‘Training Wheels’ Ad Puts Spin on Mayoral Race
From “Clare Island” to “The Crew” — Mayoral candidate Michael Bardsley has an axe to grind with local government. But can he make it stick to his opponent, council president David Narkewicz?
NORTHAMPTON — A political advertisement that ran in the Oct. 1 weekend edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette has become the talk of the town.
The provocative ad, produced for Michael Bardlsey’s mayoral campaign by Darby O’Brien, the South Hadley-based advertising and PR firm, featured a photo of Council President and (now) Acting Mayor David Narkewicz on a bicycle, his newly launched mobile campaign trailer in tow.
In the ad’s copy, Bardsley suggests that Narkewicz, despite his “green” credentials, isn’t qualified to be mayor:
“I like the idea of the bike. It’s the training wheels that bother me,” the ad’s headline states.
The ad copy also paints Narkewicz’ working relationship with former Mayor Mary Clare Higgins as a negative:
“. . . My concern is whether or not he’s qualified to be mayor of Northampton.. . . I don’t think being buddies with the old mayor is a good enough reason to make you the new mayor.”
The photo in question was snapped by David Reid, a reporter for Northampton Media, who was at the farmer’s market that day because of a press release sent from the Narkewicz campaign. After the photo ran on this site to illustrate a story comparing the two campaigns, O’Brien asked Reid if he would be willing to sell the photo, and he agreed. Northampton Media granted Reid rights to the photo, and was not a party to the transaction. Reid said he has yet to be paid for the image; O’Brien has instructed him to “bill the Bardsley campaign.”
“Frankly, I would have thought that Dave Narkewicz would be more interested in buying the photo for his campaign than his opponent,” Reid said. “I wouldn’t have a problem selling it for use by anybody. It wasn’t a surreptitiously taken photo; it was a shot that the candidate was hoping some news organization would take, and we took it,” Reid said.
While the political ad left Bardsley supporters chuckling, members of the Narkewicz camp condemned it as an example of negative campaign tactics.
At Tuesday’s mayoral debate, sponsored by The David Pakman Show, Valley Free Radio, and Northampton Community Television, panelist Scott Coen from Springfield’s ABC40 TV station quizzed the two candidates about the ad.
Coen asked Bardsley if he thought the ad was “negative,” and Narkewicz if he thought the ad was “fair.”
“Yes, I thought it was negative,” responded Narkewicz. “In terms of fairness, I’ve made it no secret that I ride a bicycle.. . .But I don’t know what that has to do with my qualifications to be mayor.”
Narkewicz then enumerated some of his experience — his “time on the City Council, time on Capitol Hill, background in the Air Force, background working for (U.S. Congressman) John Olver as his economic development director,” and said the ad seemed to suggest that that these were not qualifications for the mayor’s office.
Narkewicz said he’s talked about “not only my qualifications, but the things that I’ve done while in city government to back that up.. . .
“I’ve tried to run a positive campaign (and) I think people who’ve been watching the national debates are tired of the politics of negative,” said Narkewicz.
As for qualifications, Narkewicz was elected as a Ward 4 councilor in 2005 and 2007, and as an at-large councilor in 2009. His ascent was rapid — during the first City Council meeting of 2010, he was elected council president by his peers. Before election to the council, he served on city’s Parking and Transportation Committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals. His full bio can be found here.
In the debate, Bardsley countered by saying that he did not think his bicycle ad was negative, which drew guffaws from Narkewicz supporters in the High School auditorium.
“It was to raise the issue around qualifications and experience,” said Bardsley.
Bardsley called the ad “unusual; out of the box; ironic; an attempt at humor.”
“It made people think, it jolted people — some people liked it and some people didn’t — but it raised the issue,” he said.
Bardsley served on the City Council for 16 years, eight of them as council president, before being removed from that post in January of 2008 by a 6-3 vote by that body. He worked as a guidance counselor in the Amherst/Pelham schools for more than 30 years before his retirement, and was a leader of the teacher’s union there. In 2009, he ran for mayor and fell only a few hundred votes short of unseating then-Mayor Mary Clare Higgins. He lists his qualifications in a downloadable pdf on his campaign website here.
Bardsley said the ad was “written by the same person who did the same ads two years ago for Mayor Higgins,” which he said were “biting” and “probably even more negative.”
In other words, Bardsley hired the advertising firm that helped defeat him in his 2009 run against Higgins.
“Elected Not Selected”
While still on the ad question Tuesday night, Bardsley proceeded to hammer a favorite campaign theme: the charge that Narkewicz was secretly picked to be mayor by Higgins, and that she conspired with an inner circle to coronate Narkewicz by leaving office early so as to give Narkewicz de-facto incumbency status in November.
But not too early.
For months, Bardsley has been saying that Higgins waited until there were fewer than six months left in her term to hand over the reins, so as not to invoke a city-wide special election for the mayor’s job. Such a city-wide election would cost about $15,000, officials had said.
Narkewicz has dismissed that notion as ludicrous, saying that there is no provision in the city’s charter for a special election in the absence of the mayor. For city councilors with more than six months left in their terms, yes; but for the mayor’s office, no.
Higgins announced in mid-April that she would leave the $80,000-a-year mayor’s job in September to become executive director of CommunityAction! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions, a regional anti-poverty agency. Her leaving propelled Narkewicz, as the City Council President, to become acting mayor until her term is up next Jan. 2. (To see our story on her announcement, click here.)
The day before Higgins’ announcement,
Bardsley’s intention to run for mayor was published in the Gazette following an editorial board meeting; Narkewicz formally announced his candidacy two weeks later. (Correction: Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Dan Crowley broke the story that Bardsley was going to run in a story published on March 4, 2011. There was no editorial board meeting at the Gazette; Crowley and Bardsley met off-site.)
An early motto of the Bardsley advertising campaign was that “a mayor should be elected, not selected.” That phrase was plastered in print and internet ads (Darby O’Brien paid for that ad to run on Northampton Media), and it was dragged on a huge banner by an airplane flying over the city on at least two weekends.
As evidence of his claim that Narkewicz was “selected” and groomed for the mayor’s chair by Higgins and her allies, Bardsley refers to a 2008 analysis written by Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Dan Crowley entitled “Shift in council leadership may affect mayoral bids.” (subscription required.)
A discussion between Narkewicz and Bardsley on the issue can be heard here, in an interview last week with WHMP radio hosts Bill Newman and Monte Belmonte.
In response to Coen’s question at Tuesday’s debate, Bardsley took the opportunity to elaborate upon his view of the secondary meaning of the “elect-select” ad:
“The other issue. . . is the whole thing about decisions being made behind the scenes; in terms of people being hand-picked. And a lot of times in this city there is a feeling that decisions are not being made or passed on their merits; that there are discussions going on behind the scenes; that a solution for decisions has already been made. And that has added a great deal of frustration to people, and that is why there is from time to time anger coming out around various issues,” he said. “And that is what it (the ad) tapped into.”
Bardsley told Northampton Media several months ago that it was his opposition to the controversial Smith College Educational Use Overlay District in 2006 that got him “voted off of Clare Island,” referring to the domain of the former mayor.
If the City Council can be seen as the mayor’s island, then Bardsley’s metaphor holds together. In the following video, Bardsley delivers his last address as City Council President in January 2008, moments before being deposed from that position by a vote of his peers, in favor of James Dostal, a man with 50 years of experience in city government:
In 2009, then At-large City Councilor Bardsley — riding on voter anger over issues having to do with the city’s landfill, a proposed hotel in a downtown park, the development of the old Northampton State Hospital grounds, and the mayor’s quiet promotion of funding for a major interchange upgrade at Exit 19 off Interstate 91 — launched a vigorous but failed bid to unseat Higgins. He did, however, win the three-way preliminary election in an upset; but in a November run-off, Higgins won a narrow re-election.
Since losing the 2009 election, citizen Bardsley has made numerous appearances at City Council meetings to speak at the public comment session. In February, he harshly criticized the purchase of a piece of watershed protection land, calling a technical accounting error that forced a retake of that financial transfer “one of the top-10 blunders” in the history of city government.
Around the same time, he appeared again to criticize Ward 2 City Councilor Paul Spector for remarks he had made about Bardsley while a guest on a WHMP radio news show, and to excoriate Narkewicz for lack of leadership as council president:
And right before declaring his candidacy for Mayor, Bardsley filed a public records request to get copies of emails sent from Narkewicz to his constituents concerning the remarks that Bardsley made to the City Council regarding the watershed land purchase.
What returned from the City Solicitor was an email message from Narkewicz to Ward 3 Neighborhood Association President Jerry Budgar in which Narkewicz wrote, “Michael Bardsley is simply looking for any issue to put the mayor, council, and city in a bad light so as to create some justification for his impending candidacy. Never a dull moment with that crew!”
The email mentioned Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene Tacy, then-Ward 3 City Councilor Angela Plassmann, and Ward 6′s Marianne L. LaBarge. (See the full exchange, including Bardsley’s record request here.)
Bardsley made much of Narkewicz’ “crew” remark in the days before announcing his candidacy, and Tacy joined in the fray, briefly calling for Narkewicz’ resignation as City Council President.
Still, Bardsley told the City Council that the mayoral race should be “about issues, not personalities.”
As for Bardsley’s criticisms of city government during the Higgins administration, Narkewicz is fond of pointing out that Bardsley was council president during that era, “the second-most powerful position in the city.” In cases where strong-handed actions by Higgins elicited public outcry, Narkewicz said, Bardsley either abdicated his power to the mayor or failed to act as a credible leader.
Bardsley’s “training wheels” ad was short-lived; his latest Darby O’Brien-crafted piece features the candidate posing like Popeye, with the headline “I yam what I yam.”
Whether a clever advertising campaign will garner more votes for Bardsley on the Nov. 8 election remains to be seen. But the enmity between the two candidates isn’t likely to go away any time soon.
© 2011 Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org