An intergenerational fight is on to succeed Marie St. Fleur as the state representative for parts of Dorchester and Roxbury.
Four Democrats from three different generations will compete in the Sept. 14 primary in the 5th Suffolk district, which St. Fleur, 48, represented for 11 years before resigning in June to join Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration. She was the first Haitian-American to serve in the Massachusetts Legislature.
Like St. Fleur, Barry O. Lawton, 54, is a Baby Boomer born in the two decades after the end of World War II. The veteran teacher in Boston high schools has run for the legislative seat twice before, losing in the 1999 and 1988 primaries.
The upcoming Generation X is represented by Carlos Henriquez, 33, a member of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s board who unsuccessfully challenged City Councilor Chuck Turner last year and in 2005. Two perennial candidates, Althea Garrison, 69, and Roy Owens, 64, are members of the generation that preceded the Baby Boom. Garrison previously held the legislative seat, as a Republican, for two years in the early 1990s.
Compared to their white peers, black elected officials from Boston tend to be older, with fewer members of the Generation X among them. Limited political opportunity to move into higher office appears to be one reason for the slow changeover to younger leaders.
The first forum for the 5th Suffolk candidates was held last week at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, with only Lawton and Henriquez participating. Garrison and Owens were no-shows, as was the Republican candidate, Sean Malloy.
Lawton, a social studies teacher at East Boston High School, came off as the more polished campaigner. He emphasized his experience as a former legislative aide, city council staffer and state official back in the Dukakis administration.
“I am running because we need a voice, a trained voice,” Lawton said at the Aug. 24 forum. “I have trained for over 30 years for this position.”
He also made what could be interpreted as an indirect criticism of St. Fleur, who defeated Lawton in the 1999 primary. He said political participation in the district is low mainly because “we have not had leadership that has responded to our community. We have not had leadership to put forth a vision to lead this community forward.”
Henriquez, also a former city council aide, was lower-key. He repeatedly pointed to his work through the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to address the area’s problems with affordable housing and employment, and to prepare youth for a productive future.
“It has taught me how to work well with others of all different, ages, races, ethnicities,” said Henriquez, invoking the kind of collaboration that activist black members of his generation in Boston claim as their hallmark.
“I have hands-on leadership,” he said. “I have already built those working relationships that we need” in City Hall and the Legislature.
Lawton vowed to build coalitions with legislators from Lowell, New Bedford, Worcester and Springfield to pass legislation that addresses urban problems that those cities share with the Dorchester and Roxbury.
He frequently expressed indignation about youth violence, inadequate public transit and environmental conditions in the district. While stating his support for Gov. Deval Patrick, Lawton suggested his administration has shortchanged Dorchester and Roxbury in distributing federal stimulus funds.
“How much of that stimulus money has been spent here? I haven’t seen it. Have you?” Lawton said, skeptically. “I haven’t seen it generate one job. I haven’t seen it improve one thing.”
Later in the forum, Henriquez noted the stimulus money is funding construction on the Fairmount commuter rail line. “We are getting four new stops in Dorchester,” he said.
Lawton was also critical of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” education program, which he said requires schools to restructure and students to take a national test that “lowers the standards for us, quite frankly.”
Asked to list his five top priorities for the district, Lawton omitted jobs, except summer ones for youth. Henriquez did include employment — “we can not just talk about summer jobs for teenagers” — but he identified only four priorities. Both mentioned education, housing and public safety.
Henriquez cited his role, through the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, in closely monitoring the hiring for construction jobs on the nearly-completed Kroc Corps Community Center in the Dudley Street/Upham’s Corner area. He said more minorities, city residents and women have been hired than required under the city’s mandate.
Lawton entered the race earlier, in March, four months before Henriquez formally announced his candidacy. Lawton appears to have the better organized campaign and has collected a number of labor endorsements, including those of the city’s teachers, firefighters and electrical workers.
Henriquez, who is black and Latino, has enlisted two 2009 candidates for at-large seats on the City Council, Tomás Gonzalez and Andrew Kenneally, to handle his field operations and campaign messages. Henriquez also has the advantage of having had his name on the ballot more recently than Lawton, in at least part of the legislative district.
In his final statement, Lawton adopted the posture of a presumptive winner over the younger Henriquez as well as the older Garrison and Owens.
“I want to thank Carlos for running. I’m proud of you. You’ve made me run harder. You’re an investment in our future,” Lawton said.
In his closing, Henriquez turned his graciousness in another direction. He thanked Lawton and the other candidates for running “because it does improve our civic engagement.”