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City councilors in Northampton’s more conservative wards see challenges

  • Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY

  • Alisa Klein

    Alisa Klein

  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>former mayors in attendance were, from left, Mary Ford, David Cramer and Clare Higgins

    GORDON DANIELS
    former mayors in attendance were, from left, Mary Ford, David Cramer and Clare Higgins

  • Marianna LaBarge

    Marianna LaBarge

  • Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY

  • Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Alisa Klein
  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>former mayors in attendance were, from left, Mary Ford, David Cramer and Clare Higgins
  • Marianna LaBarge
  • Ward 6 councilor Marianna LaBarge stands outside of Robert K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence. This is where she first campaigned when she first ran for office.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Northampton city councilor Gene Tacy, representing Ward 7, is shown at the corner of Main and Mulberry streets in Leeds.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
Yvonne Keefe

Yvonne Keefe

Michael A. Janik

Michael A. Janik

digital 9768  10-14-03  NHAMP MUGS  --by Jerrey--  James Dostal

digital 9768 10-14-03 NHAMP MUGS --by Jerrey-- James Dostal

And now longtime city councilors Marianne L. LaBarge, who has represented Ward 6 for 16 years, and Eugene A. Tacy, a two-term councilor from Ward 7, share one more thing in common: both face challengers this fall who want their positions.

That is where the similarities end between the two incumbents who have diverging political views and employ markedly different political strategies in representing their wards.

Ward 6 occupies the southwest corner of the city, with Florence Road, Ryan Road and Sylvester Road marking its borders. Ward 7 centers on the village of Leeds in the northwest corner of Northampton.

It’s difficult to characterize the two wards as conservative in all walks of life, based on election results of the last half decade. But it’s safe to say residents lean to the right on fiscal matters, especially when compared to people in the city’s other five wards.

A majority of people in Ward 6 voted to defeat Proposition 2½ tax override requests this year and in 2009, and narrowly approved a third override in 2010 to fund a new police station.

Ward 7, meanwhile, is more split on the question of taxes, with voters narrowly voting to defeat this year’s override but approving the general override in 2009 and police station override in 2010 by slim margins.

Many political observers believe this voting pattern is a reflection of stable, working-class families who have lived in the wards for generations and for whom their home represents much of their economic security.

“If much of the economic stake of your life is in a single-family home, it can make you conservative,” said Mary L. Ford, a former mayor and city councilor in Northampton.

But there’s also a shift occurring in both of these wards, where wealthier, more liberal people have moved in recent years. This change might play a big role in making this year’s races close.

On larger issues, however, the two wards tend to take more progressive and liberal stands, so their reputation as conservative bastions may in fact be unfounded. In recent elections, they’ve overwhelmingly favored Democrats Barack Obama for president, Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren for U.S. Senate, and voted in support of physician-assisted suicide and the legalization of medical marijuana.

Busy campaign season

After winning her first election in 1997 in a contested race, LaBarge has gone the next seven terms without a challenger. Tacy, meanwhile, ran unopposed two years ago after prevailing by 200 votes in 2009 to win a council seat.

Those races headline what is shaping up to be an interesting campaign season leading up to November’s election. There are also contested races in Ward 2, where incumbent Paul D. Spector will face businessman Jason T. Foster, and for two at-large positions, where incumbents William H. Dwight and Jesse M. Adams are facing challenger Anthony Patillo, the city’s former building commissioner.

Races are uncontested elsewhere but are certain to bring at least two new faces to the council — Ryan O’Donnell from Ward 3 and Gina-Louise Sciarra from Ward 4. Two incumbent councilors, Maureen T. Carney from Ward 1 and David A. Murphy from Ward 5, as well as Mayor David J. Narkewicz, are running unopposed.

Despite similarities in the makeup of their wards, LaBarge and Tacy navigate their positions in very different ways.

Many commend LaBarge’s ability to deftly maintain political positions that many of her constituents don’t agree with, yet remaining popular in the process.

