Northampton election makes some history for city council 

  • John Thorpe was elected to serve as Northampton’s Ward 4 city councilor in Tuesday’s election.   GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Northampton Ward 4 City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/8/2019 12:17:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Tuesday’s municipal election ushered in a wave of new councilors and also made some recent history in terms of racial and gender diversity.

John Thorpe, a resident of more than 20 years and a probation officer at Northampton District Court, was elected as Ward 4 councilor. He may be the first African-American person elected to City Council for decades, if not the first.

“Some people have mentioned it to me. But I never fact-checked it,” he said.

He said he is not surprised by the lack of racial diversity the council has had.

“It’s good to have diversity in any type of public service — it’s critical,” Thorpe said.

Meanwhile, current Ward 4 councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra became the first woman elected to one of the two at-large council seats in a quarter of a century.

Confirming definitively that Thorpe is the first African-American city councilor is challenging. The Northampton City Council has existed since the late 1800s when Northampton officially converted from a town to a city, City Clerk Pam Powers said. The city clerk’s council records, though, don’t include information on race.

Dylan Gaffney, a senior library assistant at Forbes Library, looked into the history of racial diversity on the City Council. City reports that date back to when Northampton became a city list councilors’ names, but do not include any photographs or bios, he said.

At-large city councilor Bill Dwight said that in his memory of the last 40 years, there have been no African-American council members.

Lisa Baskin — a Northampton resident since 1964 who is active in local politics — started looking into the question when it became clear Thorpe was running unopposed.

“I think it is likely that John is the first elected African-American to serve in the City Council of Northampton,” Baskin said. “It’s about time, and it’s important.”

Sciarra said she was “thrilled” that Thorpe was elected. “I think it’s sad and remarkable that here in 2019 … he would be the first. We need to do better work on that front.”

Thorpe is focused on the future, he said.

“Right now my focus is to be ready to work for the people of Northampton,” he said. “My focus is to make Northampton an even more sustainable and vibrant community.”

According to records kept in the city clerk’s office, the last woman to be elected as an at-large councilor was Clare Higgins, who was elected to the seat in 1993 before she went on to become mayor in 1999.

Sciarra learned of this when Higgins reached out to her after Sciarra announced her candidacy in February.

“I think my immediate reaction was surprise. Then, I thought about it and thought, of course,” she said. “I just hadn’t done the calculation.”

Having a woman in an at-large position is important to Sciarra.

“The council has a decent gender balance, but women have been not the quorum certainly for as long as I’ve been on it,” she said. “I think it’s time we have a woman in one of the two posts representing the entire city.”

Like the current council, the new council will have five men and four women.

Asked if she will continue to follow in the footsteps of Higgins and one day run for mayor, Sciarra said, “It’s not even something that I’m entertaining. I’m just really focused on this new big responsibility that I have.”

Right now, she said, she is thinking about how to help train the five new city councilors. More than half the council is new, she pointed out. “This is a really huge moment of change for Northampton.”

In addition to Thorpe in Ward 4, the other newly elected councilors are Michael Quinlan Jr. in Ward 1, Karen Foster in Ward 2, Alex Jarrett in Ward 5 and Rachel Maoire in Ward 7.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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