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Boston candidates enter six-week sprint for 5th Suffolk seat

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Boston candidates enter six-week sprint for 5th Suffolk seat
Veteran political activist Karen Charles has lived most of her life in the 5th Suffolk District. She and the other candidates running for the seat have six weeks to corral voters.

With just six weeks to corral voters in a notoriously low-turnout district, the four Democratic candidates likely to run in the special election for the 5th Suffolk District have their work cut out for them.

They have until next Monday (Feb. 24) to turn in signatures for the seat. The primary, which will likely determine the victor in the solidly Democratic district, is set for April 1. And on the day of the general election, April 29, signatures for a spot on the ballot in the November election are due.

Those who have pulled nomination papers for the special election include attorney Evandro Cavalho, state official Karen Charles, sales professional Jennifer Johnson and school teacher Barry Lawton.

They will be contending for a pool of votes many expect will be significantly slimmer than the 2,023 that turned out in the 2010 election that former state Rep. Carlos Henriquez won with 719 votes, squeezing out Lawton by just 43 votes.

Because the April 1 primary will be a special election, turnout could easily be half of that seen in 2010.

With so few votes and so little time, the three declared candidates reached by the Banner last weekend were going door-to-door, active voter lists in hand, snow be damned.

“It’s a sprint,” Johnson says of the six-week push to the primary.

“The timeframe is so short, you have to have laser-focus communicating what you want to accomplish and how you want to get it accomplished,” Charles says.

“The person who wins will be the one who knocks on the most doors,” says Cavalho.

Lawton did not respond to requests for an interview.

The candidates will have to get their message across to a heterogeneous community of blacks, Cape Verdeans, Latinos and whites.

In addition to running strong grassroots campaigns, the candidates will have to have a command of the issues community residents are concerned about to inspire residents to vote, according to Paulo De Barros, chairman of the board of Cape Verdean Community Unido.

“If the candidates run exciting campaigns and address the issues people care about, it might bring people to the polls,” he said,

De Barros listed jobs, youth jobs, education and violence prevention as key issues of concern to voters in the 5th Suffolk District.

While those issues fall under the purview of city government, state officials control funding and create the laws the govern employment, education and criminal justice. A strong voice in the State House can make a big difference in the district.

Evandro Cavalho

Attorney Evandro Cavalho, a former assistant district attorney, says he wants to expand opportunities for teens in his district. Cavalho, who came to Dorchester from Cape Verde at the age of 15, graduated from Madison Park High School at the top of his class.

Born in the city of Praia on the island of Santiago in Cape Verde, Carvalho moved to Dorchester at the age of 15 to live with his mother after his father died in Cape Verde.

“I knew no English,” he says. “My mother worked three jobs just to make sure we had our basic needs met.”

Three years after arriving, Carvalho finished at the top of his class at Madison Park High School, went on to graduate from UMass Amherst and Howard University School of Law.

He practiced as an assistant district attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, working on cases in the gun court before moving on to Liberty Mutual, where he worked in claims defense before leaving to run for office.

Carvalho says he wants teens in the 5th Suffolk District to have the same opportunities he had. He says he will work to improve the education system, including vocational programs, and expand access to early education.

Noting that his mother recently moved to Brockton where housing is more affordable, Carvalho says he would like to help Bostonians earn more by supporting the current legislative push for an increase in the minimum wage.

“In Boston, the cost of living keeps going up, but incomes aren’t keeping up,” he says.

Carvalho, who volunteers with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, says he would also make affordable housing a priority.

“We need more ways for people with low and moderate incomes to buy homes in Boston,” he says.

Carvalho touts an endorsement from his mentor, former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd.

Karen Charles

Born in Toronto, Charles grew up in the 5th Suffolk District and has been working on political campaigns, including former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie’s first 1994 campaign. A member of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, Charles has been steeped in the civic life of the district for many years.

Charles’ roots in the district run deep. Her parents and grandparents lived in the district and she has lived there most of her life.

“I’m running because I’m rooted in this district,” she said. “I care about my community. This community deserves the best, and I want to help.”

Charles says she wants to work on public safety, education, mental health and strengthening the area’s business district.

She says education reform is key to improving the quality of life in the district, pointing to the Holland School, which has been slated for state takeover due to poor student performance on standardized tests.

“I want to work on taking that school off the failing list and making it one of the best schools in the Commonwealth,” she said. “Once we have a better school, it will have a direct impact on all the issues in our community.”

Jennifer Johnson

Sales professional Jennifer Johnson, who volunteers with the Dorchester Arts Collaborative and is active on the Ward 15 Democratic Committee, says she wants to work full time in the 5th Suffolk District, where she has lived since 2006.

Johnson moved to Massachusetts from Louisiana 25 years ago. She has been living in Dorchester since 2006 and is a member of the Ward 15 Democratic Committee. She worked on the mayoral campaigns of Felix G. Arroyo and Marty Walsh, making hundreds of voter contacts for each last year.

A business development manager who works in Medford and volunteers with the Dorchester Arts Collaborative and the Greater Bowdoin Geneva Neighborhood Association, Johnson says she is running because she wants to work full time on community issues.

“I’d like to be in a better role to help in the district,” she said. “Working with Felix reawakened my passion for politics and policy.”

Johnson says she would like to work on expanding economic opportunities for residents of the 5th Suffolk District.

“The greatest need a lot of people have in our districts is jobs and opportunity,” she says.

Johnson also point to factors that block people from getting jobs as issues she would like to work on, like businesses that conduct credit checks on prospective hires.

“People don’t realize they might be overlooked because they’ve gone through a hard time,” she says. “I think a lot of the issues we see in the district are people struggling with — at the bottom line they go back to lack of economic opportunity for people.”