Black and Latino Caucus growing in clout, membership
Members coordinate legislative initiatives
At A Glance
Key events in the history of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus:
1867 – First African Americans elected to Mass. Legislature begin terms: Edwin Garrison Walker of Charlestown and Charles Lewis Mitchell of Boston.
1973 – Massachusetts Legislative Black Caucus forms
1973 – Doris Bunte becomes first African American woman to serve in Massachusetts Legislature
1975 – Bill Owens becomes first African American to serve in Massachusetts Senate
1989 – Nelson Merced becomes first Latino to serve in Massachusetts Legislature
1999 – Marie St. Fleur becomes first Haitian American to serve in Massachusetts Legislature
2003 – Jarrett Barrios becomes first Latino elected to Massachusetts Senate
2009 – Caucus changes name to Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus
Last week members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus met with Gov. Charlie Baker, discussing their legislative priorities and weighing in on the mid-year budget cuts the governor is mulling to bridge a deficit estimated at $768 million.
After a closed-door huddle in the governor’s office, the caucus members, along with Baker, fielded questions on their priorities.
“The biggest issue we talked about was the Springfield office,” Rep. Russell Holmes, chairman of the caucus, told reporters. “We have four members from the area. The concern by many of the delegation was to make sure that office is a vibrant office, one where folks from the western part of the state don’t have to come into Boston to solve their issues. The governor and his staff were very attentive to make sure that is addressed.”
The meeting was remarkable not only because of the issues discussed — budget cuts, the caucus’ legislative priorities — but also for the fact it took place at all. In the not-so-distant past, caucus members were fewer in number and not always well-disposed to work together.
A unified beginning
When the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus was established in January 1973, its founding members — Representatives Royal Bolling Jr., Doris Bunte, Bill Owens and Mel King — found common ground on pressing issues facing the black community in the Greater Boston area: employment, affirmative action, housing, human services and economic development.
By the 1990s, however, the unity of the early days had fractured in the wake of divisive electoral cycles that pitted past members against each other.
“At the beginning everybody had pretty much the same politics,” said Rep. Byron Rushing, who began serving in 1983. “What created the most tension is when we began beating each other.”
The electoral divisions were alive and well in the 1992 race for the 2nd Suffolk Senate District in which Dianne Wilkerson unseated former Sen. Roy Owens. The divisions proved fatal for the Black Political Task Force, a community organization that effectively folded after that election.
Caucus unity hit a low point when Wilkerson, then the highest-ranking member, quietly exited the body amid the infighting of the 2000s.
In 2009, the Caucus expanded its name to acknowledge the Latino representatives who were then members — Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Reps. Cheryl Coakley Rivera, Jeffrey Sanchez and William Lantigua.
“I think it made sense to expand our power base,” said Rep. Ben Swan, who represents Springfield’s 11th Hampden District. “A lot of our constituencies overlap. It strengthens the caucus.”
The move was by no means revolutionary. Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island have long had black-Latino caucuses. And Black Caucus members advocated for legislators to re-draw the 5th Suffolk District in Dorchester so a Latino activist, Nelson Merced, could win, becoming the first Latino to serve in the House in 1989. But until the name change, Latinos always had to claim African heritage to join the Caucus.
Rushing said legislators of Asian descent were invited to join as well, but none save Chang-Diaz, whose father is of Chinese and Costa Rican heritage, have opted in.
The caucus now has more Latino members than non-Latinos.
Another important shift came in 2010 when newly-elected representatives Holmes and Carlos Henriquez began organizing bi-weekly meetings with Caucus members and black and Latino local elected officials.
“We all knew each other,” Holmes said. “We began to work through issues together, to understand each other’s perspectives, even if we didn’t agree. We all come to an issue from a different perspective. But we stay together. We are stronger together than we are apart.”
The meetings with local elected officials of color and Boston legislators have continued for the last four years, even after Henriquez’s departure last year.
“We’ve done it in the most consistent way,” Holmes said.
13 members strong
The Caucus now has 13 members representing Boston, Springfield, Lawrence and Holyoke. The group is more heterogeneous than ever before, notes Rep. Gloria Fox, first elected in 1985.
“We represent African Americans, Haitians, Dominicans, Cape Verdeans — we have a diverse group representing all communities of color in Massachusetts,” she said. “The Black Caucus is as strong as it’s ever been. It’s strengthened by the new people who have joined in and held together by the folks who have been here all along.”
The approach Holmes and Henriquez brought to the Caucus — working to find common ground on often divisive issues — has helped foster cohesion among the new members.
“We’re tight,” said Rep. Evandro Carvalho. “We are united. We are organized. We have infrastructure. We’re working together to do what’s best for our communities.”
While the Caucus membership represents a small sliver of the 160 House members and 40 senators in the 200-person Legislature, the group’s unity, institutional memory and laser-like focus on urban issues give the members an edge.
“Having both House and Senate members helps us strategize and move legislation into the Senate,” said Rep. Aaron Vega, a former Holyoke city councilor. “There are some issues we work on that are minority-specific, but the reality is that most of our concerns affect the entire Commonwealth. Black and Latino issues are community issues.”
Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a former President of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in Springfield, says current Caucus members welcomed him with open arms when he entered the house in January.
“It’s a great opportunity to have the wealth of knowledge that comes from people who represent the same kinds of community I come from,” he said. “Their insight and experience is very helpful as I start my legislative career.”
In the coming legislative session, caucus members will likely play a key role in any debate over police reforms. Caucus members introduced legislation calling for police departments to make public their data on the race of pedestrians and motorists stopped and for independent investigators to probe police abuse and police shootings.
In 2012, Caucus members were able to push through reductions in mandatory minimum sentences while fighting against the Legislature’s controversial three-strikes law. While the law ultimately passed, Holmes says Caucus members were able to blunt its impact and secure important concessions, including reducing the size of school zones, which can trigger mandatory sentences, from 1,000 feet to 300 feet, and increasing sentencing reductions for good behavior.
“There were many components to this bill that we made better,” he said. “It literally meant that hundreds of folks from our neighborhood could come home. It was all of us working together.”