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** A campaign 2011 special** JOE NICHOLS: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE MAYOR

BY DAN VALENTI

He has slate-blue eyes that exude an inner calmness, a type of humility and gratefulness when you emerge at the other side of darkness. He speaks in quiet tones, his cadence measured by the need not just to think through what he says but to make sure he’s speaking from the heart. The heart’s important to this guy. He smiles easily.  He wants to be the mayor of Pittsfield.

He’s Joe Nichols.

The Planet broke the story of Nichols’ decision to go for the corner office. It’s a significant story that will have large ramifications for the city of Pittsfield in 2011. Naturally, the Boring Broadsheet (aka, the Berkshire Eagle) ignored it. Not The Planet. Here’s part one of why Nichols will be taking this dramatic step.

JOE NICHOLS: Eyeing the corner office in 2011. Photo Credit: iBerkshires.com

Nichols is part of the entrepreneurial Nichols family that has been in business in Pittsfield for nearly 100 years (1914). Like many of us, he moved away from Pittsfield and then became the native, returning. Nichols lived and worked in New Mexico and then Cape Cod, honing his skills as a baker.

In 2005, he moved back to the area to be closer to family after his wife died. As we’ve learned from Paul Dowd, Tom Hickey, and Jimmy Ruberto, the death of a spouse becomes a life-altering tipping point, a way to divide a life into all that went before and all that comes after. It is one of the toughest moments a man or woman can face.

Ruberto and Nichols thus share one of the most profound bonds possible between two men: both lost dear wives. Being men, who are less apt to delve into their emotional lives as women, they will most likely not let the other know about this common bond. Each should realize, though, that the other guy has “been there, done that.” Nichols has moved on from his wife’s death. One gets to the sense that Ruberto, only a little more than a

JIMMY RUBERTO: He shares with Nichols the grievous loss of a loving wife.

year removed from that awful time, still has more grieving to go. The Planet has not asked either this question, but we will raise it here: Do you offer support for what the other has been through? We hope that at some point in what promises to be a bruising 2011 campaign, the two men find time to share this moment, preferably before the mud begins to move. It may help them to remember to humanize the opponent when the going gets distasteful.

Nichols returned to Pittsfield, and eventually opened up the Cove Deli and Bakery in Johnnie’s shopping plaza on Pecks Road at the corner of Highland Avenue. He works 14 hours a day baking bread, pastries, cookies, cakes, and whatever else, while managing the cozy breakfast counter.

THE PLANET is well familiar with this part of town, since my Uncle George lived just up the road on Highland. It’s a residential area with working-class families, the kind that pay their taxes, obey the law, and try to live decent, quiet lives. They are the people that Joe Nichols represents with passion. They ARE Joe Nichols.

He’s in it to ‘Help People’

“To me, being in government only makes sense if I’m helping people,” Nichols says. “Not the kind of fake help you often get [from public servants in it for the wrong reasons] but to help ordinary people live better lives. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think government can and should do that.”

Nichols says when he returned to Pittsfield in 2005, he was “displeased at what I saw and became [politically] active.” He started a blog as a means of affecting change, but writing wasn’t his thing.

“That’s when I opened my eyes,” Nichols says. “I started looking around. I saw residents and businesses getting killed with taxes. I didn’t see the commercial tax base expanded. It got smaller. I saw city employees being disrespected. I decided the best way I could help make a change [for the good] was to try to run for office.”

Nichols chance came when incumbent Anthony Maffuccio got embroiled in scandal. Maffuccio, ignoring better advice as much as he started ignoring his constituents, had no chance. Nichols won office, and it took little time to make his impact felt.

GERRY LEE: The Administration's lap dog leader of the Pittsfield city council. He's leaning on Nichols and Melissa Mazzeo. It's not working.

Nichols startled the political Establishment, his colleagues, and everyone else who was paying attention, on the new council’s first meeting in January of this year. He stepped down from the dais as a councilor and walked up to the open microphone during the public comment period. He spoke as Citizen Joe Nichols.

