Lydia Edwards vies for city council seat
Housing official aims to represent the North End, East Boston, Charlestown
East Boston’s Lydia Edwards is hitting the streets as she campaigns for Boston City Council. Like most district candidates, she is laser-focused on door knocking and meeting residents face to face.
“All the funds in the world don’t account for, don’t equal the handshake and the look in the eye of a candidate to a constituent. I stand firmly by door knocking,” Edwards said in a recent Banner phone interview.
Edwards is one of three candidates competing to become District 1’s city councilor. She brings with her a background of advocacy in areas such as domestic and immigrant workers’ rights and support for residents facing housing crises. Now she looks to advocate for East Boston, Charlestown and the North End on the city council floor.
Edwards is the current deputy director of the city’s Office of Housing Stability, where she is charged with advancing supports for Boston’s residents facing rental housing emergencies, such as evictions and landlord-tenant disputes. She will face off in the September 26 preliminary against East Boston’s Margaret Farmer, president of Jeffries Point Neighborhood Coalition for the past five years, as well as North End’s Stephen Passacantilli, the director of operations for the Boston Transportation Department as well as a former aide to the current District 1 councilor, Sal LaMattina, and to Mayor Martin Walsh. Voters will select between the top two candidates in the November 7 election.
Two earlier contenders withdrew candidacy in May: Michael Sinatra, who is LaMattina’s chief of staff; and Jack Kelly III, a policy advisor to City Councilor Bill Linehan.
This is not Edwards’ first look at political office. In 2016, she made an impression with her campaign to represent East Boston, the North End, Revere and Beacon Hill in the state Senate.
“She quickly made herself known by doing on-the-ground, old-fashioned campaigning,” said Mary Ellen Welch, a longtime East Boston community advocate.
Although Edwards was unsuccessful — she placed fourth out of seven candidates in the Democratic primary — many in East Boston took notice.
“Here’s a newcomer to the political scene and she showed so many people that she was good that she won East Boston,” Welch recounted. “She has a lot of talent, is extremely well-educated and stands strongly for a lot of good issues.”
Previously, Edwards was a public interest lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, and she has been an advocate for immigrant and domestic worker rights, including helping write Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Over the years she has garnered recognition, including being named a 2017 “Game Changer” by the Boston Globe and receiving 2015 Bostonian of the Year honorable mention. Now after a year tackling housing issues in City Hall, she is back on the campaign trail.
District 1 comprises the North End — Boston’s Little Italy— as well as Charlestown and East Boston. Charlestown is primarily white and East Boston’s population is more than half Hispanic, according to Statistical Atlas. East Boston has traditionally been an Italian-American stronghold, and voters from that community have long dominated the politics there.
Across the different neighborhoods, Edwards says one issue unites them all — assuring that development fits the community’s needs and is not done at the expense of current residents. East Boston often wrestles with its proximity to the expanding Logan airport and now faces rising development pressures. The North End struggles for enforcement of zoning ordinances to protect the neighborhood character and the waterfront. Charlestown faces many development pressures in part due to the arriving Everett casino, the One Charlestown project and the North Washington Street Bridge, she said.
“All those are concerning to the neighborhood and the preservation of community and how you can pressure us out or protect us.” Edwards said in a Banner phone interview. “We are a city of neighborhoods. That’s what makes Boston distinct.”
Should she be elected, Edwards says she plans to fight to protect community character during times of development. Her campaign website also lists as priorities the promotion of more homeownership opportunities, with proposed tactics including incentives for homeowners to sell at below-market rates, and supports for land trusts, cooperative ownership methods and rent-to-own programs.
Other issues listed include a resident parking pass pilot program as well as more cyclist-friendly infrastructure; providing residents more participatory budgeting opportunities; and increasing school art, vocational education and afterschool programs.
Along with Edwards’ package of local concerns, her prior work on broad-ranging issues also has attracted attention. Welch said she was drawn to Edwards’ advocacy on issues that may not always seem politically risk-free — such as standing up to developers to demand affordable housing — and her tackling of issues that extend beyond neighborhood’s borders, such as opposition to human trafficking and promotion of domestic workers’ rights. Such advocacy would reflect well on constituents’ characters, Welch said.
“I think Lydia would be a person who would gain additional respect for the community,” Welch said.
Among the groups who have endorsed Edwards are Planned Parenthood, the Boston Teachers Union, SEIU Local 88, 32BJ SEIU and Sen. Joe Boncore, who she ran against in 2016.
To get the word out, Edwards says she is going door to door, performing phone calls, holding meet and greets and seeking to make a personal connection. At times her team helps residents register to vote.
While endorsements help raise awareness, being on the ground is topmost, Edwards says. She is determined to take the time to reach everyone she can, which can mean she and volunteers often return to visit the same areas for additional conversations and make themselves available for constituents to call with questions.
“I won’t dismiss any people as ‘they don’t vote,’” Edwards said. “That goes against my moral fiber.”
About 100 volunteers have turned out each weekend since April, as well as volunteers during the week to door knock. Her volunteers include speakers of different languages and printed material is provided in Spanish, Chinese and English. Edwards herself learned Spanish and Portuguese while doing organizing work with immigrants.
Edwards’ recent Senate seat bid raised her visibility in East Boston and the North End. Now she’s focusing more effort and energy on reaching out to Charlestown, which was not part of that campaign, to introduce herself and her issue areas.
While the previous race was a special election, this council campaign allows Edwards the normal time frame. That means a lot more conversations, a lot more coffees with residents, a lot more opportunities to meet people individually and to answer more questions, she said.
The greatest challenge? Summer. During this season, it is difficult to compete for people’s attention, and those who are following politics have their eyes on DC, Edwards said. In general, there is a need to get across how strongly the city council can impact residents’ daily lives.