Politics and the City: Track fast for Petty, Gaffney in mayor's race

By Nick Kotsopoulos Telegram & Gazette Staff

June 21, 2015 

At this point in Worcester’s biennial municipal election season, the mayor's race is usually an after-thought.
That's because there is still plenty of time before the mayoral field is actually set. This year, for instance, the field won't be determined until Sept. 15.
But this election season is a bit different.
The two candidates many City Hall observers consider the clear-cut frontrunners for mayor, incumbent Joseph M. Petty and Michael T. Gaffney, have already kicked their campaigns into high gear.
Mr. Gaffney, who is in his first term as an at-large city councilor, launched his campaign back in February, telling supporters it is time for more decisive leadership at City Hall.
He believes Mr. Petty has not provided the kind of direction or leadership that is necessary in chairing both the City Council and School Committee, citing earlier violence issues at North High as an example.
"I like Joe Petty; he's a nice guy, but we probably shouldn't have him as mayor again," Mr. Gaffney said. "I don't dislike Joe Petty. I respect him, but he hasn't been doing the job. We need leadership; someone who can make a decision. You might not be right all the time, but at least stand up and be heard. That's important."
Meanwhile, Mr. Petty, who is seeking his third term as mayor, formally kicked off his re-election campaign Wednesday night, promising to build on the momentum of the past four years and make sure the city continues moving forward in the right direction.
He also shot back at Mr. Gaffney's criticism of his leadership style, citing many of the positive things that have happened in Worcester during his tenure.
"It's been a good four years in the city of Worcester," Mr. Petty said. "The city is going in the right direction. Leadership isn't about people playing to the cheap seats, screaming the loudest or grabbing a cheap headline. At the end of the day, it's about getting things done. It's about working together, bringing people to the table and relationship building. That’s what I have done as mayor.”
Yes, the mayor's race has begun.
For those unfamiliar with the position of mayor in Worcester, it's a bit different than most other cities.
For starters, the mayor is not the city's chief executive; under Worcester's council-manager form of government, that job belongs to the city manager, who is appointed by the City Council.
In Worcester, the mayor's job is considered a part-time position.
The mayor chairs the City Council and School Committee, and makes the appointments to the standing committees of both bodies. The mayor is also considered the city's political and ceremonial leader and can use the position to set the municipal agenda.
How Worcester's mayor is elected is also a bit unusual.
First, every at-large City Council candidate is automatically a candidate for mayor. If a person does not wish to also run for mayor, they must notify the Election Commission they are withdrawing from that race.
An added kicker is that no one can be elected mayor unless they also win an at-large council seat.
While Mr. Gaffney and Mr. Petty are the only two who have so far announced their mayoral intentions, it is possible that a few other at-large council candidates may stick around in the mayor's race just to get some added public attention, if anything else.
Since announcing his candidacy in February, seldom has a day gone by without Mr. Gaffney and his wife, Coreen, being seen out on the campaign trail. During the mornings they can be seen doing stand-outs at busy intersections and at night they are out going door-to-door to meet the voters.
"A lot of people have asked me why I am running for mayor and against the local political machine and apparatus," Mr. Gaffney said. "We're going to do just fine. They don't have more supporters than us and we will not be outworked. They really cannot win on the issues."
It's obvious that Mr. Petty is not taking Mr. Gaffney's challenge lightly. After all, Mr. Gaffney got elected to the City Council as a virtual political unknown two years ago through the same kind of hard work he is putting into his campaign for mayor.
With that in mind, Mr. Petty said he is not taking anything for granted. For the past couple of weeks, Mr. Petty and his campaign troops have certainly increased their visibility in the city.
"I intend to work hard and run this campaign like it's a dead heat," he said.
At Mr. Petty’s campaign kickoff, it was a virtual Who’s Who of Worcester’s political scene. Among those in attendance included a number of past and present local and state elected officials, past mayors, city and public school officials and union leaders.
Among those who spoke in support of the mayor at the event were state Rep. John J. Mahoney, D-Worcester; state Rep. James J. O’Day, D-West Boylston; state Rep. Daniel M. Donahue, D-Worcester; School Committee member Dianna Biancheria, District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera and District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.
But Mr. Gaffney said his mayoral candidacy is about offering voters an alternative to the group of political insiders that have been around for years. In contrast, he has the backing of two political newcomers, state Rep. Kate Campanale, R-Leicester, and Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, R-Webster.
"For the past two decades, we have heard about Worcester having a bright future, but it has yet to be realized," he said. "We hear talk about change, but continue to see the city being directed and run by the same influencers.”
As expected, Mr. Petty disagrees with Mr. Gaffney’s assessment. He said many of the people who are supporting his candidacy have played key roles in moving the city forward.
“We are seeing more people and businesses come into Worcester because they like what they see here,” he said. “Leadership and working together as a team has a lot to do with that. I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish as mayor working with these people.”
It should indeed be an interesting mayoral election. It could get even more interesting depending on who else remains in the mayor’s race because while they likely will have little chance of winning they could end up siphoning votes away from Mr. Petty or Mr. Gaffney.
Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at nicholas.kotsopoulos@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos