Discover more from Worcester Sucks and I Love It
Joe Carlson and the politics of "business as usual"
Plus, the Lady Uncles' Big Loss and a massive lawsuit against the WPD
What a damn couple weeks it’s been! So so so so much to get to in this post. Of course I’m a bit behind because I spent a lot of time last week on this here travel essay:
Understanding it’s not for everyone, the feedback so far has been very positive and I appreciate anyone who took the time to read that weird long thing. Very proud of it! Feel as though I left it all on the field.
Our main feature today comes from regular contributor Cara Berg Powers. It’s about what the local AFL-CIO should be and how it’s different from what the local AFL-CIO really is under the leadership of Joe Carlson, who is the spouse of City Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson. Spoiler alert: nothing good! This is real “under the hood” stuff that’s crucial for understanding why Worcester politics are so... you know... Worcester. Cara does a great job sifting through those weeds.
First though, a couple quick hits from yours truly on some significant recent developments. And as always please consider joining the ranks of those who volunteer to sustain this publication and all the independent local journalism herein with paid subscriptions!
The Lady Uncles take a big “L”
Proud night for Worcester at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Monday. Thank you to everyone who called in, attended the meeting, posted about it, etc. Made it a “thing.” The small shelter for unhoused families at the Mt. Zion church in the Greendale neighborhood is going through! The vote was unanimous. The townies lost. And then they threw a temper tantrum.
After an hour or so the board moved to close the public comment period on this shelter and the special permits it needed. When they voted to close the hearing—didn’t vote on the matter at hand, just closed public comment—a Lady Uncle in the crowd shouted out “WHAT THE FUCK” so loud it could be heard clear as day on the livestream feed. (If you don’t understand what I mean when I say “Lady Uncle,” scroll to the “March of the Lady Uncles” subsection in this post. I am trying to make Uncles and Lady Uncles canon in Worcester politics. Your help would be appreciated).
During the hour of testimony, there were more supportive speakers than there were opposing. It was 14-10 by my count. The Uncles and Lady Uncles, perhaps reading the writing on the wall, grew restless. Resorted to shouting. Reduced to their core essence, really: Children not getting their way.
It was a tense scene to observe, even from the remove of a laptop screen.
A few minutes before the Lady Uncle’s “WHAT THE FUCK” outburst, the meeting was brought to a new level tense by an Uncle who spoke in opposition with an increasing and worrying intensity. “We’re not saying don’t have a homeless shelter, we’re saying move it downtown,” the Uncle said. That’s a real quote. The thrust of his argument. He grew visibly unwell as his comments dragged on. Toward the end, he suggested the organization behind the proposal is really engaged in a conspiracy to undermine neighborhood property values with the shelter so they can flip houses. At this point, the chairman tried to cut him off. Understandably. It didn’t go well. “Excuse me sir, I am a veteran,” this guy responded, shouting now, his voice cracking with exasperation. He fought in the Middle East for this country, he said. His daughter grew up without a father, he said. And now this? A shelter for six homeless families in my neighborhood?
The chairman continued to remind him that his time was up, but he kept talking, devolving to the sort of rhetoric you might hear in the moments before a bar fight. “Yeah, wag your finger,” he said, dripping with a “see me in the parking lot” energy, before he stormed out of the room. I half expected him to start swinging. Don’t think I was the only one. His behavior prompted an abrupt close to public comment. “Yeah we’re not going to have outbursts like that any longer,” the chairman said. (The Worcestery Council Theater 3000 crew was streaming this meeting. You can catch this moment at about the 1:28:00 mark. It’s wild).
This guy (not worth confirming his name or risk drawing his attention, honestly) was one of the 10 speakers at the meeting in opposition. He was the most combative about it, but not by much. Coming in second was Rick Cipro, a cop and a police union official and a one-time failed City Council candidate. An “officer of the peace,” in the legal sense. “What’s going to stop it from expanding?” this officer of the peace asked. The chairman attempted to explain there’s no expansion plan, but Cipro continued to talk over him. The chairman reprimanded him— “Sir, please be quiet a minute, would ya?” —then Cipro resorted to shouting. “IT WILL BE LIKE THAT,” he yelled. Twice, I believe. An officer of the peace, screaming at the ZBA in the city he “serves.” Rightfully unafraid of professional consequences for such behavior. Knowing he’s free to do so. That there’s no real accountability for police officers in Worcester. A reader who was there in person messaged me to say there was a cop in the chamber on a detail, and this cop was high fiving the Reactionary Townies on their way out. Like he’s on their team and he was saying don’t worry about it we’ll get ‘em next time.
