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Two special elections could up diversity in state Legislature

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Two special elections could up diversity in state Legislature
Shayna Barnes

Five years after the Commonwealth redrew districts to increase the impact of voters of color, the state Legislature is not much more diverse. Two special elections this winter could help change that. A House race in Brockton and a Senate seat race in the First Suffolk and Middlesex district have the potential to send legislators of color to the State House.

“[The new districts] were not created to be ignored,” but rather to encourage greater political involvement of people of color, emphasized Russell Holmes, state representative and chair of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus.

Majority-minority

Every ten years, the state is required to redraw district lines to reflect changes in the population.

The 2010 census revealed a sharply rising minority population in Massachusetts — the number of blacks increased by 26 percent, while Latino and Asians increased by 46 percent, according to CommonWealth magazine. The ensuing 2011 redistricting doubled the number of majority-minority House districts — districts whose populations are primarily not non-white Hispanics — from ten to 20, leaving 140 districts majority white. Of the 40 Senate districts, three are now majority-minority.

Currently, the state’s Black and Latino Caucus comprises 13 members. The impact of a membership size more reflective of the population would be substantial, Holmes said.

Brockton race

Shayna Barnes

Focus is now on a fast-upcoming special election to fill the House seat for the 9th Plymouth district, containing a swath of Brockton. With the only Republican contender, Danny Yoon, failing to meet nomination process deadlines, the Democratic primary election will decide the race — barring a major write-in campaign effort. Three Democratic candidates are competing for the Feb. 2 party primary, and the winner will be formalized in the March 1 general election.

The candidates: Shayna Barnes, at-large Brockton city councilor; Shirley Asack, Ward 7 city councilor; and Gerry Cassidy, former city councilor and former long-time aide to Ted Kennedy.

The district was 68.6 percent minority in 2011, according to state data. If elected, Shayna Barnes — already the first African American woman on Brockton’s city council — would be the first African American woman to represent Brockton in the House.

Currently, nine of the 20 majority-minority districts have representatives of color, Holmes said.

“The seat Shayna is running for down in Brockton is of great interest,” he said.

Minority representation in Brockton

Racial and gender diversity in Brockton politics has been growing in the past several years, but still has far to go, said Allyne Pecevich, longtime Brockton resident and state Democratic Committee member.

“We’ve begun to have a better representation of the community on our boards and commissions and city council, and that’s really been the last five or ten years,” she said.

In 2013 — the year Shayna Barnes was elected to city council — Brockton residents also elected their first Cape Verdean council member, Moises Rodrigues.

Personal insight on minority concerns is among the elements making her a compelling candidate, Barnes said.

“Fundamentally, being a black woman brings an inherent familiarity to the issues in the community. I am the only candidate that can identify with all the residents of the 9th Plymouth district in one way or another,” she said. “The fact that I am of color is just another layer in my ability to represent the residents as we should be represented.”

Her approach to one issue she hopes to tackle — wage equity —is in part shaped by her experiences, she said.

“Wage equality issues — being a woman of color, this is something I’ve faced head-on. I am poised to use my personal experiences to advocate for prevailing wages and equal pay for equal work.”

Gerry Cassidy

Challenges for candidates of color

People of color have traditionally been less prevalent in political positions, which can present challenges for minority candidates, Holmes said. They may not have the advantages of a family legacy in politics and a last name that garners voter recognition, or not have as extensive networks of connections or mentors who can pass on institutional knowledge.

“We have not been in the Legislature working as staff, we traditionally don’t have the fundraising that comes with many folks who are not of color,” he said. “Some of it is just institutional knowledge. Names [as well]. People get familiar with names and families and that obviously runs as a barrier.”

Exacerbating that: Many positions, Holmes said, have gone to people who worked as an aide or staff member for the person vacating the seat.

Barnes has surmounted some of these barriers. Her successful 2013 and 2015 city council campaigns grant her a level of name recognition. An extra advantage: She ran on a citywide level, not for a particular ward, which provided her wider visibility. Barnes also is district representative for Congressman Stephen Lynch.

