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“My question is... when will it ever end?”
Maybe a campaign run by the cranks for the cranks is a bad idea?
Normally I kick these posts off with a little hat-in-hand moment going please sir please subscribe sir. Today my hat is still in my hand but for a different reason. My love is going through some shit. She got diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and today she’s starting treatment. As I’m writing this, I’m next to her in what I like to call the ChemoLounge and the turkey sandwich lunch is on its way. This is going to be a long hard road and we’re gunna get through it but it is very very expensive to be sick in this country. Some of you may know Katie but I’m sure most of you don’t. She’s a tattooer and a very good one at that but being a tattooer is a lot like being a freelancer writer. There’s no benefits, no sick time, and the health insurance is bad if you’re lucky. The medical debt is outrageous but so is the prospect of making rent when you can’t physically do your job. That’s what we’re looking at for the next six months or so. I made a GoFundMe page and we’d really appreciate anything you can give. Also just sharing it on your socials or among your people would be a huge help. Thank you!
Today’s post is a twofer: I go deep in a weird way on the Mill Street repaving meeting that happened earlier this week, then Cara Berg Powers goes in on the recent fracas around the Big D site on Mill Street. Between the two pieces, the choice for who to vote for in the District 5 City Council race. One of the candidates is very smart and the other is... well. You’ll see.
“My question is... when will it ever end?”
Several hundred people crammed into a dank, sweaty hall on Mill Street Monday night for a meeting about roadwork. I was one of them, begrudgingly. The meeting was called to explain a project which is entirely benign, mundane and routine. Mill Street is getting repaved and partially redesigned to conform to national best practices. A bike lane is going in and the street is going down from four lanes to two for a certain stretch. Under normal circumstances, this meeting would not be worth writing about, nor would it draw such a large turnout.
There is a story here, however, and it’s a surprisingly good one. The reason why the meeting happened is where it gets interesting. It’s going to take some explaining to get there, and it requires wading through extremely boring territory. I’ll do my best. Where I’m going is this: everyone who went to the Mill Swan School at 6 p.m. Monday night witnessed a foolish campaign smear tactic backfire.
District 5 City Council challenger Jose Rivera has been trying for weeks to crucify incumbent Councilor Etel Haxhiaj on the Mill Street roadwork, insinuating it was some sort of secret project intentionally kept from residents of the neighborhood. The attack is heavily dependent on an assumption that “the neighborhood” is universally unhappy about the project and feels they’ve been hoodwinked. This attack was always thin and in bad faith, but it was bolstered by a small and vocal contingent of neighborhood townies happy to lend a hand to Rivera by creating an “uproar.” They flooded City Hall with calls and emails expressing a general “how dare you” sentiment. To fan the flames of this “uproar,” Rivera filed a petition with the city council which prompted a long conversation at the last meeting and led to the community meeting Monday night. Rivera was happy to lead the charge and use it as a cugdel to attack Haxhiaj. This came to a head Monday night. When I arrived a few minutes after the meeting started, Haxhiaj was halfway through an opening address to the crowd that had gathered. Meanwhile, Rivera was outside the hall, getting interviewed by the local cable access channel. This was the idea: Get Haxhiaj “in the hot seat,” addressing a crowd of angry residents and looking like the bad guy while he gets his place in the narrative as the “good guy” alternative, talking to the cable acces station.
But in order for that to work, there needs to be a “crowd of angry residents.” That just didn’t happen! There were angry residents and there was a crowd. But the crowd was not composed of angry residents. The “angry residents” were an obvious and transparently obnoxious minority. Most of the people who spoke were either in favor of the redesign or ambivalent to it. Very few stuck to the party line of the Rivera campaign that Haxhiaj had pulled a fast one. When some of them spoke, they were met with a wave of groans, boos and jeers from the rest of the crowd. This dynamic was set early. After the presentation from city officials, they opened the floor to questions from residents. Paul Gunnerson was the first resident to speak, eagerly waving down the mic. Even before he spoke, though, it was clear he was a main character of the “angry neighborhoods” which produced Rivera’s “uproar.” King Of The Cranks!
An elderly man with thick white mutton chops, Gunnerson sat in the middle of the front row. Throughout the presentation he often grumbled. At one point, when Steve Rolle, the city’s transportation and mobility commissioner, said the redesign would increase “safe and equitable access” to the street, Gunnerson performatively slapped his notebook on the table in front of him and loudly said “these people have no idea what they’re talking about.” Next to the notebook was his baseball hat—black and stitched with white lettering which read “I Miss The America I Grew Up In.”
