Is Springfield Ready for New Leadership?

It's been a tough year for the city of Springfield – tornadoes, a tropical storm and the recent snowfall have destroyed property and depressed residents. On top of that, the city's homicide rate has surpassed last year's, with 19 murders so far. Now voters must turn their attention to the mayor's race, and decide who's best fit to lead the city as it recovers.

Springfield's mayoral race pits incumbent Domenic Sarno against City Council President Jose Tosado. Sarno is seeking a third term – he's been mayor for 4 years now. But if Tosado wins, he'll be the first Puerto Rican mayor in state history.

"At this point it's really Mayor Sarno's race to lose."

Tim Vercellotti is a professor of political science at Western New England University.  He says the recent disasters have put Sarno in the spotlight, and it's difficult for anyone else to get the same exposure. But, he says, support for Tosado throughout the city can't be ignored.

"If you look at the census data for Springfield, about a third of the city households, Spanish is spoken at home. And so the Puerto Rican community is a sizeable community in this city and this is a test of its political strength."

But in the recent primary, Tosado received slightly more than 3 thousand votes while Sarno received more than 8 thousand. The question may be whether voters are ready to embrace change, which is what Tosado promotes in his campaign.

"There's a handful of people who really control the economy and the resources in Springfield. And these people, these very powerful people with direct access to City Hall, have an incentive to keep Springfield just as it is, in decline."

Tosado has called for the immediate resignation of the city school superintendent, who gave his one-year notice over the summer. He's proposed the creation of a Hampden County Gun Court, to expedite illegal gun cases and quickly get dangerous people off the streets. Tosado was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in the  Latino North End, where his family owned a small restaurant. A social worker, he's spent 28 years working for the Mass. Department of Mental Health, most recently managing its Springfield office.

"We have unsafe streets, we have failing schools and we have a runaway economy. It's time for some risks to be taken, it's time for a real manager to come in for the city."

But Sarno prides himself on overseeing the city's improved finances, in the wake of a state takeover. Due to storm recovery efforts, Sarno canceled an interview this week, but here he is in a recent debate on WGBY television.

"Even though we rebuild during the devastating tornadoes and governing in the worst economic time since the Great Depression, I'm proud of my administration being able to produce 3 balanced budgets, being able to get bond increases to A bond status and being able to keep a healthy reserve of $34.9 million. The priority of financial health of the city will continue to be at the forefront here. We cannot go back to the old ways that put us near bankruptcy."

Sarno grew up in the city's Italian South End and served on the city council. His goals range from increasing police attendance at neighborhood meetings to quick-fixes for city potholes. After finances, he says his next priority is curbing youth violence.

"I continue to meet with the task force that I put together with local, state and federal officials, FBI, DEA, state police. We've continued our targeted war and crackdowns and gun sweeps with gangs, narcotics and other aspects. But I need people's help, the community and the residents."

Voters will have to decide whether those efforts have been enough. In the last mayoral race, in 2009, turnout was only 25%. But this time, the decision has more weight — the mayoral term will be expanded from two years to four starting with the results of this election.