LaBarge, 68, of 698 Westhampton Road, never took a public position on June’s override. Neither did she campaign against it, as Tacy did. In an interview Friday, LaBarge declined to say were she stood on the override, declaring that the issue is “over.” She stood by earlier statements encouraging people to vote their conscience and to do so using the privacy of the voting booth.

“It was our job to put it on the ballot,” LaBarge said. “It was not our job to tell others how to vote.”

While the ward has become more ethnically diverse in recent years, LaBarge believes it remains conservative at heart, especially in precinct 6A, which is bounded by Florence Road, Ryan Road and Burts Pit Road. Many families who live in the ward are working-class or elderly on low incomes, which is part of the reason she knew the override in June would not win support in her ward. Yet the secret to LaBarge’s success may well be that she is not dogmatic and gives people room to have different opinions.

“I knew that the override would not pass,” LaBarge said. “They agreed that education was a priority, but their pockets did not. I told them if they can’t support it, then don’t support it.”

Meanwhile Tacy, 57, of 158 North Maple St., Florence, became the voice for the anti-override campaign and is the standard-bearer for conservative voices in his and other wards.

Many followers believe this could serve him well at the ballot box, particularly in Leeds where many of his constituents vote conservative on money matters. But others, including Tacy, believe that the perception of Ward 7 as a conservative voting bloc is slowly changing.

This shift, Tacy believes, is the result of a steady migration of “ultra-liberal” into the Florence section of his ward. Tacy, who grew up in Leeds, said the phenomenon has yet to come to his village, but he suspects it will.

“Ward 7 has a huge mix of people, a lot of wealthy people and there’s a lot of people who aren’t,” Tacy said.

Many political observers believe both councilors could be vulnerable this fall. Both incumbents say they welcome the chance to discuss the issues, lay out their track records and put chips in the hands of the voters.

Former longtime at-large councilor James Dostal often garnered the most votes in these conservative wards because he too had “fairly conservative” views, he said. The Ward 6 resident believes that voters in these wards place great importance on electing neighbors they have known for years. This voter loyalty gives incumbents like LaBarge and Tacy an edge, even if that advantage is not insurmountable.

“You have to know who you’ve got,” Dostal said. “Gene you know. He was born and brought up here and has a track record throughout the city. No matter where he stands, you know him.”

Voters also appreciate a councilor who explains why they vote the way they do, even if they don’t agree with it.

“No matter what position you take on an issue, if you get it out in the open, it doesn’t necessarily kill you,” Dostal said.

On-the-street politician

LaBarge is a seasoned political veteran whose diligence in serving her constituents — and referring to them frequently on the council floor — is legendary. This means that whether or not her constituents agree with her lengthy, and fairly progressive, voting record, they love her dogged work ethic and ear-to-the-ground representation.

“I love my ward and that’s where my heart is,” LaBarge said. “As a councilor, it’s just not answering a phone. You’re there as a councilor to help out any way you can, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

During her re-election campaign, LaBarge expects to talk about her many accomplishments during her time on the council: efforts to stop an expansion of a quarry off Turkey Hill Road; serving as liaison between officials and residents during the reconstruction of Route 66; encouraging the development of the Bridge of Flowers on Loudville Road; and pushing for the closure of the landfill off Glendale Road in her ward.

If she wants to secure a ninth two-year term, LaBarge will have to first survive a Sept. 17 preliminary election in which Michael Janik of Pencasal Drive and Yvonne Keefe of Hickory Drive will also be on the ballot. The two candidates with the most votes will move on to the general election on Nov. 5.

Keefe said she will not speak negatively of LaBarge during the campaign, but in an interview Friday she said she believes she could bring value to the council, including her ability to lead, experience with budgets and negotiations and people skills.

“My running for councilor has nothing to do with Marianne,” Keefe said. “I’ve wanted to run for City Council because I have something to offer. It’s about timing and the fact that I do have something I can bring to the table.”