When it came time for his turn at the mic, Gunnerson offered something of a history lesson on how the city went about redesigning Tatnuck Square in 2013. Several times, he said “it’s Deja Vu.” A few minutes in, having not talked much about Mill Street, he said for the second time the City Hall staffers in attendance were “all new to me.” This prompted a shout from the back of the room: “make your point!” He went on talking about what happened in 2014. More jeers: “can you wrap it up?” “what’s your question?” Revisiting the audio, the groans are abundant. Asked for a second time what his question was, some three minutes into his speech—still a history lesson—he said “my question is... when will it ever end?” Another minute of stream-of-consciousness complaints from Gunnerson until someone yells “can we move on to someone else?” and a chorus of people join in agreement, drowning him out completely and causing him to stop. Gunnerson’s message was not resonating. Most of the room seemed to find it annoying. I didn’t expect that. I expected almost every resident “question” to be like Gunnerson’s. Just by nature of normal people not bothering to show up to stuff like this, they get the floor without a challenge. The remarkable thing about this meeting is that normal people showed up. They let cranks like Gunnerson know they’re at best a minority. And an annoying one at that.
I mean how perfect is Gunnerson’s last thought... “my question is... when will it ever end?” The normal people put Gunnerson in a position in which he had to clearly state his concern, and that’s all he could come up with. When will it end?
You can’t prove these things for sure but it’s likely the Rivera team got the whole Mill Street idea from Gunnerson directly. If not him, someone of his ilk. Gunnerson is among a small but extremely vocal constituency of reactionary right wingers in Worcester I like to call “The Cranks.” The Cranks are the most elite unit of a larger group I like to call “The Lady Uncles.” The Lady Uncles are in turn a subset of a larger constituency I like to call “The Townies.” If there was a better term for these sorts of people, I’d use it. Such a term would be useful across the state, I’d imagine. “Working class whites” gets close but it’s not fair to the majority of working class whites. Also 80 percent of them are retired. Most people even—gasp!—working class white people are normal. The Townies are not.
The political imagination of The Townie thrives on grievance, rests on a foundation of racism, and interprets the world through a collectively understood fiction of ”the way things used to be.” They’re drawn to local politics as a way to express their grievances. An outlet for shouting that’s more interactive and engaging than their TV screens. They approach city government as customers. In the current state of local politics—low election turnout, bad local press coverage, and a general feeling it’s pointless to pay attention—the Townie thrives. Just by being loud when normal people are quiet, they get a lot of influence. This is a big reason why we have some of the bizarrely inept city councilors that we do. Customer service representatives more than political leaders. Donna Colorio, Moe Bergman, Kate Toomey, Candy Mero Carlson. The “normative six.”
Understanding the cranks in this way brings the Rivera campaign into focus. It’s a political project run by the cranks, for the cranks. Walter Bird, Rivera’s campaign manager, is among the cranks. Gunnerson and other cranks like Wayne Griffin are the target constituency. Thus, the Mill Street repaving issue was an easy choice. And they didn’t have to prove to the crank constituency that they had a solid line of attack. They just had to attack.
This contingent is used to having the ear of city councilors and the ability to define “angry resident” press narratives. That Haxhiaj was able to win the last election without capitulating to them at all is the main grievance. So they just want to see her get attacked. For weeks, the Rivera did just that. It was catnip for the cranks. The meeting Monday was supposed to be the grand finale. Haxhiaj finally facing the cranks directly. In the “hot seat.” But that just didn’t happen. The cranks were shown to be not only unpopular but just plain annoying. Normal people actually showed up this time! The cranks were put in the appropriate context.
It wasn’t just Gunnerson. A lot of opposition speakers found themselves in a hostile room. Midway through, noted crank Fred Nathan walked right up past city officials to the projector screen. He pointed at it and asked, in smug “gotcha” fashion, how emergency vehicles would get through a street with only one lane. Rolle calmly answered that they’d do so the same way they do on other one lane streets. The room filled with laughter as Nathan retreated. Later, a crank suggested it’s the pedestrian’s fault when they get hit by a car. The animus in the room was cartoonish. All groans and sighs and muttering. The “angry crowd” the Rivera campaign needed to make the smear against Haxhiaj effective became the source of the crowd’s anger. The whole thing fell apart simply because normal people showed up.
Meanwhile, the overall consensus in the room was that Worcester is behind the times on street design and it would be nice if it was safer to walk and ride a bike in the city. Reasonable stuff! This was perhaps best captured by Eric Stratton, who spoke while holding his child about wanting streets that are safe for children. The changes to the street make the street safer, he said.