The board eventually took its vote on the proposal—it was 4-0 in favor, without questions or hesitations or comment—over the mushy chatter of townie cranks continuing to shout at them from the audience. All the while the chairman continued to remind the crowd he has the power to toss them from the room—though it’s unclear whether this high-fiving cop on duty would have obeyed such an order. After the vote, he offered a brusque closing note:
“Anyone who has a problem with this can appeal under Mass. general law and we would appreciate you to go ahead and do that.”
Take your tantrum somewhere else, basically. Save it for a judge.
The hour and half this shelter was discussed Monday night was easily the finest character study I’ve ever seen on the “reactionary townie” contingent in the local political landscape. Their comments exuded a petulance and entitlement free of any self-awareness. They spoke like the ZBA was a restaurant server who didn’t bring them the meal they ordered. Like the city was honor-bound as the restaurant manager to step in and apologize and comp the meal. My mistake sir sorry for the inconvenience sir. Like their owning a single-family home in a “good neighborhood” (read: “majority white” neighborhood) absolved them from participating in their society as anything but a customer and after all the customer is always right.
But they lost! Big time! In every sense. It was honestly so sick to witness in real time.
They couldn’t even lay claim to the popular narrative. The ten residents that spoke against the shelter were outnumbered by 14 who spoke in favor. Many of those speaking in favor also condemned the opposition’s rhetoric as selfish and shameful. As scaremongering. Out of step with reality. Laced with hate and fear.
Most of the time, especially on the level of “neighborhood issues” such as this shelter, the Reactionary Townie will at least have the power to define the “concerns of neighbors” aspect of the narrative. Just by nature of being the loudest. At this particular meeting they were denied even that. They weren’t the loudest. The shelter is going through, and with the support of the majority of speakers in attendance.
The situation concerning homelessness in Worcester is still dire. Increasingly so. This one shelter is no panacea. While a good thing, it is a small thing. Much more is needed. The “concerns of neighbors” narrative is no small roadblock to more good things happening. It was huge that the townies were outnumbered at this meeting. It was huge that the vote went through and wasn’t further delayed. It was the product of a lot of progressive organizing and information sharing and civic participation. It can be repeated. A playbook. Let’s use it!
Just desserts for the WPD
The horrible god awful show of force and brutality by the Worcester Police Department against Black Lives Matter protestors in June 2020 is finally getting the cross examination it deserves.
Last week, 12 plaintiffs involved in that horrible night filed a massive civil lawsuit against the city of Worcester, former City Manager Ed Augustus Jr, Police Chief Steven Sargent and a number of officers. The complaint is more than 100 pages long and details absolutely nightmarish behavior on the part of the Worcester officers who were there—force marching and beating and firing “less than lethal” munitions at a small group of innocent kids—and the officials who later validated and supported the behavior. The plaintiffs are being represented by Hector Pineiro and his band of stalwart police watchdogs—really the only lever of police accountability that exists in the city. It is the largest and most damning lawsuit I have personally seen filed against the Worcester Police Department. In total, the plaintiffs have leveled 44 charges against the city. They run the gambit of police abuses, from unreasonable force to first amendment violations to assault and battery to false arrests and malicious prosecution. Ed Augustus and Steven Sargent are personally charged with “supervisor liability.” This is big.
It’ll take a long time for this action to reach any sort of conclusion, but if past precedent means anything it could cost the city millions. I’ve hosted the complaint document on Google Drive. It’s worth a read. It rips the city’s already-thin narrative about what happened that night to shreds. For me, it was a rather traumatic document. I was personally there that night. I saw it happen. The complaint is both a confirmation of what I saw and my gut feeling that what I was witnessing was deeply out of bounds behavior from the police.
In many ways, it was the inciting incident for this newsletter. In reconciling my personal observations with the substance of this lawsuit, I have a unique and important story to tell. But I need a little more time to get that together. For now, let me just direct you back to one of my last columns at Worcester Magazine. The last column on this subject matter that didn’t get censored and barred from publication by a Telegram editor. It was published on June 5, 2020 and it’s called “That’s not what restraint looks like.” On June 17, I resigned from Worcester Magazine and launched this outlet. That anniversary is coming up quick! Might make for the proper occasion to properly tell this story. For now, we’ll leave the matter here.
