The Battle Starts: First Salvo Fired in Ward 3 Election
The Day Before He Took Out Nomination Papers for Ward 3 City Council, Arnie Levinson Changed His Party Affiliation From Republican to “Independent.” Does That Matter?
NORTHAMPTON — With Ward 3′s special election for city councilor two months away, the battle has begun between supporters of Arnold “Arnie” Levinson, 70, a life-long Republican who recently registered as an independent, and Owen Freeman-Daniels, 31, a Democrat.
The first salvo across the bow came last Monday with a press release from the Pioneer Valley Young Democrats (PVYD) that announced the group’s endorsement of Freeman-Daniels. In the process, it also took a shot at Levinson for his purported political beliefs.
“Young Democrats call Arnie Levinson out for Republican ties,” the email’s subject line announced.
The press release was sent to a short list by PVYD Executive Board Member Shawn Robinson; city beat reporters for two daily newspapers weren’t copied, but a food writer and former rock DJ were. The statement was forwarded to Northampton Media by Freeman-Daniels himself, a member of PVYD.
The endorsement of Freeman-Daniels and swipe at Levinson came in the form of two quotes by PVYD President Anja-Waechter Bourbeau.
“Owen is a local Democrat in the truest sense. He has lived his whole life in the Pioneer Valley. Owen speaks up for open and transparent government, and is solid on the important issues of education, the arts, and economic growth,” Wachter-Bourbeau’s quote read. “Arnie Levinson’s Republican credentials are not only inconsistent with the politics of the constituents of Ward 3 but also are not in our best interest.”
The statement contained no listing of Levinson’s “Republican credentials” nor an explanation of why his political affiliation might not be in the best interest of Ward 3.
Reached by telephone last Tuesday, Waechter-Bourbeau said she could not explain what she meant by her statement until she got back to her computer, where that information was stored. As of today, Waechter-Bourbeau has not called back to clarify.
Regarding his political affiliation, “Levinson has said on numerous occasions that he is a Republican” and is “running on Republican values,” Waechter-Bourbeau told Northampton Media. When asked to provide an example of a plank in Levinson’s platform that qualifies as “Republican,” she could not think of one.
But a phone call to Robinson yielded two examples. Levinson, he said, only recently changed his registration from Republican to unenrolled, or “independent.” And Levinson at one point gave $500 to John McCain, said Robinson.
“You can look that stuff up yourself,” he told Northampton Media when asked if there were anything else, and why Waechter-Bourbeau could not find any specifics to back up her statement. “It’s a matter of public record.”
Levinson, on his campaign website, bills himself as an “Independent Leader for Ward 3.”
“I would assume that the Pioneer Valley Young Democrats would endorse him; after all, he sat on their executive board,” Levinson told us. “And I am curious as to what national politics has to do with Ward 3. There is no Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole.”
Levinson told Northampton Media that he changed his party registration from Republican to Independent in April because “it suits me more as a person and better reflects my values. I am not an ideologue. I work on an issue basis, not a party basis.”
He said that he registered as a Republican more than 30 years ago because of his admiration for Edward Brooke, who in 1966 became the first African-American to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate. Levinson said he once met with Brooke — who served as Massachusetts Attorney General from 1962 to 1966 before trouncing Democratic opponent Endicott “Chubb” Peabody in the senate election — and walked away with admiration for the man.
“I believed in what he stood for,” said Levinson. “He was a person who represented everybody. As an African-American, he knew what it was like to lack real political representation. He listened to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the unpowerful. He represented not party values, but human values.”
Levinson said that he contributed $500 to John McCain in 2000 during the Republican presidential primary. McCain went on to lose that battle to George W. Bush, who ultimately defeated Al Gore in an election sealed by a Supreme Court decision halting a manual recount in Florida.
“I have supported John McCain in the past,” he said. “But to tell you the truth, I became disturbed by his support for a number of issues.” Levinson declined to be more specific.
On the local level, Levinson told Northampton Media at his campaign kick-off earlier this month that he supports Michael Bardsley for mayor, and that he was a supporter of former Ward 3 City Councilor Angela Plassmann. During her short tenancy as a councilor, Plassmann was an outspoken fiscal and social conservative: opposing capital spending measures, urging a crackdown on marijuana use, and voicing support for the U.S. war effort.
Last month, Plassmann quit her post amid a formal investigation by the building commissioner about allegations she had violated state and local building and zoning laws on her property. Her unexpected resignation is why the Ward 3 City Council seat is vacant now.
“Plassmann stood up for the powerless,” said Levinson. “She worked hard to improve conditions for tenants at the Walter Salvo House.”
The Walter Salvo House, at 81 Conz St., is a public housing high-rise administered by the Northampton Housing Authority; its tenants are low-income elderly and disabled individuals.
Levinson also expressed appreciation for North Street resident Adam Cohen, a blogger and anti-pornography activist who was a prime backer and advisor of both Bardsley and Plassmann in the 2009 election. Cohen, known for videotaping of public meetings, has used his blog posts and email blasts to oppose so-called “smart growth” as a land-use planning tool. For years he has also waged an unsuccessful campaign to persuade the Valley Advocate, a regional alternative weekly, to stop running ads for escort services.
“Adam is a good friend who has helped me enormously with my campaign,” said Levinson.
Those publicly endorsing Levinson include Bardsley, Cohen, Bardsley campaign treasurer Loretta Gougeon, Pomeroy Terrace resident Fred Zimnoch, and Frank Werbinski and his wife Sydney Stern of Bridge Street. Plassmann has also appeared at fundraisers for both Levinson and Bardsley.
“I’m pleased to have the endorsement of the Pioneer Valley Young Democrats,” Freeman-Daniels told Northampton Media on Thursday. “They are, after all, an organization devoted to advancing Democratic causes and electing Democratic candidates.”
