Mike Gaffney, a Q&A with Worcester’s ‘People’s Councilor®’

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He’s earned degrees from Worcester State and Assumption College. Bought a house on Burncoat Street at the ripe, old age of 23. Been practicing law in the city since 2002. And he was elected to an at-large seat on the City Council in 2013.

It wasn’t until February 2015, though, when he declared his intention to run for mayor, that Michael T. Gaffney really made a name for himself. Here we are 14 months later, and he’s the “People’s Councilor” — at least that’s what Facebook says.

Michael and Coreen Gaffney

Mark A. Henderson / Worcester Sun

City Councilor at-large Mike Gaffney and his wife, Coreen, photographed at Salisbury Mansion.

Indeed Gaffney has been ubiquitous in social and traditional media since mounting a serious challenge to Mayor Joseph M. Petty in November, when the incumbent tallied the narrowest margin of victory in his three mayoral elections (2,119 votes, about 11 percent) and the upstart garnered 3,020 more at-large votes than two years prior.

Voter turnout increased from 15,272 in 2013 to 19,954 last fall.

“There was a lingering defeatist attitude. That’s changing,” Gaffney said. “Once people believed that I could pull it off [having a chance to be elected mayor], that changed the dynamics because then they were willing to come out.

“Once people actually believe that you will stand for something — which I think so few politicians do — and that you can actually win, then they will show up and start voting. If you think your team is going to stink, you’re not going to go to the game.”

The former captain in the U.S. Army National Guard is definitely in the game. And on the move. Recently, he was literally on the move, trading his expansive West Side home for a cozier leased condo in Main South. He’s also on the radio. A lot — his ads on WTAG-AM 580 that were critical of City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. particularly ruffled feathers.

After being state Rep. Kate D. Campanale’s campaign manager in 2014, and along with his wife Coreen showing strong support for Republican candidates like Campanale and Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie K. Fattman, the oft-rumored Tea Partier has enrolled in the Republican Party and became chairman of the Worcester City Republican Committee.

“When I first ran, I kept hearing ‘You can’t do it,’ ‘Who is this guy?’, ‘No one ever wins their first time out,’ and we actually came in sixth. We beat [former Councilor at-large] Mike Germain handedly [sic], almost by 1,000 votes.

“This time around, to be just 560 votes between Joe Petty and I, is actually pretty amazing,” Gaffney said. [Editor’s note: It was actually 481 in the at-large council race (9,141-8,660), per city results; voters choose mayor separately, and in that vote Petty prevailed, 9,978-7,859.]

Speaking of the mayor, Gaffney continues to rankle council colleagues when it comes to the budget and what is considered by some, including Petty, political posturing too extreme even for Worcester City Hall. He has plans to sue an outspoken local blogger. His social media etiquette has been called into question, to say the least.

He was recently photographed having lunch with Gov. Charlie Baker and members of the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, some of whom donated to his November campaign.

Gaffney poses with Gov. Charlie Baker during a recent luncheon, where he also met with Mass Fiscal Alliance head Paul Craney.

Courtesy Mike Gaffney

Gaffney poses with Gov. Charlie Baker during a recent luncheon, where he also met with Mass Fiscal Alliance head Paul Craney.

So, you could say, there’s a lot to talk about. The ambitious counselor shared his thoughts on Gordon Davis, Augustus, future plans for higher office, moving to Beacon Street and trading in home improvement for politics.

PS: Following last year’s election what did you reflect on the most? What would you have done differently?

“I’m very proud of the campaign I ran. It just would have been nice to have more resources, people. It was me, Coreen and a handful of other people. It was a very small group of us that really were working. That was the one thing we looked back at saying — and that’s part of the reason I’ve become a Republican at this point — it was our organizing, whatever people we could get together, mostly our own money. So at the end of it, I realized I can’t do it all by myself.

“After the election, we went out and celebrated that night. And I kept hearing from people ‘Well, you didn’t win.’ I added 3,000 votes from the first time I ran to the second time. My opposition — who had two state senators, a congressman — added about 600. If that’s the way this game is going, then we’re headed in the right direction.

“I was out of energy at the end, which is where you want to be, but I just needed more organization.”

[Petty called Gaffney’s paid radio advertisements criticizing the city manager’s performance “awful, atrocious and disrespectful.” Other councilors at a recent meeting, notably Kate Toomey, also decried the tactics while knocking Gaffney’s allusions that the manager should have a better handle on the budget based on his salary compared to councilors’.]

PS: What reason did you have to run ads against Ed Augustus on WTAG?

“I really shouldn’t say they were against Ed Augustus, but I’m trying to move Ed Augustus along. Otherwise, he ignores me. This is the way we’re going to do it. They don’t listen to anyone else so you kind of have to say ‘Hey, kids are being ignored up at North High. You’re being incompetent.’ And suddenly it fixes it. Typically that’s the way you have to be, especially when you don’t have a group of people behind you.

“They served their purpose. That was my own money that I took out to put those ads forth. I did it because they don’t listen. You ask, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’ The response is just to completely ignore.

“I had to circumvent this whole go-along-to-get-along train of thought.”

