The hard-right faction that has come to dominate the Republican Party in Worcester seems to be on the verge of collapse, symbolized most recently by its leader, Michael Gaffney, indicating hours ago that he would not stand for election as mayor this coming November.
While that bloc’s defeat is not a foregone conclusion, it appears very likely that Gaffney’s standing down could represent a recognition by him and others of a failure to build a local stronghold for a hate-filled, extremist faction within the Republican Party. This grouping, of course, is represented nationally by Trump and his allies. Their failure in Worcester is a dramatic shift of events, and could strengthen the hand of the moderate-progressive alliance currently in office.
As late as several months ago, it appeared that a coalition between Gaffney, several others in a Republican City Committee purged of its moderates, and the notorious Turtleboy Sports blog could make serious inroads in Worcester. This grouping seemed as if it had a path to creating a city council bloc and establishing a base upon which to build further. Gaffney was openly talking about running for mayor, while allied candidates across the city, including his wife Coreen, were mounting campaigns. The Turtleboy blog acted as something of a house organ for the city GOP, with Gaffney financing it through advertising revenue. And it was popular. Meanwhile he and the Republican City Committee routinely shared – and even paid Facebook to promote – Turtleboy’s content.
Now, though, things have changed. Just a week ago, the two candidates supported by Gaffney, the local GOP, and endorsed as part of a “Turtleboy ticket,” suffered humiliating defeats. Bill Coleman, himself not an extremist, did make common cause with the Gaffney faction. In so doing, he came in last in a four-way race, taking just over 200 votes in District 1, losing to the progressive Democrat Sean Rose, who took nearly 50 percent of the vote. In second and third places were the moderate independents Edward Moynihan (who will appear on the November ballot against Rose) and Gerado Schiano. Coleman seems to have lost votes due to his association and campaigning with Gaffney.
In District 5, Paul Franco was able to land on the November ballot, but scored about as many votes as Doug Arbetter, who is unabashedly progressive. Slightly left-of-center Matt Wally took nearly 50 percent, meaning Wally and Arbetter won about 70 percent of votes cast altogether. This represents a humiliating defeat for the Gaffneyite/Turtleboy bloc, especially given Franco’s wide name recognition and status as a leader in the local GOP.
In the meanwhile, Gaffney’s become increasingly desperate, especially in his relationship to the press. He told Ray Mariano in the Worcester Sun that he refused to talk to any media outlets. When Worcester Magazine’s Bill Shaner published an article poking fun at Gaffney, the council member accused WoMag’s editor of sexual harassment through the Turtleboy blog. Gaffney also took to Facebook, saying that “there are consequences” for writing articles critical of him. His campaign, which consists mostly of filming himself and his wife planting flowers as part of “beautification projects” became inconsistent.
It appears that there are zero to a few volunteers interested in working for the GOP campaigns. In a poor PR move, Gaffney posted to his Facebook page a picture of his campaign mailers sitting in stacks, and complained that he had to label and stamp each himself. This is hardly the makings of a solid campaign: Dante Comparetto, running not for mayor but school committee, has dozens of volunteers.
Ideas and propaganda
Perhaps most unsustainable, Gaffney’s and other right-wingers’ campaigns are based on rage and hatred: Turtleboy Sports and GOP propaganda portray Worcester as a crime-filled, failing, dirty city full of “hood rats” and foreign-born people living lives of crime or leeching off the system. This belief system just isn’t sustained by the numbers, by the constant stream of new things to do, or by the oft-discussed renaissance of the city. Indeed, the biggest distinction between the centrists and progressives doesn’t seem to be over whether Worcester is headed in the right direction; instead, it seems to be over how to best continue that direction forward.
Also in the battle of ideas, the Gaffney-financed Turtleboy Sports seemed to dominate for some time, able to spread Gaffney’s narrative of a corrupt crime family controlling the city, evil nonprofits, and corrupt churches. But there was a great deal of hatred for the sleazy Turtleboy Sports, and people only avoided speaking out against it because the blog searched the online histories of its critics, splashing every secret or personal failure found onto the website. Eventually, people had enough and began to stand up to the blog. An anti-Turtleboy post at the end of March on this website, which happened to catch the mood of people in Worcester, went viral locally, getting tens of thousands of views. (For comparison’s sake, Gaffney boasted in earlier today that his videos, over the past year or so, had reached 20,000 views.) Some organized a boycott of Turtleboy, and a thousand people signed a petition against it over a single weekend. The website has been trying to give away five or ten mugs with its logo on it for several weeks now.
Turtleboy is a shell of its former self. Most of its advertisers have disappeared, and the blog now attempts to look respected by posting ads for businesses that don’t even want them. (Hint: the Worcester Railers aren’t paying Turtleboy). The writers and contributors to the site, now facing irrelevance in Worcester, are at war with each other.
Turtleboy Sports is becoming irrelevant and mired in infighting. Gaffney won’t run for mayor; the only challenger to Petty is Konnie Lukes, an old-style conservative, and right-wing candidates for council are not doing nearly as well as they might have expected a year ago. This is all to be welcomed: the collapse of this Trump/Gaffney bloc would portend future victories at the state level next year, and would energize Worcesterites to devote time to helping out in New Hampshire, doing our part to take back Congress. Further, even old-style New England conservatives should be happy to see the vitriolic Gaffneyite faction go.
The task ahead
The cracks in the Worcester GOP should be seen as welcome news, but progressives and moderates who love the city can’t relax yet. Municipal races are usually low turnout, and they are decided by those who come out. Further, we want to ensure that voters don’t stay home, thinking that, since Michael Gaffney isn’t running, there’s no danger. Coreen Gaffney is running in District 4, and Paul Franco is running in District 5. Also, the bigger the victory for Petty in November, the stronger the momentum for further movement forward.
Volunteering for campaigns – especially those of Mayor Petty, Sarai Rivera, Khrystian King, and perhaps Matt Wally (where there are the strongest challenges), as well as Dante Comparetto (where there is the biggest chance for change) is important now more than ever. The GOP forces will do all they can to hold on, and, like a wounded animal, will fight more viciously. Also, while Worcester’s electoral system makes it extremely difficult to vote one particular city council member off, knocking Gaffney down a few slots would send a dramatic message.
For all the reasons mentioned above, we shouldn’t get too comfortable: the Gaffney/Turtleboy bloc is collapsing, but it hasn’t collapsed yet.