Freeman-Daniels is a member of the PVYD; he stepped down as treasurer of their political action committee earlier this year “to avoid conflict of interest,” he said.
As for Waechter-Bourbeau’s assertion that Levinson’s “Republican credentials” are not in the best interest of Ward 3, Freeman-Daniels said he agrees with that statement.
Freeman-Daniels said Levinson’s change of registration last month from Republican to independent — just before he kicked off his candidacy for the Ward 3 City Council seat — raises questions.
“If you don’t wonder whether your party registration is representative of your values during the Bush presidency of 2000, the Bush presidency of 2004, and the Tea Party revolt of 2010, then what makes you change your mind the day before you decide to run for local office?” he said.
Freeman-Daniels said he’s had conversations with Levinson where they disagreed about national politics. “Arnie and I have disagreed over a variety of things, but we’ve also managed to work together to get things done,” he said.
Levinson and Freeman-Daniels are both board members of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association (W3NA), and the two, along with island Road resident Phil Sullivan, were coordinators of a Neighborhood Watch program created in the wake of Northampton’s Dec. 27, 2009 arson fires. (A program of the National Sherrifs’ Association in conjunction with several federal agencies, the Neighborhood Watch Program encourages residents to share information with each other and collaborate with law enforcement officials to fight crime.)
But concerns about privacy and civil rights issues soon led Levinson and Freeman-Daniels in different directions.
At a January meeting of the neighborhood association, Levinson proposed empowering more than a dozen Neighborhood Watch “street captains” to knock on peoples’ doors to make “suggestions” and be identified by the police via iris scan technology.
Levinson’s proposal elicited concern among some at that meeting. “It sounds like a police state,” one resident can be heard to say in an audio recording of that meeting.
Freeman-Daniels told Northampton Media that he proposed that the “captains” be called “coordinators,” that a code of conduct for the coordinators protect privacy and civil rights, and that a strict memorandum of understanding be crafted between the Watch and the W3NA to protect the privacy of its members and ensure transparency from the Watch.
Levinson remains president of the Neighborhood Watch, and was in fact nominated for that position by Freeman-Daniels. The Watch is a separate organization from the neighborhood association, whose president is Gerald “Jerry” Budgar.
For another example of Levinson’s “Republican credentials,” Freeman-Daniels noted that Levinson had been a vocal supporter of Scott Brown, a Republican, during the special U.S. Senate election of 2010, where Brown prevailed over Democratic Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley. “He had bumper stickers all over his car,” he said.
NM asked Freeman-Daniels why he believed that party affiliation is even relevant in a local ward election.
“Party affiliation reflects a certain approach or outlook,” said Freeman-Daniels, who described himself as a progressive Democrat.
“There may not be a Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole, but there’s a lot that happens before you get to that point. The difference is one of approach, not pragmatics,” he said. “The big question is, how do you prioritize spending? What’s important to you? State and federal priorities are expressed on the local level; you can’t really separate them.”
Asked about Levinson’s campaign theme, “An independent leader for Ward 3,” Freeman-Daniels said being independent can be good in some circumstances, and bad in others.
If an elected official acts independently of constituents and promotes a personal agenda, it could be bad, said Freeman-Daniels. But, he said, if being independent means approaching issues with an open mind, then “I think it’s a good thing.”
If a candidate sees independence as an unwillingness to work with other councilors or the mayor, then “I don’t think that’s good for Ward 3. And I’m worried that approach will be similar to our previous councilor (Angela Plassmann).”
On his website, Freeman-Daniels has gathered testimonials from At-Large City Councilor Jesse Adams, Democratic party activist Joel Spiro, lawyer and arts volunteer Madeline Weaver-Blanchette, public relations professional Michael Kusek, non-profit administrator Jenny Ladd, and several members of the downtown business community.
As for who he’ll be supporting in the general election for mayor and city council, he said he’d wait till after the Aug. 2 special election in Ward 3 to make those announcements.
Freeman-Daniels said he did not see the PVYD press release before it was issued, and did not consult with Waechter-Bourbeau or Robinson about its content.
“I haven’t spoken with Anja for weeks,” he said of the organization’s president.
A Debate Between the Two Candidates Is Set for July 19
City voter registration records show that Levinson did indeed change his party affiliation from Republican to unenrolled on April 12 this year, the day before he took out nomination papers to run for City Council.
They also show that, out of Ward 3′s 2,929 registered voters, 1,467, or about 50 percent, are registered Democrats. Unenrolled or independent voters comprise 45 percent (1,324). Republicans number only 99 voters in the ward, or 3.4 percent. The rest belong to the Green, Rainbow, or Libertarian parties; only one voter identifies with the Constitution Party.
These numbers aren’t far from that seen citywide, where Democrats represent 50 percent of the 19,076 registered voters; Republicans stand at only 4.4 percent, while independents account for 44 percent of registered voters.
A special election for the vacant Ward 3 seat will be held on August 2.
The Ward 3 Neighborhood Association will host a debate between the two candidates on July 19, 7 p.m., at the Bridge Street School, said association president Budgar.
Former city councilor Fran Volkmann will moderate the debate; the format is still under discussion.
Asked if there have been any awkward moments at the neighborhood association meetings — since both Freeman-Daniels and Levinson are W3NA board members — Budgar said he’s been going out of his way to enure that meeting agendas don’t get used for “grandstanding or speech-making.”
“The neighborhood association attracts people who want to get their hands dirty for Ward 3; our membership represents a wide variety of opinion, and we stick to the issues,” said Budgar. “Regardless of political affiliation, our members just want to do good things for the ward and the people who live here.”
© 2011 Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org