Recently, people have questioned why there are so few candidates in the city’s upcoming municipal elections. Scott O’Connell at the Telegram and Gazette wrote about it in relation to the school committee race. Nick Kotsopoulos, writing in the same publication, asked in May, “Election time nears, but does anyone care?” There are several possible reasons so few people chose to run this year, but recent smear campaigns by city council member and Republican Party chair Michael Gaffney offer up evidence for the most compelling reason. The atmosphere has become poisonous, and anyone engaging in public life is likely to fall victim to a torrent of lies, slander, and online abuse.
A happy point
Worth noting is the other of the two most compelling reasons more people aren’t running: most people are happy with the way that Worcester is moving, and are therefore happy with its current leadership. Most voters recognize the huge strides forward the city has made in recent years, from the redevelopment of downtown and the beginnings of renovations in the neighborhoods to the Worcester Police Department, which has continued to keep the city safe and to build relationships with all community members.
The problem of hate politics
Regardless of the city’s improvements, though, it is hard to fathom how there could be so few people running, for example, for the at-large council seats: all the incumbents plus Ben Straight and Gary Rosen, himself an incumbent in a district seat. How could anyone imagine that the biggest reason for this isn’t the rise of hate politics in the city?
As former Mayor Ray Mariano noted in a recent Worcester Sun piece, it has become commonplace for those opposing incumbents to refer to the latter as “corrupt.” Led by radio host Jim Polito, and echoed repeatedly by the the TBS blog, Gaffney, and his Republican City Committee, they refer to the city’s elected leadership as the “McGovern crime family.”
Is this how we want our politics? Baseless accusations of criminal wrongdoing?
Accusations by Gaffney against elected officials and candidates
But it’s worse than just name calling: Gaffney and his followers, without evidence, accused a city council member and pastor of stealing from the city. The evidence? Nothing. Mayor Joe Petty was referred to as a “murderer” with blood on his hands, all because he supported our immigrant community and the Worcester Police Department’s policy of not involving itself in federal immigration matters. (Note: the whole point is moot now, given that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts essentially ruled that the position of Petty and the WPD is the only position tenable under the Massachusetts constitution.)
A month or two ago, Turtleboy Sports referred to the only new candidate for the school committee as a “racist” and a “junkie.”
Accusations against constituents
The list goes on. And their attacks aren’t only against politicians, but against constituents as well. I’ll use myself as an example. Several days ago, while skimming Facebook, I saw my own picture – because it was part of a sponsored post by Gaffney. The Gaffney-funded Turtleboy Sports cobbled together an article saying that Mayor Petty had hired me as his “smear campaign” manager, and repeating discredited allegations of me being a communist.
Gaffney, through Turtleboy, alleges that the mayor’s hired me to smear him and that I was elected to the library board as some sort of corrupt payback. (A bizarre allegation, given that the library board position is a way in which to serve the city – as a volunteer!) His evidence? Nothing. He couldn’t find evidence, so he just made an allegation without anything to support it. He won’t find evidence, either, because he knows what he’s saying simply isn’t true – none of it is true.
Yes, I support Mayor Petty. But as even Gaffney’s Turtleboy blog noted, I also supported Obama (and actively campaigned for him in several states, both in 2008 and 2012). Is the allegation, then, that Obama’s a communist? (Lucky no one photographed me next to Obama on the two occasions we ever met, since that’s what Gaffney/Turtleboy use as their “evidence”! There is a photo somewhere of me chatting with another mayor, NYC’s Mike Bloomberg – maybe he’s some kind of communist extremist/billionaire businessman…?)
Oh, and the Gaffney/Turtleboy article contained my address. They do and say all this – and I’m not even running for office.
Criticism vs. smear tactics
Of course, I’ve made some harsh statements about Gaffney and Turtleboy Sports, but the difference is that they aren’t baseless. I’ve talked about the hate in the TBS blog, and pointed out that Gaffney sponsors it. I’ve taken issue with TBS implying, on purpose, that I’m a rapist. I’ve called on Gaffney to take a position on the sleaze he sponsors, and he’s said nothing. To me, there’s a difference between making baseless accusations and pointing out sleaze.
Gaffney doesn’t see it that way, though. If you look at his site, any criticism of him is hatred and sleaze.
For example, when the Worcester Democratic City Committee published an article from The Rambler,
Gaffney took offense. The article was a critique of his policies, which is a legitimate form of criticism, and questioned whether he was too caustic. He reposted the article, saying, “Enough with the personal attacks!” What kind of statement is this from someone who refers to another council member as “the Wicked Witch of Main South”?
My own opinion is that both Gaffneys (both Michael and his wife are running for office) calculate that, since there isn’t much of a record they can point to, and they don’t seem to be offering up many ideas, they need to be pushing hate and lies. I would urge them to follow the example of Konstantina Lukes. Personally, I strongly disagree with most of her opinions and votes on the council, but I respect her as a person: she hasn’t engaged in the dirty world of smear tactics.
To sum up
Worcester’s politics used to be collegial. Now, however, a toxic brew of hate and lies is rising from some of the worst sections of the city’s political life. Elected officials are accused of lying, of corruption, of criminal wrongdoing – even murder. Community activists looking to better the city are called “racist” and “junkie,” and a certain council member sponsors the blog that does it.
That blog, by the way, is notorious for digging through people’s Facebook feeds and social media and leading its followers to bully – to an extreme extent – innocent people who have nothing to do with the city’s public life at all. And now we have elected officials attacking their constituents and accusing constituents of corruption and conspiracy.
Worcester can do better than this. Putting the filth back into the sewer will allow for more open elections with more candidates – and therefore more ideas.
Cutting back on the hate will also be good for our souls.
Photo: By Elle A, used under a Creative Commons license.