CHANGING DIRECTION : THE SALEM ELECTION

Tim Flynn

^ the coming man in Salem city politics : Ward Four City Councilor Tim Flynn

—- —- —- —-

About once a year I feel the need to write about the politics of Salem, a city of some note in American history and which also happens to be my Father’s home and that of his family before him. This year, however, I may write not only this column, for the hotly contested city Council elections under way in Salem signal significant change.

For the past 14 years, the city has been directed basically by one person, its powerful and very hands-on Mayor, Kim Driscoll. Now in her fourth term, “Mayor Kim” has overseen enormous development of Salem’s downtown and of its waterfront (and adjacent streets). Almost an entire new city has been built: now busily peopled with tons of tourists who come not only to see where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter or to visit the various points associated with the witchcraft accused of 1692. Kim Driscoll’s Salem features a dozen or more fine dining restaurants, European-style terrace bistros, bric a brac shops, banks and investment letter offices, and the vastly expanded Peabody-Essex Museum and its smaller sister, the Essex Institute, wherein as a kid I browsed the family records and gossip chronicles of Salem’s past. Into this trove of memories and garden of impulse purchases come those thousands — tens of thousands — of visitors who I mentioned. Some even come to live. Driscoll’s Salem has draw into it more newcomers in 20 years than chose Salem in the previous 60. By all measures, Driscoll’s Mayoral record is one of growth and triumph, of rebirth and more for a city which even 25 years ago smelled as dead as it looked.

In 2017 Driscoll won another term by better than two to one, against fierce competition supported by much of the city’s pre-Driscoll establishment. Long-term residents conspicuously set the tone of an opposition whose message was “no more of this, we’re going too far.” Driscoll’s decisive win seemed to close forever the power hopes of those who had set the city’s pace and direction in the decades before her.

It now looks that I was wrong, very wrong to assume so. There are 11 candidates seeking the city’s four at-large Council seats, and several of them represent long-term Salem, the very Salem which got electorally crushed in 2017, but newly led. Then, and for years before, the opposition leaders featured Paul Prevey, Steve Pinto, Todd Siegel, Elaine Milo, Steve Lovely, Jerry Ryan, Lenny O’Leary, Kevin Harvey, and Arthur Sargent — all of them City Councillors or former. This time most of the names one hears most are new to the scene or of recent arrival : Belle Steadman, Jennifer Brown, Melissa Faulkner, Bob Camire, and, above all, Tim Flynn, a City of Salem Fire Department lieutenant who was first elected as Ward Four’s Councillor in 2017.

Flynn’s win was noteworthy, as was Ward Four’s vote generally. On the ballot in 2017 was the question whether Salem should be a “sanctuary city,” proclaiming its refusal to assist Federal immigration officers seeking to arrest persons illegally resident. The question was voted Yes by about 58 percent to 42: Flynn’s Ward was the only one in the City to vote No.

The Sanctuary City ballot question divided the city as intensely as any political issue had done in my entire lifetime observing Salem politics. It created ideological factions within the city. Barely two years prior to this vote Salem had unified, without any controversy at all, as a “no place for hate” community, featuring then well-loved drag queen “Gigi” Gill as its symbol of unity and peace; now the city found itself riven, more or less along lines of long-term residents versus newcomers. (There were of course plenty of long-term residents voting Yes on the ballot question, as did I; but there were very few, if any, newcomers voting the No side.)

Flynn was a strong advocate of No. That fight is over, and he never now mentions it. But he has gathered into his camp all the No” activists — who were, mostly, opposed to Dtiscoll as well — and has outreached to support candidates running city-wide, well beyond his ward, who now look to him as their leader. Being a city firefighter, born in Salem, and in complete charge, politically, of his own Ward — a ward which has, historically, sent major city leaders to the Council — he seems stronger than Paul Prevey, a former Ward Six councillor, ever was — and his timing is excellent, for the current sentiment one hears a lot in Salem is that development has reached maximum benefit and henceforth a new direction is needed.

