A spirited Democratic primary contest for the open 6th Suffolk state representative seat promises to yield fresh leadership in the district and up at the Statehouse.
Stretching from Codman Square to Blue Hill Avenue across the southern tier of Dorchester to Mattapan, the House district includes a smattering of precincts in Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. The 6th Suffolk is also ground zero for some of the toughest social and economic challenges in the city, with a high crime rate, high unemployment and few thriving businesses.
A five-way race for the Democratic primary nomination on Sept. 14 will produce the winner, as no Republican will appear on the Nov. 2 final election ballot.
The top-tier candidates in the race all promise to bring greater dynamism to the district, which traded hands between the Bolling and Owens political dynasties before former Boston School Committee member Willie Mae Allen took over from Shirley Owens-Hicks in 2006.
After Allen announced her retirement, a set of fresh political faces stepped forward to run, offering various prescriptions to address public safety, education and economic development woes plaguing the district, one of Boston’s poorest.
The candidates include Russell Holmes, a financial adviser and community activist; Darrin Howell, an aide to Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner; and Karen Payne, a health care consultant who recently headed the Boston branch of the NAACP. Also running lower-profile campaigns are Kathy Gabriel and justice of the peace Divo Monteiro.
While the 6th Suffolk historically has low voter turnout, the 2006 governor’s race and a heated primary contest between Allen and former Boston Police Superintendent Billy Celester drew more than 5,000 voters to the polls from a population of about 40,000.
Dorchester’s Ward 14 Democratic Committee, which covers more area in the 6th Suffolk than any other, has made no endorsement in the contest. Neither has neighboring Ward 17 for the simple reason that in a city where ward leaders often use political connections to secure public sector jobs, the ward is inactive, its chairmanship vacant.
Holmes, 41, was born in Mississippi but has lifelong ties to Boston, having grown up between his mother’s home in Mound Bayou and his father’s in Dorchester. He graduated from Hyde Park High and Boston University, served as chairman of the Mattapan Economic Development Initiative and helped bring a new library to the neighborhood.
Hoping to spur greater business activity by improving the area’s transportation infrastructure, he has advocated for a new rapid transit bus line, Route 28X. The lack of interest in the project by local elected officials convinced the Wellington Hill resident to take the political plunge and bring new leadership to the district.
“We need people in office with business perspective and not just political perspective,” said Holmes, who earned an MBA from Northeastern University. “We need people who understand both the positive and negative aspects of the district and can build on our potential while attacking problems at their root.”
Howell, 28, touts his constituent service experience in Turner’s City Hall office for giving him the foundation to effectively represent the district on Beacon Hill. Experience of another kind, a jail term for firearms possession seven years ago, also gives him the perspective needed to address youth gang violence and crime plaguing the neighborhood where he grew up, he said.
“I am not only in tune with the struggles this community faces — having faced these troubles myself — I know how to connect people to different resources,” Howell said. “I’m not just the typical candidate. I know what people are facing, having been CORI-challenged until Councilor Turner gave me a second chance.”
Howell called recent CORI reform legislation a good first step but said offenders who have stayed out of trouble should be able not just to seal their records, but to expunge them.
“Employers can still see the full list of charges if they want to and that will affect people’s job prospects,” he said.
Howell, who has been conducting an aggressive grassroots campaign, said residents of the neighborhoods south of Franklin Field have been surprised to answer their doors to find him asking for their vote. “People aren’t used to candidates out there walking door to door. I understand the imagery associated with this neighborhood, but to me, it’s home,” he said.
Payne grew up in a politically active church family in Hartford, Conn., and moved to Boston more than 25 years ago to work as a radiologist at the New England Medical Center. The immediate past president of the Boston NAACP, she also serves as co-chair of the Ward 19 Democratic Committee.
Her credentials as a ward leader and member of the Democratic State Committee helped her earn a wide swath of endorsements, including the backing of outgoing state Rep. Willie Mae Allen, Democratic state Reps. Alice Wolf of Cambridge and Gloria Fox of Roxbury, and Boston City Councilors Rob Consalvo, John Tobin and Maureen Feeney.
On Beacon Hill, Payne intends to strengthen access to health care under the reform law, increase funding for drop-out prevention programs and expand training programs for job opportunities in nursing, electrical and plumbing trades, and other professions that can’t be outsourced.
“These are the jobs we can fill — the middle-skilled jobs that will be available in the years to come,” said the Roslindale Square resident. “First and foremost, this is what the people of the 6th Suffolk District need — jobs.”
The key to those jobs, she added, is education, and cited her experience as a consultant and volunteer working on drop-out prevention and retention programs as preparation for legislative work.
Election observers credit Payne with having won significant institutional support in her primary bid while noting Howell’s network of young activists, drawn from Turner’s base, spreading across the district in a ground campaign of unusual scope for a 6th Suffolk contest.
Political operative Joyce Ferriabough, unaligned in the race, said the test for Payne will be whether an openly lesbian candidate can win support in a district with numerous socially conservative churches that balked at the onset of gay marriage in Massachusetts.
“It remains to be seen whether a gay candidate with a strong base in Ward 19 and Jamaica Plain can expand her support to the Bible Belt of Dorchester,” she said.
Payne said her sexuality was not an issue in the race. “I am running to represent all the voters of the district — every one of them,” she said. “My focus will be on the issues and the work that needs to be done.”
Article updated Sept. 2nd - Joyce Ferriabough endorses Karen Payne in the primary.