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Some lessons from 2017

2017 is gone, and 2018 has begun. While the nation has daily trembled, awaiting to see what awful news – or tweet – will come out of the White House next, Worcester has had a good year. If 2018 goes for the nation the same way that this past year went for our city, America will be on a far better – more democratic – footing than it had been, and the world will be a far safer place.

The extremists seemed powerful

A year ago, Worcester’s political landscape seemed dangerously similar to that of the U.S. as a whole. Then city council member Michael Gaffney was vice chair of the council, and he and others in his faction of the local Republican Party had what appeared to be realistic hopes for gaining seats on the council.

Gaffney was, in those days, strengthened by his ties to the now-defeated Turtleboy Sports blog, run by disgraced ex-high school teacher Aidan Kearney. While the blog mainly trafficked in mocking the poor, people of color, the mentally unstable, and youth, it served also as the political mouthpiece of Gaffney and his allies in the Worcester Republican City Committee.

While it might seem hard to fathom now, Gaffney and Turtleboy Sports held Worcester’s political leadership, as well as a huge section of the city’s population, in fear. Gaffney and the blog had already destroyed Mosaic, a nonprofit organization that served some important health care needs in communities of color. Through slander and misrepresentation, Gaffney and the blog were able to whip up a hysteria around supposed corruption that, ultimately, caused the nonprofit to close – and for those health needs to begin going unmet. The fact that the state audited Mosaic and found no evidence of wrongdoing didn’t change anything.

Leading up to 2017: victories for Gaffney and Turtleboy

When Gaffney and the blog went after the church that Rev. Jose Encarnacion and city-council member Sarai Rivera co-pastor, Rivera didn’t back down. She was the first elected leader to publicly stand up and denounce Gaffney and the blog. Gaffney baselessly accused Rivera of corruption, arguing that she used her position as a city council member to enrich herself by having the city demolish a vacant building owned by her faith organization. That Rivera and the church didn’t want the city to tear down the building didn’t seem to matter, nor did the fact that neither Rivera nor Rev. Encarnacion would not benefit in any material way.

And when 2017 rolled around, Donald Trump took up occupancy in the White House, and he immediately began to threaten immigrant and Muslim populations. Gaffney, hoping to capitalize on the Trump phenomenon, put forward a thinly-veiled anti-immigrant resolution in the city council. The community started to organize. In what was likely a first in modern Worcester’s history, Mayor Joseph Petty threw the weight of his office behind the rally, and urged people to come out in support of Worcester immigrant communities – “documented or undocumented.”

The tide begins to turn

The evening of the rally was cold and snowy, but the air was electric. Well over 1,000 people showed up (a huge rally, by Worcester’s standards), and the council meeting was packed. Gaffney’s anti-immigrant resolution was overwhelmingly defeated. While there had been some talk of tabling the resolution (American parliamentary speak for letting the resolution die without a vote), several council members, including right-of-center Gary Rosen argued for and won an up-or-down vote, so that the council could be on record against it.

This blog played a small role

Still, there was fear of Gaffney and Turtleboy Sports. When I wrote my first article on this blog condemning their hateful, bullying rhetoric, friends and family thought I’d lost my mind, and that I was opening myself up to some sort of danger. I’m not a particularly brave person; I simply had enough faith in the people of Worcester to guess that Gaffney and his blog were paper tigers: they looked scary, but they were weak.

Gaffney and the blog added me to their Nixonian enemies list: the blog and its lawyer, Margaret Melican, dug into my past, i.e. they googled my name, and found that I was formerly associated with the CPUSA, as well as some financial data. Gaffney began referring to me as “the Communist” and made a video denouncing anyone associated with me. The Turtleboy blog posted several articles trying to mock me, and had their “Turtleriders” attempt to harass me. Some of them were downright creepy: one bizarre woman even wrote about how she watched me doing my laundry at South Plaza. Still, it’s not hard not to be scared of Internet warriors, and my overriding feelings were of disgust for the blog, and a mix of disgust and pity for its followers.

Revulsion with hate and lies spreads

People began to be more open in their hatred of Turtleboy and of Gaffney’s politics. More people began to fight back more and more. Still, Gaffney and his followers persisted. Corinne, his wife and political ally, announced that she would run for city council is District 4, Sarai Rivera’s seat. They ran a campaign that was a mix of hate, lies, and oddities. While the Gaffneys and their allies would spout offensive rhetoric at one moment, the next they would make videos of themselves “beautifying” Worcester.

Of course, as everyone knows, they lost. First Gaffney announced he wouldn’t run for mayor – he wanted to focus on making videos, he said – and then, as it became clearer and clearer that he was about to be rejected by the voters, he and Corinne Gaffney announced that they had some sort of opportunity, and would drop out (all the while carrying out a subterranean campaign).

Local extremists, and anyone they associated with, lost

Every single one of Gaffney’s allies was defeated, and all available data shows that the most likely reason for their defeat was their association with the Gaffneys and their brand of hateful rhetoric. Even the school committee was touched by anti-Gaffney sentiment: Donna Colorio, the sole member of Gaffney’s Republican City Committee, was ousted. In District 5, Paul Franco, a person generally considered to be a nice guy and who has high name recognition, lost handily to a center/left Democrat, Matt Wally. Even Bill Thompson, seems to have been hurt by his association with Gaffney.