But competition is stiff, Holmes said: “[One is a] city councilor already and the other has strong institutional support — I think it’s going to be a nail-biter, no doubt.”

Where candidates stand

For campaign manager, Barnes calls upon Tamika Jacques, who ran her past city council campaigns. She also has been endorsed by several officials: Holmes, Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, former Brockton at-large City Councillor Jass Stewart and Congressman Stephen Lynch. In her last election she secured more than 5,600 votes, Barnes said.

Each candidate is running an entirely volunteer campaign. Gerry Cassidy estimated he has about 50 volunteers; other candidates declined to name a figure.

Cassidy’s campaign manager is Carolyn Cruise, who had run the campaign for Brockton State Rep. Claire Cronin. Cassidy worked on the late state Sen. Tom Kennedy’s campaigns during his 28 years as the senator’s aide and his own campaigns for Brockton city councilor, a position he held from 2000-2003.

His past work and networking helps boost his current candidacy; he said he gained many connections and friendships during his time as a senate aide.

“I was city councillor here in Brockton a number of years ago. I still have quite a few connections, relatives, family, friends, teachers, the whole nine yards,” he said. “I used to work for Senator Tom Kennedy. A lot of his organization is working on my campaign also.”

Cassidy has been endorsed by at least ten labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, Massachusetts Nurses Association and Brockton Firefighters Local 144, as well as by several city councilors and state representatives, he said.

Shirley Asack ran her city council campaign unopposed. Her campaign manager is Tony Branch, who previously served as volunteer co-director on Martha Coakley’s gubernatorial campaign. She said some small local community groups have endorsed her, but that her focus has been on voter outreach instead.

“Endorsements are great, but I’m really focusing on the voters and the people of the 9th Plymouth district,” she said.

On Monday, candidates were required to file reports with the Office of Campaign Finance on their campaign finances during Jan. 5 2014 – Jan. 15 2016. Cassidy, who began with no initial campaign funds, received $24,740 and spent approximately $11,500. Barnes started with nearly $580, received almost $4,600 and spent approximately $1,300. Asack said her campaign ran several successful fundraisers. According to her filing, she started with approximately $5,140, did not receive funds during this time period and spent $3,060.

Shirley Asack

Difficulties of this race

Candidates, officials and others predicted that a combination of inconveniences will depress voter turnout.

The unusual timing of special elections catch people by surprise: Barnes said she found many people were unaware an election was occurring. In this case, the seat became vacant in November, an inopportune time, as candidacy announcements then were issued during the distraction of holiday season, Asack said.

Further complications: There are no other issues on the ballot to draw people out and harsh winter will likely make travel difficult for the elderly, Pecevich said. Barnes added that many voters already are overwhelmed from a string of previous elections and referendums in Brockton.

Voter turnout expectations range from 10 to 20 percent. Holmes said that, given turnout for the past two primaries for this seat, he expected 1,800-2,000 votes to be cast, and that 850-900 votes could win it.

“With three candidates and a low turnout it could be anybody’s ball game,” state Democratic Committee member Allyne Pecevich said.

Senate race

A special election also is slated for the First Suffolk and Middlesex district. Candidates’ nomination papers are not due until March 1, so the political field may change. Currently, there are several candidates of color: Lydia Edwards, Equal Justice Works fellow with Greater Boston Legal Services, who is black; Diana Hwang, founder and executive director of the Asian-American Women’s Political Initiative, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan; and Dennis Benzan, departing Cambridge vice mayor, whose parents immigrated to the mainland from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Other candidates include Dan Rizzo, former Revere mayor; Joseph Boncore, an attorney from Winthrop; and Jay Livingstone, 8th Suffolk District state representative.

Holmes said members of the Black and Latino Caucus have focused strategy on encouraging people of color to run in districts that are majority-minority, and on vacated seats instead of tackling incumbents, seeing those races are more likely wins. Running in an approximately 60 percent non-Hispanic white district, minority candidates face steeper challenges to victory, Holmes said. But that does not mean they cannot win, he added.