By Madison Friend
WORCESTER – Incumbent Democrat Joe Petty and up-and-coming Independent City Councilman Michael Gaffney have spent the last several months campaigning for the office of Worcester city Mayor. Their protracted efforts will see results next Tuesday when Worcester residents head to the polls to cast their final votes.
The two may be political rivals, but they have a lot in common. Both were born in Worcester and worked their way through college. Petty was a waiter, busboy, and dishwasher at a restaurant in Webster Square while he attended Nichols College, studying accounting and political science before settling on a degree in business; Gaffney, a Worcester State University alum, participated in the ROTC and worked odd jobs when he wasn’t taking night classes at the New England School of Law.
Both candidates have a unique passion for Worcester that inspired them to stay in the area and get involved in local politics. Though their positions on the issues differ, they have remarkably similar goals – to encourage economic growth in the city, revive neighborhoods, and celebrate the diversity that makes the city so vibrant and unique.
These similarities have been less than apparent in the knock-down, drag-out battle that has been the Worcester mayoral race. Gaffney has positioned himself as the insurgent alternative to Petty, who he has consistently characterized as an entrenched establishment politician with few new ideas and a lackluster vision for the future. Petty has touted his record as mayor over the last four years as proof of his leadership ability – since he became mayor, the city has seen an influx of jobs and increased economic investment in the community.
Ahead of Election Day, the New Worcester Spy sat down with both candidates to talk about their vision for the city and, specifically, how they plan to address the issues that affect the college community.
A disappointingly low turnout to the municipal primary elections earlier this fall – only 11% – has both candidates worried about the future of local politics in Worcester, and they both acknowledge the importance of increasing this number if the city is to make true progress.
Petty in particular emphasized the importance of the youth vote, saying, “I would love to see college kids registering to vote in Worcester, but I don’t think they do because they’re worried about whether to register here or in their hometowns.”
Gaffney explained that most of Worcester’s voters live on the West side of the city – meaning that large swaths of people living on the east side, as well as the college population, are not participating in the electoral process. He explained that as a result of this disparity, most of his campaigning has been focused on the west side of the city, home to voters he’s sure will turn out on election day. He’d like this to change, and thinks engaging non-voters in the political process is one of the keys to strengthening the city.
Events at North High School earlier this year brought the issue of school safety front-and-center in the public eye. A series of clashes between students, teachers, and police have had many prominent community figures calling for leadership reform in the education sector. The discourse reached such a fever pitch that it prompted a Worcester Technical High School senior to declare his candidacy for the school committee on a platform of school safety reform. He called passionately for superintendent Melinda Boone’s resignation, which has since become a reality.
Petty and Boone together emphasized the continued safety of the Worcester Public School’s learning environment in spite of the setbacks, and Petty came to Boone’s defense after she resigned. Amid criticism of her work, he said, “Worcester is losing a passionate and talented leader.” Gaffney, on the other hand, has criticized both Petty and Boone for what he sees as their mishandling of safety issues, slow response times, and failure to implement practical safety measures in schools and city-wide to protect police and children from gun violence.
It has become one of the most contentious issues of the race. Gaffney recently received a key endorsement from the Worcester Police patrolman’s union (an organization that has endorsed Petty in the past), dealing a serious blow to Petty’s campaign. In a prepared statement, he criticized Gaffney for politicizing the issue of gun violence for the sake of being elected and expressed disappointment at the union’s choice. Gaffney disagrees with Petty’s interpretation, maintaining that the incumbent mayor sat idly by as the police were disrespected and members of the community were put in harm’s way.
During his tenure as mayor, Petty has been very involved with the local colleges. He supports the Working for Worcester program, in which college students from the area work together to plan and complete community projects that will improve the city’s parks and recreational spaces. He often speaks at Young Democrats gatherings and attends College Consortium meetings to stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the college community. Lately, he’s been working on a plan that would provide college students across the city easy-access, low-cost transportation to night clubs, restaurants, and other cultural venues so they aren’t stuck on campus or faced to pay for a taxi.
Gaffney has been more critical of the colleges in Worcester. As a candidate, he has emphasized the importance of fiscal responsibility and economic growth, and he feels that the colleges aren’t doing as much as they should to support the local economy. Instead of paying property taxes, they make “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PILOT) to compensate for the revenue lost to the local government due to the non-taxable nature of their land. Gaffney feels the payments are not large enough or made consistently enough to benefit the city in a meaningful way.
That said, it’s still very important to him to see college students participate more actively in the culture of the city. Like Petty, he thinks it’s important to get them off-campus by providing easy access to the more vibrant areas of Worcester, like the Canal District and Shrewsbury Street. Despite these goals, it remains unclear what specific actions Gaffney will take to involve college students in the greater Worcester community.