Racial and ethnic equality

Beyond just defeating the hatemongers (and those who were associated with them), huge progress was made. While it’s not where it should be, the incoming city council is the most diverse in the city’s history. Further, Khrystian King, the first black council member in decades, increased his standing dramatically: in 2017, he came in fourth place, defeating longtime council member Konnie Lukes by over 1,000 votes (again, a lot by Worcester standards).

Youth

In the school committee race, Dante Comparetto, backed by a broad labor/community coalition, won a seat in his first-ever bid for elected office. While his victory is important in that Comparetto is a clear progressive who cares about the city’s communities, most astounding is the nature of his campaign: it was almost entirely youth driven. Campaign manager Italo Fini is only 18, and a graduate of Worcester Technical High School. Comparetto campaign alumni are even now doing important work.

Progressives

Clearly, progressives became stronger: in the general election, the entire slate endorsed by Greater Worcester Our Revolution (disclaimer: I’m currently the co-chair; like it on Facebook!), the largest progressive organization in the city, won. GWOR endorsed Joe Petty for mayor, King and Rivera for council, and Comparetto for school committee.

Worcester without Gaffneys and Turtleboy

In the wake of the elections, Gaffney simply vanished in 2017, and Turtleboy Sports lost any credibility in Worcester. Its pageviews plummeted, and now seems to be missing from Facebook. For all intents and purposes, Turtleboy is no more.

The city itself continued to move forward in its renaissance. Whether or not the Pawtucket Red Sox actually do end up moving here, for example, exactly how close the city has come to landing them is a victory in itself. For decades city officials dreamed of bringing them here, but no one ever took such a move seriously. While landing a farm team might, to out of town readers, not seem like a big deal, even the prospect is of huge importance for Worcester, still in the process of casting off the rusty image that it has borne for decades. The same can be said of the new Railers hockey team, the several new cafes that have opened up, demolition of the Paris Cinema, renovation of the Palladium, the South Worcester Industrial Park, the new WRTA headquarters, the slated renovation of yet another of the public high schools – the list goes on.

The commonwealth, briefly

As the second largest city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, what happens in Worcester is significant at the state level. While Massachusetts as a whole has generally been more progressive than central Massachusetts, we do have the ability to make some amends in 2018.

First, the Gaffneyite section of the Republican Party is down, and out, but still wants to regroup. Their foothold has been made possible by a few politicians not in Worcester, but in the redder sections of Worcester County. Sen. Ryan Fattman south or Worcester and State Rep. Kate Campanale are the worst, along with Jen Caissie, the local representative to the governor’s council (a body that has power over the appointment of judges). Caissie, it should be noted, gave hundreds of dollars to Michael Gaffneys’ campaign, and they donated more than $2,000 to her cause. While Caissie made some donations to other, better candidates, we obviously can’t trust someone who’s donated to – and been so endorsed by – the Gaffneys.

Each of these candidates is up for re-election, and they are each vulnerable. Rep. Kate Campanale (more than $600 from Michael Gaffney) is being challenged by David LeBoeuf; Caissie is being challenged by former GWOR chair Paul DePalo,  and Mendon Democrat Tom Merolli is on the campaign trail to defeat Fattman. What will happen with Campanale’s race is far from certain, as she’s likely to try to challenge the long-term, highly competent Anthony Vigliotti for the Register of Deeds position.

Vigliotti, it should be noted, is, like Sen. Harriette Chandler, one of the few politicians to spend decades in office and never even come close to a scandal.

It will be important to defend Vigliotti’s seat, while also pushing forward to turn Worcester County the lovely shade of blue that it should be – all while making sure that Worcesterites do their part to defeat the authoritarian tendency at the national level.

The national picture, briefly

Does the direction of Worcester portend the direction of the nation? One can hope. And one can find reasons for this hope. While it would be a fool’s errand to try to extrapolate the experience of Worcester, a working-class, relatively liberal city in Massachusetts, to the nation, there have been hopeful signs at the national level. Obviously, the most salient and important of these was the election of Doug Jones over (here’s a word I have to use, technically, even though it seems obvious that the allegations against him are true:) alleged pedophile Roy Moore.

To be clear, it was the partially disenfranchised African-American community in Alabama that was the most decisive force in beating kid-loving Roy Moore. Still, every vote counted, there. Consequently, a hugely important lesson going into 2018, where the most important fight anywhere in America is against Trump and his allies, is the need for unity.

In Alabama, the black community was the most important, but the few liberal whites in the state as well as the national Democratic Party were also necessary for the victory. Without them, the numbers simply wouldn’t have worked out (especially given the voter suppression experienced by African Americans). That alliance was crucial. In Worcester, the progressive-center leadership was able to maintain its leading status because progressives, liberals, the Democratic Party itself (like it on Facebook!), and even principled conservatives and non-Gaffneyite Republicans, despite their differences, remained united in their vote.

For now, and for some time to come, this is the key formula, this key that worked in Worcester. Even as the progressive movement – especially its core forces, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, youth, and labor – build in strength, unity of all democratic (note the lower-case “d”) against a fascistic national leadership and its allies is of the utmost importance.

In 2018, there’s a world to save.

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