SALEM, DIVIDED

KIM

^ door knocking, as she has been doing all campaign season : Mayor Kim Driscoll locked in a ferocious re-election campaign against challenger Paul Prevey

—- —- —–

Elections in the City of Salem may not rise to the importance of those in Boston, say; yet what has happened this year in Salem’s political annals reminds us that surfaces of calm and friendly conversation do not tell what is really going on.

Just as in the early 1990s the once united Yugoslavia erupted in violent division that descended rapidly into brutality and war, in which neighbors killed neighbors, so the placid, feel-good Salem of 2016, in which every sort of person proclaimed its love of every other sort, became, almost overnight, a city split in two. Here is what happened :

Early this year a City Councillor, David Eppley, proposed that Salem declare itself a Sanctuary City — a refuge for undocumented immigrants facing persecution by the Federal Immigration Police (ICE). The proposal genera5ed almost no pushback. Two years prior, Salem had adopted a similar ordinance, the “No Place for Hate” proclamation, in which Salem guaranteed to businesses and residents alike that there would be no discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment, service, or facilities. This ordinance aroused no opposition, and an official ceremony hailing it was held in City Hall, featuring “Duchess Gigi,” the city’s now official drag queen. Very quickly, “Gigi” became a visible symbol of the city’s openness to all sorts of people and — just as significantly — a good place to do business.

“Gigi” went on to become one of Salem’s necessary spokespeople. She presided at all sorts of events, hosted others, and gathered a large following of Salemites who treasure the message her centrality in Salem life sends to all Salem visitors. It must have seemed to Eppley and his support group a no-brainer to now establish sanctuary City status. Yet no sooner had the Ci9ty Council begun debating the actual wording of the Sanctuary City act than opposition began to be heard from : the usual nay-sayers at first, but before on, all kinds of people who disliked the ordinance for a variety of reasons. When the much-reworked ordinance came up for a Council vote, 400 people showed up to speak in favor or against — about one third were opposed.

If you’ve read this far, you’re wondering, “when is the drama coming ? I want the drama !” And so it began.

The Council scheduled a hearing on the Sanctuary City ordinance. Hundreds of people showed. Much was said for and against. The Council voted 7 to 4 to approve it.

Within a week, opponents were gathering signatures to place the issue on this election year’s Salem ballot. They amassed over 5,000 signatures — almost a quarter of all voters.

With the issue put to the voters — whether Salem should welcome and shelter undocumented immigrants — all hell has broken loose. Charges and counter charges, plus every cliché argument against undocumenteds, from their being “illegal” to their supposed laziness, their alleged crime, etc. and etc. This would be all to say except that, in response, supporters of the ordinance — the “Yes On One”committee — have in turn attacked opponents as bigots, racists, and the like.

As the conflict heated to boiling, another, entirely separate issue stoked the mess : development. Salem has, in the past 12 years, seen major rebuilding of downtown as one old, beloved firetrap after another has met the demo team soon to e followed by the blandest sorts of five story box buildings a city has ever seen, much less liked. And the development boom continues, in many spots impacting long established residential neighborhoods and vulnerable small businesses run by local people Every development so proposed has generated ferocious conflict.

Did I forget to mention that the Mayor is up for re-election amidst all of this conflict ? As a determined supporter of development — and of the Sanctuary ordinance — Kim Driscoll, now seeking her third term, has had to fight several major battles at once. It is far from certain that shall can defeat her opponent, former Ward Six Councillor Paul Prevey.

Driscoll has campaigned hard from the start. She knew right away what was coming. Of late she has stepped up her campaign and now looks closer to victory than at the end of September. She is pulling out all the stops, using all the powers that a strong mayor city charter accords her. She hasn’t given an inch, either , of her two big commitments : to development and to the LGBT Q and immigrant peoples of Salem. One has to respect such fortitude. Few politicians have it.

She may be undermined, however, by her most fervent supporters. The “no Place for Hate:” committee have, in some quarters, become known as the anti-hate hate group. They themselves insist that the hate comes from their opponents, the “No On One” people. They may well be right: but it looks bad for a “No Place for Hate” team to throw verbal brickbats. The ground shakes beneath the missiles fired on social media by and opponents of the Sanctuary ordinance.

The “No Place for Hate” committee also seems to have an agenda of its won, liking the Mayor only in passing as it seeks to bend the Democratic party to the left on a host of issues. This is a familiar story in today’s America, and if Salem’s politics indicate anything, it’s that the impassioned, Trump-driven left turn of the most dedicated activists alienates a many voters as it wins.

Meanwhile, to the ordinary voters, none of this sounds much. Salem’s regular voters get up, eat breakfast, send the kids to school go to work, come home, eat, go to bed. They’ll vote, though. Whether the activists like it or not. The outcome will be what ? Impossible for me to predict right now.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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