A major award
As if the lawsuits aren’t enough, now the city is winning major awards. Andrew Quemere over on his Mass Dump newsletter has a great write-up on Worcester getting national attention for its failed legal battle to keep police disciplinary records from the public. Quemere writes:
The city of Worcester is one of four finalists for this year’s Golden Padlock, an annual award that Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. bestows on the most secretive government agencies and officials. IRE chose the city for wasting thousands of tax dollars on an illegal effort to keep records of police misconduct investigations secret for years.
In 2018, Telegram & Gazette reporter Brad Petrishen requested several internal-affairs reports and officer complaint histories from the city. The journalist was looking into a voluminous complaint submitted to prosecutors by civil rights lawyer Hector Pineiro, who accused officers of beating people, conducting illegal searches, staging evidence, falsifying reports, and more.
The city initially agreed to provide the T&G with most of the records but backtracked after the paper published two articles by Petrishen describing what he learned about the allegations from court records. The T&G soon filed a lawsuit — it was the paper’s third successful lawsuit against the city for internal-affairs records in two decades.
Good for us.
Off to the races
Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a municipal election ballot! It’s a doozy. Here’s a quick breakdown. This is a little “old news” by now but I should have it in here at least for posterity.
At-large council: Bill Coleman, Domenica Perrone, Donna Colorio, Guillermo Creamer Jr., Johanna Hampton-Dance, Joe Petty, Kate Toomey, Khrystian King, Maydee Morales, Moe Bergman, Thu Nguyen.
That’s 11 candidates for six seats! And a better than decent chance of knocking off some conservative incumbents with progressive challengers.
District 1: David Peterson, Jenny Pacillo, Larry Shetler.
In this seat, left open by Sean Rose’s departure, Pacillo is the favorite and would be a welcome addition. Shetler, on the other hand, outed himself as a townie crank at the ZBA meeting Monday night. He tried to draw some bewildering comparison between siting homeless shelters and doing redlining.
District 2: Candy Mero-Carlson, Phil Palmieri, Robert Bilotta.
This race is extremely interesting. The thing that should happen is that Mero-Carlson and Palmieri torpedo each other and Bilotta, a great progressive activist, comes out on top.
District 3: George Russell and Feanna Jattan-Singh.
Here’s to hoping Russell loses.
District 4: Katia Norford, Luis Ojeda, Maria Montano, Maureen Schwab, Ted Kostas.
For this seat, left open by outgoing councilor Sarai Rivera, there’s bound to be a scrappy fight. For right now, safe to say anyone but Ted Kostas. Recently, Rivera inserted herself into the race with a Facebook rant about how some candidates are trying to run a campaign on District 4 being dirty and poor.
“If your running for district 4 don’t describe the district just by crime and grime. I am not oblivious to the challenges that we have but they are no different that any urban setting. Also from many other parts of the city. Educate yourself with actual data and facts. Do we have challenges yes but I am also very aware of the vibrancy, beauty, strength and all amazing aspects of the district.”
If I had to guess, that rant is aimed squarely at Kostas.
District 5: Etel Haxhiaj and Jose Rivera.
This is the race that’s getting the most attention I’d say, and for good reason. Rivera is god awful and Etel is better than we deserve. This really is the race for who gets to claim ownership of the city: reactionary townie cranks or decent people. Game on.
School Committee: It’s a little fucky this year honestly, with the newly organized district seat composition.
School Committee at-large: Laura Clancey, Maureen Binienda, Sue Mailman and Tracy Novick.
The obvious thing about this is former Superintendent Maureen Binienda throwing her hat in the ring. We need a full court press to make sure that doesn’t happen. She is both a nightmare and a legitimate contender.
District A: Molly McCullough running unopposed.
District B: Vanessa Alvarez running unopposed.
District C: Jermoh Kamara versus Dianna Biancheria.
Biancheria is just as bad as Binienda and needs to lose.
District D: Alex Guardiola running unopposed.
Guardiola works for the Chamber of Commerce and the fact he’s unopposed lends the institution direct representation over the schools. This is I’m sure not the outcome intended by the group who sued the city to make the School Committee more representative. The Chamber of Commerce is certainly not the marginal group they had in mind.
District E: Kathy Roy, John Reed, Nelly Medina.
I don’t know anything about John Reed but Kathy Roy is one of the biggest townie cranks in the Worcester Internet world and Medina is one of the most stalwart progressive advocates in the city. So in this race we also see a sort of referendum.
District F: Jermaine Johnson running unopposed. He will keep his seat.
A lot of outcomes here in these district seats decided before any voter had a say in the matter. I’ll just leave that bit of analysis hanging for now.
