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Tough race for Latino in Springfield

Mayoral hopeful can’t count on ethnic vote

Jose Tosado is vying for Springfield’s mayoralty.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

SPRINGFIELD - Marivette Vasquez, 27, has two children and a job as a hotel banquet server -and little interest in electing this city’s first Latino mayor on Tuesday.

Vasquez plans to vote for the incumbent, Domenic Sarno, instead, because “he’s always around, and he cares a lot about the city.’’

Even her son, who is 8, “loves the mayor.’’ Asked about the challenger, Jose Tosado - whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, just like hers - Vasquez shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what race you are,’’ she said.

Try telling that to Maria Bonilla. The petite, 74-year-old shopkeeper was born in Puerto Rico, has a Tosado campaign sign in her store window (“The Time Has Come’’), and doesn’t beat around the bush when asked why she wants him to win.


“He’s my race - he’s Puerto Rican like me,’’ says Bonilla, whose store, Leannie’s Variety, stocks plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary and fragrant vials of oil that promise luck with love and money. “He’s very good - I’ve known him since he was a boy - and we need it. There are a lot of people who don’t care about us.’’

There is nothing simple about politics in Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, which has undergone dramatic demographic shifts in recent decades.

Nearly 39 percent of the city’s 153,000 residents are Hispanic or Latino - an increase of 44 percent since 2000, according to the Census Bureau. The vast majority of those, 51,000, are Puerto Rican. The emergence of a Puerto Rican candidate for mayor - Tosado is the first in Springfield history - was an inevitability.

His election, though, is much less inevitable. More than half a century after Tosado’s parents opened the first Puerto Rican restaurant in Springfield, serving migrant workers who came to toil in Connecticut tobacco fields, minorities are not well represented among active voters in the city.


In Ward 7, where 80 percent of residents are white, more than half of registered voters turned out to help fill the vacant state Senate seat last year, while in Ward 1, where 83 percent of residents are minorities, 16 percent voted in the same election. The analysis of voter turnout was done by the Springfield Institute, a think tank whose director also works for Tosado’s campaign.

Political observers agree: Changes in the makeup of a city’s leadership lag behind changes in its racial and ethnic balance.

“The city may have seen a transformation of its demographics, but if you look at its registered voters, the tipping point hasn’t occurred,’’ said Tatishe Nteta, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “One reason is that one-third of Latinos are under 18. So you hear about this ‘sleeping giant,’ whose political impact hasn’t reached its zenith.’’

In the meantime, said Nteta, a Latino candidate has to make his ethnicity part of his campaign without alienating white voters. “If he attempts to run as ‘the Latino candidate,’ he’s going to run into trouble,’’ said Nteta, who pointed to Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama as examples of candidates who have walked that fine line successfully.

Tosado, a manager with the state Department of Mental Health and a 10-year veteran of the Springfield City Council, has tried to strike the same balance. Asked about the importance of electing a Latino mayor in a city where Latinos could make up half the population in another decade, the 57-year-old father of three answered carefully.


“I think it’s important to have a mayor who responds to all citizens, whether they’re voters or nonvoters, renters or homeowners, unemployed or earning a six-figure income, and we haven’t had that,’’ he said.

Tosado has known Springfield at its worst: In 1980, his father was stabbed to death by three boys who robbed his bodega.

He would be the state’s second Latino, and first Puerto Rican, mayor. The first Latino mayor, William Lantigua of Lawrence, took a different tack in his campaign two years ago.

A four-term state legislator born in the Dominican Republic who is now under investigation for alleged corruption, Lantigua refused to participate in debates during the campaign, turning off some voters. But his attention to lower-income neighborhoods, where he spoke to residents in their native Spanish, paid off.

Most critically, He was running in a city where minorities had attained an overwhelming majority: 74 percent of Lawrence’s 76,000 residents were Hispanic or Latino in 2010, according to the Census, and most were of voting age.

Those numbers, more than any other factor, paved the way for Lantigua’s victory, but there were other necessary steps along the way, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, an expert on race and gender in politics at UMass Boston. A previous Hispanic candidate for mayor, Isabel Melendez, lost by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2001, bolstering the sense of possibility among Lawrence Latinos.


In Springfield, where 22 percent of residents are black and 37 percent are non-Hispanic whites, Tosado faces challenges in his quest for cross-racial appeal. Teresa Williams, an African-American who was born in Georgia but who has lived in Springfield most of her 51 years, plans to vote, enthusiastically, for Sarno.

“What I love about him is, when these black boys get shot, he’s right there,’’ she said. “He’s not afraid to come into the black neighborhoods, he’s not afraid of gang members. It touches my heart when I see him at these black funerals.’’

Williams says she doesn’t know much about Tosado, but will worry if he is elected.

“The Latino community sticks together so strong,’’ she says. “If [Tosado] gets in, he’ll look out for his people, where the current mayor is looking out for everybody.’’

And what to make of voters like Vasquez? The children of immigrants, who are a step removed from their parents’ homeland, often feel conflicting pressures to claim their ethnic identity but also to “be American’’ and minimize differences, Nteta said. As they grow older, their views may change, he said, making the election of a Latino mayor more important to them.

More common in Springfield are Latinos who don’t vote. The woman behind the pastry-laden counter at the Old San Juan Bakery said she hasn’t paid attention to the election because she’s too busy. The man eating a Cuban sandwich at a table in the corner said he used to vote, but doesn’t anymore because it doesn’t make a difference: Power corrupts everyone.


Social worker Ivette Hernandez, 39, spent last week knocking on doors in Springfield, trying to change those attitudes as part of a nonpartisan voter mobilization campaign by the Service Employees International Union. While the campaign has endorsed candidates, including Tosado, its main goal is to build participation for the long term, she said, not to rally one group.

Choosing candidates for their ethnicity would be a throwback to outdated, old-style politics, Hernandez said. “I want all the streets to be clean, not just in one neighborhood,’’ she said.

In the heart of Springfield’s old Italian neighborhood, where he runs the lunchtime destination Mom & Rico’s on a street still marred by damage from the June tornado, Rico Daniele, 61, expressed the same ideal. Daniele, who immigrated with his parents to Springfield from Italy when he was 4, said people in the city need to work together.

“The mayor is doing a great job, and Tosado is a good man - neither one is a wastebasket, and I would tell you,’’ Daniele said. He plans to vote for Sarno.

Sarno, whose parents were born in Italy, helped guide the city through financial crisis as a member of the state-appointed financial control board that took over from 2004 to 2009 to head off bankruptcy. A familiar, outgoing figure known for giving nicknames, he has kept city finances stable since, but critics say he has failed to stem the tide of failing schools and gang-related killings.

The mayor did not respond to a request for comment late last month; last week, an aide said Sarno would not be available because he had suspended campaign activities to focus on storm cleanup.

Daniele, who dabbles in political predictions (his forecast was off by only 198 votes, out of 28,000, in the 2003 mayoral election - “not too bad for a salami slicer,’’ he says), guesses that Sarno will prevail on Nov. 8, by a vote of 11,001 to 7,002.

But Daniele isn’t counting Tosado out for good.

“If he runs again in four years, that could be serious,’’ he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.