Janik said LaBarge has been on the council a long time and accomplished a lot, but that he believes it’s time for a new person with a fresh perspective.

“I think it is time for a new set of eyes, someone who can look at the city differently,” Janik said.

To that end, Janik said he’s floating different ideas that would help residents of Ward 6, including a new rate structure for water and sewer fees and a proposal to lower the cost of a future headquarters for the Department of Public Works.

Political observers admire LaBarge for her tenacity and desire to keep all constituents informed on issues.

Dostal said LaBarge is an effective, on-the-street politician who frequently “walks the wards with notices” or to simply meet people.

“It’s really important to let people know about things going on, to get your constituents involved, and Marianne has been a leader in that,” Dostal said.

Another former city councilor, Alex Ghiselin, said LaBarge has endless energy.

“At times (constituents) might be perplexed on how she votes, but in the long run she’s listening to you,” Ghiselin said. “That’s a good thing.”

This is something LaBarge has done since her first term on the council and is part of the ingredient that has made her successful, said Ford, the former mayor.

Ford recalled LaBarge often setting up information meetings in her ward where constituents could ask questions of the mayor and other city officials surrounded by the comfort of neighbors. It’s a practice LaBarge continues today.

“That was one of the things that she excelled at,” Ford said. “I’m sure constituents in her ward respected that.”

‘Not afraid to ask questions’

Tacy is a born-and-bred, blunt-talking Northampton native who offers a conservative viewpoint on a largely liberal council. His positions often lead to spats between him and other councilors, but Tacy is unabashed in saying what’s on his mind and speaking up for a segment of the community that is often outnumbered.

“If you’ve done something, you are going to upset someone,” Tacy said. “But I put my heart and soul in it. Everybody always knows where I stand ... they know they can call me. I’m honored by it.”

Tacy will square off in November against Alisa Klein, a 14-year Leeds resident.

Klein believes she will bring a reasoned approach as a city councilor and do a good job representing the mix of people that make up Ward 7, including those who have lived in the ward for decades and the many young families and others who are new.

“I do plan to not just get angry and point fingers, but to look for solutions and work collaboratively, even with people I don’t agree with,” Klein said.

Like LaBarge, Tacy said he will tout his record and job performance as one of the council’s fiscal watchdogs and will continue to speak up for a faction of residents who he believes have little voice in the city.

“I ask tougher questions than anybody else I’ve seen on the council in 30 years,” Tacy said. “I pay attention to details and I’m not afraid to ask serious questions.”

He said he sounded the warning bell on several issues that have now been cleaned up under Narkewicz’s direction. Among these are a dysfunctional Parking Division, out-of-control compensation time for city employees, changes to the way ambulance receipts are handled, and the city’s efforts to buy a bucket loader for the Parking Division.

What could make this race interesting is Ward 7’s complexity, said Lisa Baskin, a longtime follower of local politics and a Ward 7 resident.

“All of these stereotypes of what this ward is are really not accurate,” Baskin said. “Ward 7 is a complex ward ... Every spectrum of the economic ladder is represented.”

Ford acknowledged that she never worked with Tacy, but from her vantage point now, she said she likes that he provokes debate about issues on the council floor. These interactions are much more engaging when all sides are represented at the table, she said.

“I always thought it was important to have thoughtful councilors speaking for the conservative positions,” Ford said.

And while Tacy serves as the de facto conservative voice on the council, many wonder if he’s the best to do so. Some are put off by Tacy’s “all about him” style and claim he has not done enough legwork — returning phone calls, answering emails and the like — to adequately represent the ward.

Tacy counters that he spends hours working as a councilor and simply can’t respond to all of the emails and phone calls he gets from throughout the city from people who “really need my voice on an issue.”

Legacy Comments1

I applaud LaBarge for being an active leader with her constituents. Unfortunately for some wards, communication with constituents is sadly missing. Alex Ghiselin was a great city councilor that always worked with (and for) his constituents - he is sadly missed.

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