Now’s the general point in time where it’s useful to look at messaging efforts and campaign finance stuff for all these races. See who is serious and who isn’t and what the battle lines will be. More on that soon.
Now for our main feature, which is very relevant.
Joe Carlson and the politics of “business as usual”
By Cara Berg Powers
“Worcester is a Union City,” Councilor Khrystian King said back in 2022 in an op-ed he penned on behalf of himself and Mayor Petty, regarding the push from a right wing group to decertify the Mass Nurses Association’s union at St. V’s. This campaign came months after the nurses had won the contract they spent the better part of a year on strike to earn. While I appreciate King’s unwavering commitment to labor, I am not sure I can agree with his sentiment. If Worcester truly was a “Union City,” I can’t imagine we’d have so many (i.e. most) developments under construction with non-union labor, I wouldn’t have had to attend a rally at 145 Front Street protesting wage theft for unpaid laborers, and certainly I don’t think the Mayor of a “Union City” would be at that very same 145 Front Street project, cutting the ribbon while the accusations were still in court.
Certainly, in a Union City, if the head of the AFL-CIO was married to the head of the Economic Development Committee on the City Council, you wouldn’t be able to think about a development without 100% union labor. Alas, when the ground broke at Polar Park, Candy and Joe Carlson walked right past the Community Labor Coalition protest outside the event so that she could go play pretend shovel will all of the other revelers and share their glowing thoughts about Larry Lucchino. (I won’t even get into her suspicious role in the demolition of the abutting Worcide skate park just weeks before Lucchino’s first tour of the area.)
If you’ve been to any labor events in Worcester, you’ve probably heard Joe Carlson yelling into a megaphone, but otherwise you might not know who he is. Even though he’s been the head of the Central MA AFL-CIO for my entire adult life, he has very little to show for it. As I said, much of the new development in Worcester was built with mostly non-union contracts. I have not once heard Carlson there pushing for that, and I listen to every Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
Joe Carlson lends the “Carlson” to “Candy Mero-Carlson.” The “Mero” is not a feminist choice, it’s just to remind East Side voters that she is Italian. Back in 2015, when Candy first ran for City Council, Joe stepped down from the Election Commission in a show of taking conflicts of interest seriously. Which is now really funny because the Central MA AFL-CIO social media is almost indistinguishable from her campaign pages. More on that later. He’s also chairman of the Worcester Housing Authority board. He’s very much a part of the old boy’s network that keeps the City Council’s “Normative Six,” as Bill calls them and all of their string pullers in power. Like all of these folks, he resents that anyone would possibly challenge business as usual. Because business as usual has been working pretty well for him. Despite all evidence of mediocrity.
He holds a seat that carries a lot of name recognition. For a lot of us that were raised in union households and that spend a lot of volunteer time and energy trying to make working people’s lives better, the AFL-CIO is a pretty big deal. So the mockery he makes of it—using it as his own personal fiefdom to maintain right-wing power in the city and funnel money into his wife’s sizable war chest—is a bitter pill to swallow. Frankly, I’m sick of just joining in with folks talking shit about him in the back of the labor breakfast, so in this post I’m just saying out loud what everyone else whispers over drinks. With receipts.
First, literal receipts.
After running the numbers on City Council election donations since Candy first ran in 2015, she has received almost twice as many donations from the AFL as anyone else, including Mayor Joe Petty.
Candy Mero Carlson: $4,500
Joseph Petty: $2,300
Morris Bergman: $1,950
Khrystian King: $1,700 (but nothing since 2019. They did not endorse him in 2021, despite how hard he consistently shows up for labor, as evidenced in the opening paragraph. Can’t think of what changed in the political climate between 2019 and 2021… hmmm…)
George Russell: $450
Kate Toomey: $250
Donna Colorio: $100
I’ll be honest, if I was Kate Toomey I would be pretty ticked off at these numbers. She’s carrying a lot of water for the police unions for such a tiny check.
Back to Carlson though. It’s not just the money. Though Political Action Committees and Unions can only give $500 in a year directly to a candidate, so it is notable that Candy is the only candidate getting that check reliably, every single year. This includes, by the way, a $500 check to Candy in February of this year. Before opponents had even pulled papers, let alone confirmed making it on the ballot. Donations like this are usually given as part of an official endorsement of a political candidate by a group through a process.
