SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — It’s a morning of fiery union speeches at a local Teamsters hall, and Henry Twiggs is waiting his turn to address the largely white audience.
The longtime African American civil rights activist had addressed a mainly white body many times. But the 70-year-old entered new territory when he stepped up to the podium this time — he asked union leaders for their support in his quest for a city council seat.
“There’s an excitement in the air that we haven’t seen in years here,” said Twiggs, who is among a new group of minority candidates seeking office in Springfield. “And I’m glad to be a part of it.”
After years of picketing, court challenges and public forums, Springfield this fall will shift from electing a nine-seat at-large city council to electing a 13-member body consisting of eight ward seats and five at-large seats.
The change, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2007, has sparked a rush of minority candidates like Twiggs who now believe they have a chance at winning at a seat on a city council that for years has been largely white, though the city is majority-minority.
“We’ve opened up the doors,” said Gumersindo Gomez, whose unsuccessful 1997 city council run was used later as a test case for a lawsuit that argued the city’s at-large system discriminated against minorities. “Now, it’s up to us to walk in.”
The change comes as minority candidates in other Massachusetts cities attempt to make history this November. More than a half-dozen candidates in Lawrence are trying to become the state’s first elected Latino mayor. Boston City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, a Korean American, is challenging incumbent Mayor Thomas M. Menino in a quest to become Boston’s first minority elected mayor.
In Springfield, so far around 50 candidates have taken out nomination papers, including a number of minority candidates. Councilor Bud Williams, who is African American, also recently announced he would run for mayor.
According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, 34 percent of Springfield residents are Latino and 22 percent are black. In 1970, only around 3 percent of Springfield residents were Latino and about 13 percent were black.
Over the years, the majority of winners in city elections have tended to come from the same, largely white and wealthier ward. The city council has never had more than two minority members.
Twiggs, who is also the chairman of the Springfield Democratic City Committee, said that made residents in minority neighborhoods feel as if their needs weren’t being met. He blamed the at-large system for the city’s consistent low voter turnout.
A coalition of black and Latino groups in 2005 filed a civil rights lawsuit arguing the city’s election system violated the Voting Rights Act. A judge later suspended the lawsuit in 2007 after state lawmakers, Gov. Deval Patrick, city councilors and the mayor agreed to put the issue on the ballot as a binding question.
The measure was approved by a 3-to-1 margin, making Springfield the latest large Massachusetts city to scrap its at-large election system.
Avi Green, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonpartisan voting rights group, said Springfield’s change is about “racial justice” and making sure that all neighborhoods are represented.
“In case after case, winner-take-all at-large elections have been eliminated in federal court,” said Green. “Those systems discriminate against people of color.”
Green said he hopes activists in places like Lowell, Fall River and Medford use Springfield as an example since those cities have sizable minority populations but still maintain at-large systems.
Victoria Fahlberg, executive director of One Lowell, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization, said her group has already met with Springfield activists to discuss ideas about changing Lowell’s voting system.
More than one-third of Lowell’s residents are minorities, according to census estimates, but all members of Lowell’s city council and school committee are white.
“Winner-take-all at-large voting is not the best system for democracy,” Fahlberg said. “We are about to launch a campaign about changing this.”
In Springfield, the switch to ward races already has become evident as candidates have begun campaigning in historic minority neighborhoods — a rarity in past elections.
“The energy is outrageous,” said Miguel Soto, a candidate for one of the ward seats who was out recently gathering signatures to appear on the ballot. “You can tell that people want their voices heard.”
For Twiggs, who attended the 1963 March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King give his “I have a dream” speech, getting Springfield to change its voting system was “just as important” as any civil rights victory in the 1960s. He predicted that four or five minorities will get elected to Springfield’s city council come November.
But Twiggs said those minorities elected to office will have to immediately respond to the community needs.
“If we don’t respond, we can get voted out,” said Twiggs. “That’s what it’s all about.”