anyway in service of the larger mission of bringing more people into the fold and hey that could be you!
Friendly reminder that I live off this thing! It’s a privilege I take very seriously and I’m so thankful for the support. I make juuuuust enough at this point that I don’t need a second job which is a first for me in my adult life. The added time has allowed me to pursue several exciting and ambitious writing projects, one of which you’ll be hearing about very soon :-)
Through the support of paying subscribers, I’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the boundaries of what local journalism could be, informed by many frustrating years of working within the rigid and narrow boundaries of what it currently is. Should the money dry up tomorrow and I have to go back to kitchen work or whatever else to make rent, I’ll be forever grateful I got to spend two+ years writing about Worcester in a way that left me creatively satisfied, that people responded positively to, and, most importantly, may have done some actual good around here. My election guides, for instance, would not have made it past any editor I’ve ever worked for—thorough heresy by the prevailing standards of “ethical” journalism—but the reader feedback (and also the election results teehee) was extremely positive. Local journalism is in rough shape right now…
…and I’m grateful to be exploring a possible solution. It wouldn’t be possible without the people who have graciously volunteered to fund the work by way of direct subscriptions.
I go to great lengths to make sure I’m not needlessly clogging your inbox or social feed with content for content’s sake. I don’t make money off of digital ads. I don’t need “clicks,” and I’m not burdened by capitulation to metrics. I don’t paywall any of my stories. I do not stand to gain in any way from rewriting the same press release you already read in the Telegram or MassLive. Instead, my work is a conscious rebuke of “content” as a guiding principle and “eyeballs” as a metric of success. I release pieces when I’m satisfied that they’re worthwhile for my readers. That’s it. I keep a loose post-a-week schedule but I’m not married to it. I’ve scrapped whole 3,000 word pieces before and I’ll gladly do it again. If it doesn’t pass the bar I’ve set for myself, you’re not going to read it. The real gift of this thing is that I’m allowed to value the quality and substance of the writing over the impetus to convert it to “content.” Hope it shows! Thank you for your support.
And check out the Worcester Sucks merch store!
Ok, quite a few odds and ends to get to this week.
First, I have a couple newsletter recommendations. Talking to Jennifer Gaskin last week about the Caribbean American Carnival I found out she writes a newsletter called Bacchanal Business. I liked this personal essay on the absurdity of Columbus Day in America.
I recall having a conversation with my grandfather, Mr. Alfonso Julien. He was a walking history book. Some called him Julz; Al was born on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean (West Indies, as named by Columbus). His village was a fishing village called Sauteurs. Sauteurs is home to Leapers Hill. Leapers Hill is where the natives leaped to death rather than being enslaved by European invaders. It is also rumored to be the location of a free settlement on the island where African runaways settled. I remember him looking at me and then launching into a horrific tale of Christopher Columbus. It was nothing like the fairytale or tall tale I learned in school days before. He told me of the thievery, murder, and raping of native women. He told me how resources were stolen and people enslaved upon the arrival of this European “discovery.”
Good stuff. And then through her I came to find out that there is yet another Worcester newsletter that’s worth a subscription: Hispanic•ish, by Giselle Rivera-Flores. Just a few days ago she published a history of the carnival tradition which was quite eye opening.
In 1834, after the Emancipation of enslaved people, the Africans infused Canboulay - a night parade which gathered the slaves to put out the sugar cane fires at a nearby sugar cane plantation - into the festivities. As newly liberated people, the Africans left the plantations and flooded the streets, “snatching up the discarded garments of their former slave owners, to be used as costumes and disguises, mimicking and satirizing the dress and behaviors they had observed in the pre-Lenten masquerade balls and parties thrown by their former masters. They grabbed metal rhythms for dancing and chantouelles - the “journalists” and “reporters” of the time, sang satirical renditions about the living conditions of their existence as well as songs of rebellion. This was the first Freedom Fête that became an annual tradition.”
I had the great pleasure of attending a fête in Tobago while on a music research trip back in school. It was absolutely insane. A highlight of a trip full of formative experiences. You know one of these days I might have to go back and revisit the journal I kept during that time. There’s an essay there for sure.