Michael and Coreen Gaffney

Mark A. Henderson / Worcester Sun

Mike and Coreen

PS: You’ve run as an independent in your previous two campaigns for city councilor. Why the recent switch to the Republican Party?

“I did want to look for organization. The Democratic Party here in Worcester is run by a certain group. I’m not going to get into those dynamics. I’ll let [WTAG-AM radio host] Jim Polito do that. It’s stifling. The other thing is, I do have a fiscal conservative streak in me. I won an award from Worcester Pride for being an ally, so I’m not a social conservative. I think Charlie Baker made me feel more comfortable because he’s not a social conservative. I think he’s bringing the party in the right direction because it’s more about trying to be responsible with the things we do.

“I felt good about the group of Republicans in the city. I had a lot of support from a number of them. It felt like it was the time to do it. And I think they could use my help, too.

“People have said, ‘A Republican in the city of Worcester? Are you out of your mind?’ The truth of the matter is that the other side was labeling me as an extremist Tea Party Republican anyways.”

PS: You recently were photographed at an event with Gov. Charlie Baker, and Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance executive director Paul Craney and political director Carl Copeland. What initiated that and how did you get that sitdown with them?

“I met Charlie Baker a number of years ago at a fundraiser for Justin Brooks’ campaign for state representative in Leominster. That was after Charlie’s first loss before he ran again. I’ve probably met him half a dozen times.

“It’s just nice that he knows who I am now. He walked right up to me and said, ‘How’s Worcester?’ I’m sure he was collecting his thoughts for two minutes before he came up to me to figure out who I was.

“I ended up in the picture with him because I told him I had just taken over the Worcester Republican City Committee.

“There isn’t any affiliation at the moment. I’m sure we’ll all become friends at some point. I was invited because of the Republican City Committee. And I told all of them, if I’m going to succeed I’m going to need the support of the Republican Party.”

[In February it was reported that Gaffney was filing a lawsuit against InCity Times publisher Rosalie Tirella over a column written by Gordon Davis asserting that a guest at a Gaffney party had showed up in blackface. Davis accused former city employee Brittany Legasey, who herself had been in the news.]

PS: What’s happening with your lawsuit against InCity Times?

“Well, I’m sure you can just read about that online. Gordon Davis is posting about it on a blog every five minutes. Truthfully, I hadn’t had it served, but I just did have it sent out for serving. I really can’t get into too many discussions of it.

“I have sympathy for people that act like idiots. It happens. This is, like, their life I think. It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them. It’s a sad chapter.

“That was completely inappropriate, in this day and age, to say back in December 2014 that (Gaffney supporter) Brittany Legasey walked into a Mike Gaffney event with blackface on. Don’t you think someone would have gotten a camera?”

PS: You sold your home on the West Side to move to the Junction Shop Lofts in Main South. Why the change?

“When we were selling the house there was a lot of speculation about what we were doing. I didn’t move to Main South to run against Sarai Rivera or Mary Keefe. I’ve heard a lot of that silliness.

“We had a five-bedroom home and 4,100 square feet. It would take me three hours to mow the lawn. Picture that: you’re out campaigning all week and then spending your weekend mowing, pruning, trimming, mulching, and then going inside to clean the house — all of this for my wife and two cats.

Michael and Coreen Gaffney

Mark A. Henderson / Worcester Sun

Councilor at-large Mike Gaffney and his wife, Coreen.

“There’s a large kitchen. If you follow me on Facebook, you know that we go out to eat a lot and we don’t even post half the times that we do go out to eat. We probably go out twice as much as people think. So we had this massive kitchen and the house was just constant maintenance. It was great when I liked to do projects before I got into politics, whether it was landscaping, I framed all the walls in the basement, put a gym down there, I built our patio out back — so those used to be my hobbies, but I kind of gave that up when I got into politics.

“Both of us are getting older. We’re both 44. Kids aren’t coming. So why do we have this massive house?”

“We’ve downsized, but it gives [us] some more free time to live. I’m excited to be down in Main South. A lot of people talk about a lot of things — doing ribbon cuttings, and other things — but no one actually does it. I’m on Beacon Street. I get to see that part of the city that others just drive through or even drive around it. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

PS: Will you run for mayor in 2017?

“I don’t know if it makes sense to be a general without any supporting troops. Would it make more sense to run with others and actually bring in more votes?

“I think by running with others, we can accomplish more. I don’t need a title. I’ve got enough titles: city councilor, vice chair [sic], captain. I don’t need to be mayor to pad my ego. I think it makes more sense for the city to start bringing in like-minded individuals into the next race and try to restructure the City Council to get some things done.”

PS: Ultimately, what are your future plans for elected office?

“I’m going to run for council again. Most likely.”

PS: You did well in the last election with voters, you’re getting support from the Republican Party now, so are you the person to legitimize the GOP in Worcester?

“I’m not sure. It might not be me. It might be someone else. One of the things that happen[s] when you force change is that you get pushback. I don’t know if I’m going to be the person that takes the next step forward, which is why my intent is to bring other like-minded individuals along.”

This article was originally published in the April 24, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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