In The Arena

In the Arena: What did Greenfield voters say

Well, news-hounds, did Tuesday settle anything for you?

Obviously, the big stories from this week’s Greenfield’s Town Election were the victories of Penny Ricketts and Isaac Mass, two some would say rabidly pro-growth voices to replace dyed-in-the-wool smart-growthers David Singer, who did not run for re-election to the Town Council, and Mark Wisnewski, who winds up with the somewhat dubious footnote of being the only council president ever to be defeated for re-election.

There were a number of interesting things about this election, including the turnout, which, at 28.8 percent, was still pretty anemic. I know some will say that’s not a bad number in an off-mayoral year, but this only serves to reinforce how little we’ve come to expect regarding citizen participation in local elections. Even in a potential “change” year, with so much coverage and so much riding on the outcome, only 3 in 10 Greenfield voters could be bothered to take five minutes to walk into the Grange and make their voices heard.

Sorry, but that is pathetic.

It also does nothing to answer the question I’d hoped to get from this election: What direction do voters want Greenfield government to take? Is this still a pro-development, big-box hungry community, or has Greenfield become the commonwealth’s newest “smart-growth” enclave? The answer we seemed to get is that, despite protestations to the contrary from both sides, Greenfield remains hopelessly divided over the issue of a large-scale discount department store.

This seemed to be especially evident in Precinct 5, which continues to a source of political intrigue. Wisnewski took that precinct with 57 percent of the vote, 272 to Mass’ 199. And yet, Ricketts, the poster child for the pro-big-box movement, still managed to eke out a five-vote win, picking up 236 to Rob Wainstein’s 231. That means more than a few voters in that very liberal precinct voted both for Wisnewski and Ricketts, which seems to fly in the face of the theory that all liberals in Greenfield think the same way on every issue.

That was a big basis for Wisnewski’s ultimately unsuccessful game plan, that, in some ways, I understood. Democrats clearly hoped that playing the partisan card would galvanize voters looking to knock out the only conservative Republican on the ballot. I think one of the reasons it backfired was the assumption that because Greenfield is a blue town which went so heavily for Elizabeth Warren in the last election, it would automatically go for Wisnewski against Mass. But anyone who has spent more than one election cycle in Greenfield should know that, though Democrats do currently rule the political roost here, they rarely pull in the same direction when it comes to municipal elections.

I believe another Wisnewski vote-killer was the Democratic Town Committee’s treatment of Dick and Ruth Henry and T.J. Strahan, party stalwarts with deep roots who were pretty much kicked to the curb by the new-blood progressives for daring to openly support Isaac.

While I understand the desire and the need to enforce Democratic rules when it comes to open support for a member of an opposition party, removing the Henrys from the poll workers’ list and refusing to endorse Strahan’s Oliver Smith Will candidacy was overkill that did not play well, both with old-guard Dems and unenrolled voters who already weren’t wild about introducing partisan politics into local elections. It’s tough to gauge exactly how many votes Wisnewski lost because of that, but it’s entirely possible that it cost him an election.

What does it all mean?

Now that those votes have been counted, it’s time to consider what this change may mean for the council over the next 15 months, before the next election is set to occur under the terms of the binding charter change ballot question passed Tuesday.

I think the first immediate impact is that it largely takes the prospect of ideological overrides out of play. The council needs nine votes to override mayoral vetoes and block appointments, and that is going to be much tougher now. Not impossible, but tougher. The addition of Ricketts and Mass may also create a little more breathing room for guys like Brickett Allis, who, despite chairing the Ways and Means Committee, has largely been relegated to “back-of-the-bus” status ever since the council’s made its progressive ideological shift.

At-Large Councilor Mark Maloni may also find himself in a more politically tenable position. Though clearly a liberal, it’s obvious that Maloni has not been entirely comfortable with some of the more ideologically-entrenched positions the council took the last year. This shuffling of the decks may just be what Maloni needs to become a political breakout star.

There are a number of other councilors — most notably Marian Kelner, Steve Ronhave, Karen Shapiro-Miller and Pat Devlin — who may also find themselves in a better position to consider some new perspectives and ideas, even if they don’t totally agree with them. That’s what this council has to be more willing to do if it is serious about creating a government that is responsive to all ideas, no matter from which side of the big-box debate they originate.

I know there are some who will view the elections of Mass and Ricketts as nothing more than a step backward in Greenfield’s effort to evolve into a more welcoming and inclusive community. I would submit to you that those who hold that view may also have a vested interest in exploiting the divisions that have plagued this town for more than two decades. Whether Greenfield continues to pick at that scab or allow it to heal is largely dependent on the people the 28.8 percent of voters have entrusted to run their government.

All we can do now is hope they made the right call.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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