GREENFIELD — When Virginia “Ginny” Desorgher took the stage at her election-night party last Tuesday, the crowd was already euphoric as the mayor-elect thanked her volunteers.
“I ran for this community because you wanted a change,” she said.
The crowd’s energy only grew as Desorgher’s campaign staff read aloud the results from other races in the city — for auditor, City Council and School Committee. Up and down the ballot, candidates aligned with Desorgher and the movement that swept her into office had won. Many of them were there in the room, basking in the moment as Desorgher won with a stunning 72% of the vote.
But despite the shock outside the city at the electoral landslide, that evening was the culmination of years of organizing in Greenfield around a broad range of issues: affordability, policing, school funding, the environment and more. And although some saw the win as a progressive sweep — she had received endorsements from unions representing teachers, nurses, grocery store workers and bus drivers in the city — those elected last week said the coalition included voters and organizers across the political spectrum.
“It was not a left team, it was a left-right team,” Desorgher’s campaign manager, Susan Worgaftik, told The Shoestring. She said that the campaign had some 437 volunteers, and Desorgher herself said she knocked on over 2,000 doors in the leadup to election day. “This was a broad community effort.”
But now, having built such a broad coalition, the question for many is: what comes next? The Shoestring set out to ask some of the same community organizers who made last week’s victory possible.
“People want change and people want new energy, and I think that is what this really represents,” said Rachel Gordon, who ran unopposed for the Precinct 2 seat on the City Council. An organizer around issues of racial justice and police accountability in Greenfield, Gordon said that people were fed up with the “old guard” in town. “They’re tired of the sort of same group of people being in charge of everything and running it.”
At the head of that old guard was Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, who ahead of the election had received endorsements from many political heavyweights, including Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. In recent years, however, a handful of grassroots groups have been organizing against some of Wedegartner’s most controversial decisions.
One of those decisions was to reinstate Police Chief Robert Haigh after a jury found he’d discriminated against a Black officer in the department. Despite outrage from many residents, Wedegartner stood behind Haigh, who was in attendance at Wedegartner’s election-night party last week.
When asked what her first priority will be as mayor, Desorgher hinted at the possibility of a shakeup at the police department.
“We have a little cleaning up to do,” she told me. When I asked if she was referring to the police department, she said “there are issues there that need to be addressed.” She added: “There’s no place for racism in this community.”
Molly Merrett, an organizer with the progressive group Greenfield People’s Budget, said that what comes next with policing in town is a big question.
“There’s been some organizing in Greenfield to work toward a non-police crisis response that is not the co-responder model we have now where social workers are embedded in the police department,” Merrett said. “We want something better than that. We want peer response.”
Merrett said that it wasn’t just a small group in town who were critical of what she described as rights abuses, brutality and racism in the police department.
“We don’t want the police to run the town,” said Jon Magee, a writer and activist in the city who has worked with the Greenfield People’s Budget. (Magee has also written for The Shoestring in the past.) “They’re involved in everything, especially around public health and support for people with addictions, mental health calls and stuff like that. And that’s really inappropriate.”
Policing generated a lot of headlines in recent years in Greenfield, but Worgaftik said that affordability was the biggest issue residents raised when campaigners were knocking on doors. She said that homeowners and renters alike worried about rising costs, but that older residents in particular were afraid that with rising property taxes they wouldn’t be able to stay in their homes.
That was one of the issues highlighted in the Progressive Blueprint for Greenfield — a set of proposals put forward by Greenfield People’s Budget and the group Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, which emerged out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign for president.
The platform has called on city leaders to “base action proposals on proven solutions from similar towns, not on the false promises of corporate development.” The proposal also suggests increasing affordable and accessible housing in collaboration with local organizations, expanding shelter options in the city and protecting residents’ home equity in cases where property taxes are due by placing liens on the properties rather than seizing them.
School funding was also a big issue in the campaign. Gordon, the city councilor-elect, said that will be a priority for her and others in city government.
“Funding the schools in the way that we don’t have to have a big fight about it every year and freak the teachers out about [whether] they’re going to have their jobs next year,” she said. “We have to do school funding differently and we have to do it better.”
This fiscal year, Wedegartner proposed a cut of $1.5 million to the School Committee’s budget, which would have increased the budget by 3% instead of the proposed 10.35%. The City Council, where Desorgher headed the Ways and Means Committee, was able to restore nearly $1.2 million of those cuts. But according to the Greenfield Recorder, the School Department still had to cut two positions: a history teacher and a Spanish teacher.
“The mayor pissed a lot of people off when she proposed a major cut to the school budget this past spring,” Magee said.
Magee said that another major issue in the city included the cleanup of the former Lunt Silversmiths property on Federal Street, which closed in 2009 and the city seized for back taxes in 2015. Residents and neighborhood advocates have expressed concerns about trichloroethylene contamination at the site. A group that formed around that issue, the Lunt Neighborhood Action Group, raised alarms about the city’s desire to ensure an independent assessment and clean-up of the site.
Worgaftik said that was an issue that was personal to her. She said that city leadership wouldn’t work cooperatively with the community and neighbors around the property.
“We had conversations but there was no collaboration,” Worgaftik said. “The public involvement process had no public in it, and certainly no involvement.”
Those are the issues that Desorgher now inherits. How she’ll deal with them is yet to be seen, but organizers interviewed for this article were optimistic about her approach to leadership.
Worgaftik said that many people in Greenfield haven’t felt like city government has worked for them and that Desorgher plans to change that. She said Desorgher plans to fill vacant seats on city committees and take a more collaborative approach with the City Council after years of rancor between the Council and mayor’s office.
“There’s going to be a lot of dialogue, and Ginny is a really good listener,” she said. “She takes things in and she tells you what she thinks. You may not agree with her, but she’s willing to have the conversation.”
Merrett said she’s not sure what the new mayor will do, but that she knows that Desorgher will be more serious about public involvement in the budget process. She said she knows groups like hers will be able to have good-faith dialogue with the Desorgher administration, which she said they never felt like they could have under Wedegartner’s administration.
“She’s not, maybe, the candidate of my dreams, but I’m really excited to give her a chance as mayor,” Merrett said, describing Desorgher as a collaborative leader. “I think she can be a really great mayor. We’ll see.”
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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