Different political organizations do endorsements for different reasons, and with different processes, but most often a candidate seeks an endorsement as a public recognition of their alignment with a group’s issues, a monetary donation, and/or a commitment of volunteer time or resources from members of that group. As a former candidate for School Committee, and as a longtime member of a 501(c)4 Political Committee that did endorsements for elections, I have seen this process on both sides of the table. It can differ a little bit, but here’s how it usually goes:
Group opens endorsement process, sends a questionnaire of key issues to all of the candidates for any seats being endorsed
After deadline for questionnaires, usually you send a couple more emails to people to make sure they are in before the decision making body meets
The decision making body meets to review questionnaires, and anyone who meets the criteria from those is invited to an interview, especially if there is some more information needed or more than one candidate that has a good questionnaire for the same seat
Interviews happen, usually requiring a lot of volunteer time from board members to go to a lot of interviews, and fill out notetaking sheets for any they attend
Decision making body meets again to review interviews, and vote on endorsements based on a predetermined criteria
Candidates are contacted about endorsements, and arrangements are made about what commitments (time, money, press) are expected, and how/when to announce
I cannot emphasize enough how much this IS NOT how the endorsements that Carlson heads up work. In fact, how they work is such a secret recipe and so inconsistent that some of the most politically active unions in the area—like the Carpenters and SEIU 509—are no longer affiliates. Still, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out ANY inkling of public notice of their process. Since the website is pretty poorly updated and not very useful, I decided to take a look at their Facebook page, and so far, despite public thanks from Kate Toomey and Jose Rivera for their endorsements, there is nothing there about this election yet. So I scrolled back and found that the literal ONLY posts that they made about the election in 2021 were actual REPOSTS from Candy’s own campaign page.
Like, what is even happening here? Again, not a single other post from the page about anything else related to the 2021 city election. Whatsoever.
I think it’s important to take a step back here and remind people that during this election cycle, the St. V’s Nurses were on an almost yearlong strike. On the AFL-CIO’s page, there’s only one or two posts about that. There are no calls to action, no reminders to support the strike fund or volunteer at the line. Just plenty of reposts of Candy’s campaign page. Here, on this Facebook page, we see a glimpse of someone who’s not particularly good at holding power accountable to the needs of the labor community he claims to represent! Rather it appears he’s content to use what power he does have to support his wife.
Candy Mero-Carlson is the district councilor local to Polar Park (District 2) and the chairwoman of the economic development subcommittee. In those roles she sold off most of the taxable properties in her district for the ballpark to “pay for itself” and then approved the deal months before a community benefit agreement with community and labor was ever agreed on. As though that weren’t bad enough, in the intervening years, it’s clear that even that agreement has no teeth, as reports show that less than 1% of contracts for the park have gone to women and/or POC owned vendors. With no oversight or remedy from the alleged Labor champions on the Council. Carlson has since lost that Chair, and alleges it’s because she was the only sitting City Councilor to publicly support right-wing ideologue and homeless shelter hater Richard Cipro.
With that all said, you may be less confused that both Kate Toomey and Jose Rivera announced endorsements from the Central MA AFL-CIO Central Labor Council this week. Still, I think it’s important to note that even the most basic protocols of how endorsements for political office usually work are 100% not in play here. There is no questionnaire, no interview. There’s no public announcement or invitation to seek endorsement. The result of all this is that for the time being, an endorsement from the Central MA AFL-CIO is at best about who you know and at worst a signifier of being allied with the most right-leaning and anti-progress elements of our city. Or, I guess, who Candy sees as an ally.
There’s a famous quote from Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” Well, we have leaders that are willing to risk being called scary names if it means doing the work to make people’s lives better, and we have electeds that would just as soon people stay hungry so people keep calling them saints when they toss some scraps their way. This Fall, we have a choice of which of those kind of leaders we want in the seats of power in City Hall—people who show up for photo ops at homeless shelters, or people who go door to door to talk to concerned neighbors about the shelter, like Etel Haxhiaj or who run the programs at the shelter like Maydeé Morales. I hope it goes without saying that we don’t want the leaders that show up at meetings about the shelters to propose needless additional red tape to keep families out of homes, like Donna Colorio. We can have “labor” champions that are happy to make speeches and then work behind the scenes to keep business as usual, or we can have actual champions that will fight to make Worcester a real “Union City.” The choice, as they say, is yours.
Odds and ends
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That Spencer church fire was pretty nutty, huh?
Thanks to Derek on Twitter who shared my travel essay as part of a reading series. Mine was paired with a story about how officials in Somerville are proactively meeting with musicians to try and preserve their presence in that rapidly unaffordable city. In that city, they even have a “displacement task force,” according to Derek. Worcester would never!
There’s a Council meeting tonight and we’ll be streaming 6:15 p.m.