“I’m really excited to see this project. Motor vehicle accidents are the second highest cause of accidents that kill children. That is one of the things that really terrifies me,” he said.
Most of the speakers felt redesigns like the one in question are a good idea. Haxhiaj got to be the candidate which represents that position. Rivera, on the other hand, saw his position lose. The thin premise crumbled. And facing that he was silent. After talking to the cameras early on, he kept to the back of the room, sometimes talking to Walter Bird, and also City Manager Eric Batista at least once, shaking hands. Though he had ample opportunity, he didn’t grab the mic. But he did clap! In fact at one point he clapped in such a strange way at such a strange moment that it’s worth describing in detail. It’s a weird thing to report on but it was actually a more effective and honest statement than anything he might have said. It sort of tells the whole story, honestly.
Some context is needed: the Mill Street changes which prompted the meeting are a “partial redesign,” implemented during a round of road repaving out of convenience and efficiency. There is a separate “permanent redesign” project coming in the future. That project is in the long, boring process of getting funded and scheduled. It will likely take years. The changes happening now are an effort to get a little something done in the meantime. Hence the “partial.”
For the eventual permanent redesign, the first step is drafting a plan. The city has recently acquired funding to do so. Part of the plan drafting process is public input. Rolle explained many times on Monday night that there will be many such public input sessions before the plan is completed. Those sessions are a standard, routine component of the design process. They happen before every permanent redesign, everywhere in the state. Rolle was very clear about that. He said he hopes as many people show up for those as did on Monday.
At one point, answering a question, Rolle said “In the longer term improvements, there will be an active recurring process to engage with the community to develop this, ok?” It was the third or fourth time he said as much. Across the room, I noticed Rivera listening intently. He dipped his head, grinned and pounded his hands together in a loud, slow clap. Like something crucial had happened. The sort of clap you’d give for a clutch double play. A crucial third down conversion. Some momentum-shifting moment for the team. ‘Aright boys we got this now’ sorta clap. Two or three people politely joined, but only for a clap or two. Rivera kept clapping at least a dozen times, well after the others had stopped. He only wrapped it up when Haxhiaj started speaking, letting a few claps ring out under her first sentence.
It was obvious he thought something significant happened–that Rolle’s mention of future public meetings was some sort of victory. Makes sense in the context of his campaign’s attack. The evil traffic engineers will be silent no more! Meetings because I asked for them! But it does not make sense in reality. Those meetings Rolle described are going to happen no matter what anyone says or does. They were a given long before Rivera entered the realm of politics. To claim they’re evidence of any advocacy is just flat out wrong. It’s not a change of course. It’s not a capitulation to the Rivera campaign. It’s frankly nothing at all. But Rivera seemed genuine in his reaction. His claps were earnest. He was alone in it, though. No one else saw what Rivera saw.
It’s the sort of little gesture that says a lot more than any prepared remark and it’s the closest he got to making a comment. It was subtle, but the clap showed Rivera does not truly understand the Mill Street issue, despite having made it central to his campaign. If he spoke, the lack of understanding might have been more obvious. Perhaps why he decided against it. But he did clap!
Regardless, his confusion has not stopped him from using the matter to wage a smear campaign against his opponent. This begs larger questions: Is this issue one Rivera really cares about? If it was, wouldn’t he get himself up to speed? Does he even want to get up to speed? Understand the policies and procedures of municipal roadwork well enough to oversee them? Does he have a vision for how they might be improved? Does he think the role of city councilor requires that sort of political vision? Goals? Areas for improvement? Does he even want the job?
I’m not convinced! Especially not after Monday night. Not a peep from him in that sweaty hall, after being so loud about it online for so long. Just a self-congratulatory slow clap for a victory that only exists in his head. Meanwhile, Haxhiaj deftly turned this “hot seat” into an opportunity to demonstrate she knows what she’s talking about, she has a vision, and she has the stones to get up in front of a couple hundred residents and lead.
That’s not how any of this works
By Cara Berg Powers
One of my favorite parts of election season is getting to actually hear from and read from candidates what they actually hope to accomplish if elected. At the forums, in the news, and in their literature, you really get a sense of who is ready to jump into action and who has absolutely no idea what the job entails.
For example, you might see literature like this classic from Kate Toomey, in which she gives you her entire resume and says nothing about what she’ll do as a State Rep (the seat she was running for back in 2012):
It’s exciting that so many more people are engaged this year! More people engaged means more people got to see At-large City Councilor Moe Bergman at last week’s Pride Worcester Forum give a history lesson about how racially progressive Worcester was in the first years of the 20th century instead of engaging with the question of equity now.