Anyway, check out those newsletters! And also, a reminder that my inbox is always open for pitches should you feel motivated to write something yourself. I pay! Billshaner91 at gmail dot com.
Back on the political front, a coalition of housing advocates is holding a press conference next week to call for more meaningful affordable housing reforms. It takes place in front of City Hall at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The particular issue at hand is the city’s proposed inclusive zoning ordinance and whether or not it is all that inclusive.
I’ll be there, and more on this next week. I have to nail some things down before I can really report on it, but it’s looking like City Hall might be trying to pull the classic move of offering something that sounds vaguely helpful but is functionally useless.
While it’s not necessarily important, I don’t want it to get lost in a busy news week that the Worcester Police Department got caught with their pants all the way down in the process of trying to take credit for something a civilian did.
Earlier this week the cops put out a press release alleging that two Worcester police officers saved a man from a burning car. The release was dutifully reported out by the Telegram and MassLive as is tradition. Then a guy named Ethan Desseta put up a Facebook post saying he was actually the one who did all that while an officer watched. “I saved that man’s life, not your officers,” the post reads. “Your female officer was yelling at the driver telling him he needs to get out of the car while he was unconscious and trapped inside a burning vehicle flipped on its roof.” He was the one who pried open the door and cut the seatbelt, he said. There wasn’t any “second officer” on the scene until after the fact.
“If I wasn’t there that man would have burned alive and would be dead right now so I do not appreciate the WPD claiming that their officers saved this guy’s life,” he said, adding that he’d not received “a single notion of gratitude” from the police.
So naturally this post hits the comment threads of Telegram and WPD Facebook postings. A lot of people rightfully saying ‘why u lyin.’ To the Telegram’s credit, they actually followed up on this and brought the concern to the police who, caught in an obvious lie, changed their story. The two officers were now “aided” by a civilian, they told the Telegram.
The Police Department's initial account of the incident did not reference the civilian.
After the officers helped render aid to the victim, they were unable to locate the civilian, according to police.
Yeah we couldn’t find him that’s why we decided to steal his valor. He wasn’t using it!
I just checked and the Worcester Police Department’s initial press release is still on the city’s website. It hasn’t been updated or changed. Imagine thinking you can get away with a lie this easy to disprove. Or even worse, thinking you stand to gain anything by lying about it in the first place. Oi vey. The mind reels…
In an unrelated episode of Cops being Cops there is the whole unfolding to-do with the PA getting shut off on Extreme’s set at Indian Ranch causing guitarist Nuno Bettencourt to lose his mind a little bit.
And apparently the PA got shut off because Webster police officers went up to the sound guy and threatened to arrest him if he didn’t do it.
Well, the Webster police have come out and addressed the issue, accusing Bettencourt of trying to “incite a crowd” and the sound guy of “assaultive behavior” because he didn’t turn the volume down.
According to the cops, the sound guy told them the PA doesn’t go any lower which is a boss move on his part gotta say. From one troll to another: respect. So this cop called the manufacturer of the PA system to ask whether that was true which it obviously wasn’t and then went back and confronted the sound guy. The audacity of the cop speak on display in the way this officer described the interaction…
““Based off his untruthfulness in the matter, I utilized some profanities to gain compliance and he turned the amplifiers off,” Larochelle said in his report. “During this interaction the sound engineer was extremely animated, frustrated and disrespectful, at one point grabbing my wrist in frustration…Once he turned the volume ‘off,’ the volume was at an acceptable range that seemed consistent with the previous concerts that I’ve worked.”
…utilized some profanities to gain compliance…
Billy Shakespeare himself couldn’t do a better job satirizing the strange vernacular of the American law enforcement officer. The whole story is a trip.
Lastly but not leastly I’d highly recommend listening to the TrueAnon podcast interview with David A. Banks, a professor based in Troy, NY, with a book coming out on how cities debase and degrade themselves for developers. A lot of the stuff he talks about really rhymes with what we’ve been seeing in Worcester. The book’s called The City Authentic and it comes out next April. Book club anyone?
And hey did someone die or something? Idk.
Ok bye bye