Off to a Flying Start

In my print column PLANET VALENTI for the Pittsfield Gazette, Jan. 14 edition, the headline to the sidebar I wrote for the main story said it all: “Planet postscript: Nichols = W-O-W!”

We wrote then, “Nichols, weilding brass balls the size of watermelons, ripped Mayor Jimmy Ruberto for appointing ex-North Adams mayor John Barrett to a consultancy. Nichols objected on two counts: (1) He wasn’t properly informed, which, as a counselor, he expects; and (2) His constituents have expressed overwhelming objection to the move.”

Ruberto and allies began groaning. The duel between Nichols and Ruberto has ebbed and flowed all year, and as we reach the end of 2010, the rift has never been greater. That will only get wider as the new year progresses.

MIKE WARD: Nichols and Mazzeo have lifted his game.

The Berkshire Eagle ignored the moment when Nichols pulled what was called, variously, a stunt and an act of courage. Since then, the deliquent daily has given short shrift to its reporting of Nichols and his council ally, the equally determined Melissa Mazzeo. Nichols and Mazzeo have spurred discussion, debate, and deliberation this year to the benefit of everyone. The more open-minded councilors, Mike Ward for example, have become better for it.

MELISSA MAZZEO: She finally threw off Lee's muzzle at the tax classification hearing this month. Is this a sign that Lee has lost control of the council? If so, it's a long-overdue development.

Nichols says Gerry Lee has tries to muzzle Mazzeo and him in many ways, most of them behind the scenes and subtle, so that the general public doesn’t get to see. The Berkshire Eagle won’t report that either, since it has its “marching orders” from the political bosses. As an example of Lee’s tactics, Nichols notes that Lee has only once allowed a councilor to go through the chair to question a petitioner. That was at the tax classification hearing earlier this month.

Winning a Small Victory

Council rules of protocol require that when someone brings a petition to the council agenda, councilors must get permission from the president (Lee) in order to ask questions of the petitioner. The ridiculous rule prohibits the flow of information, and the autocratic Lee, used to “chain of command” from his days on the police force, refuses to let councilors speak, and ask, their minds. It is notable that in the last meeting, Lee allowed Mazzeo permission to ask questions of petitioner Terry Kinnas. Nichols saw this as a small victory for open goverment.

"Benigno Numine" — "For the good of all." To Joe Nichols, these aren't just words.

Nichols says he’s learned a lot “being on the inside of government.” He’s learned that politics is a nasty business. He says he’s only had one meeting with Mayor Ruberto, and he’s pretty much left out when the mayor meets with his kitchen cabinet, led by council president Lee. Nichols describes his relationship with Ruberto as “virtually nonexistent. I act respectful and civil to him, and he does to me. That’s about it.”

Nichols says that being a councilor requires a lot of face time at City Hall, where he says he learned something else, something that he finds disconcerting. Nichols says city employees are in fear of Ruberto and community development director Deanna Ruffer. Ruffer has consolidated political power, and she holds an office that is essentially assistant mayor. Ruberto and Ruffer, Nichols says, manage with a “cram it down their throats management style” that he he loathes: “[Ruffer] has a rule that when one of their [political] opponents enters the office or its someone they don’t like, employees cannot look up. [City hall] employees communicate with me their frustration and fear. It traces back to [Ruberto's] management style.”

Style Points

Nichols talks a lot about leadership style. He decries the Ruberto-Ruffer-Barrett style, and a main part of his mayoral campaign, he says, will be to “bring back respect not just to ordinary citizens but bring respect back for city employees. That’s not happening now. You don’t cram your agenda down people’s throats. People don’t appreciate that, I don’t, and I’m going to fight to change this.”

TOMORROW: THE PLANT WISHES YOU MERRY CHRISTMAS. PART TWO OF THE JOE NICOLS STORY WILL RUN ON SUNDAY, DEC. 26. IN IT, NICHOLS TELLS HOW SERIOUS HE IS ABOUT HIS MAYORAL AMBITIONS AND FIRES MORE SHOTS ACROSS MAYOR JIMMY RUBERTO’S BOW.

13 Responses to “** A campaign 2011 special** JOE NICHOLS: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE MAYOR”

  1. DaNa
    December 24, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    “Dan just read your piece on Joe Nichols. Right now, I can’t help to feel that with good competition in a upcoming mayoral race can only be GOOD for Pittsfield. It will be interesting to see how things go as we get to know more about Joe”

  2. Joe Pinhead
    December 24, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Wow we might get a vigerous debate about the issues facing us and how we feel they should be addressed. that will be different. we shall see how the election shapes up no doubt about it though the next Mayor will need to get to the corner office throu the Planet.

  3. Joe Pinhead
    December 24, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    T9 on the spelling typing on a phone is a challange

  4. Stephan
    December 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    I have followed nichols and mazzeo with interest . they seem to be the only ones who dare to question or ask if they aren’t clear about issues. There seems to be a lot of last minute rush with this council led by lee and the mayor. its time for a regime change in the city.

  5. No Reply
    December 24, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    excellent profile. I hadn’t realized much of this about JN, he seems like a strong man in it for the right reasons. even if I didn’t like him I would admire the writing here. how does planet produce so much that s so good. Nichols for mayor? why not?

  6. DJ Bloom
    December 24, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    Nichols doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
    Mazzeo although questioning, is about as bright as a burnt out florescent. Lee has more hidden ethics violations and conflicts, he should be in jail but it seems no one cares.

  7. Jonathan Melle
    December 24, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    How many times will Jimmy Ruberto run for Mayor?
    2001
    2003
    2005
    2007
    2009 ….
    It seems “Mayor of Pittsfield” has become Mayor Ruberto’s second calling in his life. ….And John Barrett III’s 2nd chance at political power.

  8. rick
    December 25, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    what joe has stated about local politics being nasty is an understsement,especially with roberto. u cant be thin skinned or vindictive in ur personallity, roberto is both. so the rumors comming out of city hall,i think we can believe. because people get elected,dosent mean their good managers or even have good people skills. i think this city council became to cozy with roberto and forgot the reason why they are there…i feel for the city hall employees, their unsung jobs that keep this city running, no matter whos in office. mayors come, and mayors go. but for some reason city hall keeps going on.for this reason i think that city hall employees should be seperated from the corner office and the nastiness that reeks from that part of the building. im sure a profssional manager could make peoples life a lot better in city hall,all they want is to do their jobs that they do well.from what i hear is, between roberto and ruffer its like walking on eggshells.and if roberto is using bullying tactics in his compacity as mayor it should be brought to the forefront,and his resignation accepted.

  9. Kevin
    December 25, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    Interesting profile of an interesting man. Love that you’re giving the Eagle what for

  10. Olga
    December 26, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Dan love you column, I read recently about Paul Dowd and we all know about Ruberto, but what has happened to Tom Hickey after the PEDA project. I remember that you guys used to be friends and he used to appear on your radio show all the time . You two did radio analysis of the elections on BEC once in a while. I heard he is still in town Find out for us will you.

    • danvalenti
      December 26, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

      OLGA
      I will find out and report here. Thanks for asking. We love all of our readers. Tom has been my friend for a great number of years.

  11. Jim Gleason
    December 26, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    There is little in common between Joe and ruberto. Joe is honorable and honest, ruberto is not. Joe has ethics, ruberto doesn’t. Joe tells the truth, ruberto lies so much he believes himself. Joe speaks for the little guy, ruberto speaks for a few wealthy insiders, including Angeblow, who he called, according to you, Dan, a”good man and his friend”. You can tell a lot about people by their friends, eh?

    • danvalenti
      December 26, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

      JIM
      Your version of my quote of Mayor Ruberto regarding Angelo Stracuzzi is accurate. Stracuzzi has lost all his credibility. He is the personification of the word “disgrace.” There can be no forgiveness until he wants it. That comes only through a public apology, ‘fessing up, and asking. Then, he can begin the tall order or reclamation. Until then, it is questionable at best why Jim Ruberto sticks by this shyster.