Also, Neal McNamara’s been doing a great job getting to know the many, many candidates running over at Patch, running a series of posts dedicated to individual candidates (you can find them all at the Patch’s Worcester Election 2023 subpage). Through these deep dives, we’re getting some additional information about what a council could look like, good or bad, with some of the new faces we’ll inevitably be getting. In my neighbor Ted Kostas, who’s running for the open District 4 seat, we get a very confusing mix of supporting expanded inclusionary zoning, the very successful winter shelter in our neighborhood, and also voting for Donald Trump. He talks a lot about bringing people together and it seems like his goals would be better met in his current roles on the Citizens Advisory Council and Open Sky than as a City Councilor, if we’re being honest.
One of his District 4 opponents, Maureen Schwab, plans to donate 60% of her campaign funds to food banks, doesn’t want to doorknock, and has honorable intentions: "I want to make sure you're in safe, affordable housing ... [in a city] where you're going to find a job that can afford you a decent life. That's what it's coming down to.” She was activated by frustration with the streets plan in her neighborhood and got a taste for community organizing, which is clearly what she wants to do. That’s fine! But you don’t need a city council seat to do that.
In contrast, District 1 candidate Jenny Pacillo has a clear understanding of all the boring minutiae and even knows what neighborhood projects are coming down the line for her to be engaged with if elected.
It’s easy to understand why so many people misunderstand the role of city councilors in Worcester. If you follow some local electeds on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the primary focus of the job is releasing proclamations of what things “should” happen, sponsoring little league teams, and taking pictures at community events. Truth be told, for too many of them, that very much is the focus. Even with that in mind, it’s a little bizarre to see the crank (to use Bill’s parlance) sycophants so high on their own supply they think that Walter Bird’s random social media diatribes and poorly penned press releases on the Jose Rivera campaign pages he manages are what triggered recent marginal progress on the old, dilapidated Big D building on Mill Street. That progress being the addition of a “demolition in process” sign.
All of the comments here are ridiculous, of course, but the last one is the silliest. Also the most infuriating. The fact is, Jose Rivera and Walter Bird did not discover this 30-year-old blight. Their recent “advocacy” (read: social media posts to dozens of followers that did single digit numbers) was not the source of any “heat” or “pressure.” That’s ridiculous. Meanwhile, Councilor Haxhiaj was bringing community members together over a year ago to discuss the Big D situation as part of neighborhood development plans.
That’s from last March. Well before Rivera had even entered the realm of local politics. Not only did that meeting contribute to the plans happening now, but Councilor Haxhiaj submitted council orders, which passed, to have 195 Mill Street rezoned, to explore adding a tax credit for development, and to explore a vacant property ordinance, similar to that of Revere and Wilmington, Delaware. This extensive research and proposing solutions is the kind of work that happens day-to-day and not just on social media for attaboys from a small handful of cranks. If anything is moving the needle on Big D, it’s not shitposting, it’s the actual work. As district councilor, Haxhiaj has been doing that actual work.
Some people seem to think that a few days of social media commenting by 10 or so people would be the catalyst to a potentially transformative neighborhood change. They don’t seem interested in acknowledging the actual catalyst: a year of organizing, policy making, and meeting with administrators. It genuinely makes me terrified that these people get the same vote as the rest of us. And yet, I believe deeply in democracy. So I will just remind you all: these people get the same vote as the rest of us. You better make sure you get out there and make yours count.
Odds and ends
Ok, Bill again. Thank you for reading! Given I’m finishing this post in the ChemoLounge I super want to reiterate that if you see any typos in here no you didn’t.
A few quick things.
Taking me and Cara’s posts together, there’s a pretty clear picture of a group of people in the city who are not interested in leadership so much as they’re interested in power. It would be very very nice to see this group of people outnumbered at the polls the way they were outnumbered at the Mill Street roadwork meeting. The preliminary is the first chance to do that. Sept. 5! Mark your calendars. Expect a thorough election guide on that preliminary from yours truly in the coming weeks. It’s time to get serious.
Just posting the GoFundMe link for my girlfriend once again for posterity. If you donated thank you so much. Half the job of being a newsletter guy is begging for money but such begging in a medical debt situation is a new level of humiliating. Normal country we live in where this is a commonplace thing people have to do!
Just because I have a fiduciary responsibility to say this every time, please consider a paid subscription so I can continue to do this as a job and also pay great contributors like Cara and Andres in the last post.
Aislinn Doyle did a great job rounding up the School Committee forum last night. The preliminary is coming up fast folks. Sept. 5!
And lastly what do we think of this idea folks?