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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.