This is not to say that the Sanctuary City activists — “progressives” —  and the catalysts of downtown innovation, have lost their mojo. Far from it. They too have a slate of Council candidates — Alice Merkl, Jeff Cohen (who ran in 2017), Ty Hapworth. All three impress me. Each would be a diligent City Councillor. It also appears that Conrad Prosniewski may become a “no place for hate” candidate. Even if not, he’s a formidable candidate, known by all from his years serving as Salem Police’s community outreach officer. The problem with the “progressive” side is that they’re fighting 2017’s battles still. They’re the candidates of no change, of “give our side another term doing what we do.”

Affordable housing has become the issue of the day. The “wait a minute !” team wants less development, Mayor Kim wants passage of Governor Baker’s Zoning reform so that the City can approve more of it. But will any potential development be affordable ? The record in Boston suggest that every affordability measure does not really work, in fact may aggravate the situation. The progressives believe in residential affordability, and Mayor Kim is obsessed with it, but as I just noted, no one has a good or workable answer. As a result, the election may turn not on the issue but on a simple feeling that new faces and new voices should be elected.

This is not to say that the Flynnites do not have an agenda. They do. What they want is for Salem politics to detach from the national madness and become basic again : keep water rates low, use every tax dollar wisely, involve the long-term residents in every decision, take care of city workers, slow down the planning and developing process. Flynn is also skeptical of Mayor Driscoll’s “temporary” bike and scooter lane program for some of Salem’s main streets, a skepticism which I share: government shouldn’t be favoring one form of transportation at the expense of another.

The Flynnites not only have an agenda, they seem to have brought to their side Councillor Domingo Dominguez, leader of Salem’s Hispanic community, who finished first in the 2017 at large Council race and could well do so again. Dominguez is an old-school politician who believes in helping people and is effective doing it. In 2017 he befriended both sides. The “progressives” seem not to have liked that, and Dominguez this time has thrown in his lot more or less with Team Flynn. Salem’s Hispanic vote is small, at most five per cent, but five percent matters quite a bit, and having the city’s most visible immigrant community on your side is  a powerful way to sway the votes of people who may be skeptical of the Flynnites because of their 2017 opposition to the Sanctuary City question.

Of course only pundits are likely to see the Salem election in the light I have cast upon it. Most voters will do what voters have always done : vote for the candidates they know personally and like, for character, experience, and campaign diligence. Most voters do not live and breathe ideology, thank goodness; and at the City Council level, it’s much more usual for an election to be decided on personalities than agendas. That said, I do sense that many, many voters, the Salem-born in particular, want a return to “small ball” elections. (I think the same feeling may well govern next year’s national election, which is why Joe Biden looks so likely to win it all.)

So — who will be the four at-large winners ? It’s not easy to tell. The field of eleven is a very strong one. My own guess is that Domingo Dominguez, Arthur Sargent, George McCabe (a former Councillor and son of a former Councillor as well), and Elaine Milo will be hard to beat, with Alice Merkl coming fifth, then Belle Steadman, Conrad Prosniewsi, Jeff Cohen, Ty Hapworth, Gary Gill, and Melissa Faulkner, in that order. Yet I could just as easily be wrong. It would not shock me to see Steadman win, or Prosniewski. Alice Merkl ran for Register of Deeds last year; she has some name recognition from that race,m and this year she’s running one of the most diligent and imaginative Council campaigns. In a less strong field, she’d win comfortably. Jeff Cohen finished eighth last time; can he move up to fourth ? Not out of the question, though he may this time be on the wrong team. The same is true of Gary Gill. Ty Hapworth and Melissa Faulkner depend on slate voting by their respective sides. Their day is likely to be in the future, not now.

AS for my own votes, I wish I could vote for them all. I like them all. All do credit to the city. There isn’t a nuisance candidate among them — and in past Salem elections there have been nuisance candidates and less. I know which four I’m going to vote for, and I hate having to disappoint seven. I’m not telling you who my four are. Very likely you have a different four in mind, and in no case would you be making a mistake.

I do hope, however, that you will vote for at least one Council candidate from the “wait a minute,” Tim Flynn side. The City needs to embrace its long term residents and multi-generational Salemites in a way that it has neglected to do these past two decades.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere