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An idealistic challenger takes on a pragmatic incumbent in J.P./Mission Hill district

Jamaica Plain activists find fault with Sánchez’s ties to legislative leadership

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
An idealistic challenger takes on a pragmatic incumbent in J.P./Mission Hill district
State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is counting on support from Mission Hill voters. Banner Photo

Perched at a picnic table at Mission Hill Playground, state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez sits at the center of civic life of his old neighborhood. To his right is the towering puddingstone and granite Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where as a child he served as weekend sacristan, opening the church for services, cleaning its floors, polishing candelabras and assisting priests with Mass.

Behind him is the rebuilt Mission Main public housing development where he grew up and watched his mother and other neighborhood elders organize for better living conditions.

Although Sánchez now lives in the high-voter-turnout Moss Hill section of Jamaica Plain on the far side of Jamaica Pond, when asked where his electoral base is strongest he replies, “Right here,” without hesitation. He spends much of his time and much of his legislative capital on the Mission Hill side of the 15th Suffolk/Norfolk District, and many of the legislative victories he cites are aimed at the residents of the neighborhood, including the passage of a $1.8 billion bond bill for the creation of affordable housing in Massachusetts.

“I am a product of this community,” he says. “My entire life is dedicated to figuring out how we do better.”

Nika Elugardo at her Sheridan Street home. Banner Photo

Nika Elugardo at her Sheridan Street home. Banner Photo

The challenger

While Sánchez prepares for a meeting in Mission Hill, a mile to the south, in Hyde Square, candidate Nika Elugardo makes fundraising calls from her apartment in a Sheridan Street triple-decker. Elugardo, who came to Boston from Cincinnati and graduated from MIT in 1995, has worked as a senior policy advisor to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, and most recently founded anti-youth violence and education programs at the Emmanuel Gospel Center in the South End.

Elugardo says she decided to challenge Sánchez because she is frustrated with the slow pace of progressive change in Massachusetts and the apparent unwillingness of legislators to pass measures such as the Safe Communities Act to counter the Trump administration agenda.

Sánchez, she notes, was given a C+ grade by the group Progressive Massachusetts.

“I love that Sánchez has mastered the old school game,” she says, alluding to his role on House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team. “But it’s a game we as people of color cannot afford to play. It’s a plantation model, where if you can get favor with the master, you can come into the house.”

All too often, Elugardo says, those who obtain favor with the Legislature are the powerful and connected.

“How are we giving half-a-million dollars in tax credits to the biotech industry when we can’t fund higher ed?” she says. “It’s never been working for us.”

Elugardo is one of several left-leaning Boston candidates challenging incumbent Democratic representatives this year. Other Boston reps who are members of DeLeo’s leadership team — Majority Whip Byron Rushing and Assistant Vice Chair of Ways and Means Liz Malia are also facing progressive challengers. Like the other insurgents, Elugardo seems poised to ride a rising tide of ire directed at DeLeo’s often-cautious approach to progressive legislation.

The incumbent

For his part, Sánchez is relying on a base of support he has built over the last 15 years through attention to constituent needs and his growing ability to deliver the spoils of political power to his district. For many in the district, his ability to deliver matters.

Ken Tangvik, who works in a Hyde Square nonprofit, says Sánchez has focused much of his attention in areas of greatest need in the district, like the Bromley Heath public housing development, where the legislator has helped bring in needed services.

“The hours he’s put in, working with tenants, the Boston Housing Authority and the police have made a difference,” Tangvik said. “He’s brought a lot of resources in. His rise to leadership is a tremendous opportunity for the neighborhood.”

Progressive territory

The 15th Suffolk District goes as far north as Mission Main, includes all of Mission Hill, follows the Southwest Corridor park to just shy of Green Street, includes the Pondside and Moss Hill sections of Jamaica Plain, goes a bit south of Roslindale Square and loops in the Whiskey Point neighborhood of Brookline and a section of Chestnut Hill.

The Boston precincts, in Wards 10, 11 and 19, are among the most progressive-voting in the city. Voters in those precincts are often vocal about the big-picture legislative battles on Beacon Hill. In April of last year, when Sánchez held a meeting in Mission Hill, a contingent of constituents from Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and Brookline angrily pressed him to take a stand on a criminal justice reform bill proposed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.

“I am not the master of these issues,” Sánchez was quoted in the Mission Hill Gazette, adding that his expertise was more in housing and public health. “I have not signed onto any criminal justice bills because I want to be thoughtful about it, and give myself some time. I owe it to my constituents to be thoughtful.”

Sánchez voted for the final version of the criminal justice reform legislation advanced by the House in November.

While some constituents express appreciation for Sánchez’s deliberative approach to legislating, Elugardo says it’s emblematic of his relationship to DeLeo, the bête noire of the progressive movement. Rather than supporting progressive legislation once it’s been vetted by legislative leaders, Elugardo says Sánchez ought to have advocated for the bill from the start, as did other members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, both of which he belongs to.

“What keeps you as a representative of one of the most progressive districts from standing up for issues?” Elugardo says, listing single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and driver’s licenses for undocumented residents as issues that have strong support in the district. “He checks in with the speaker first, to see if he’s cool with it. He doesn’t depart from DeLeo on anything controversial. Ever.”

Like many other legislators, Sánchez voted to abolish term limits for the House speaker, a move that has kept DeLeo in power, much to the chagrin of progressives across the state.

“[DeLeo] controls his position as speaker by handing out chairmanships and leadership positions,” says Jamaica Plain resident Heshan Berents-Weeramuni. “It’s absurd that he has that much power.”

Berents-Weeramuni says he lost patience with Sánchez over his 2014 vote to lift the cap on charter schools as part of legislation that was ultimately defeated in the Senate.

For some Jamaica Plain residents, the power Sánchez has amassed and his loyalty to the people in his district, as well as the nonprofits and public housing developments that serve them, is too much to throw away.

“For the first time in years we have a progressive in leadership who can come through and deliver things,” says Jamaica Plain resident Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods advocacy group. “I know his work. I’ve watched him do what he’s said he’s going to do.”

Small, however, acknowledges that Sánchez rubs some constituents the wrong way.

“He’s not warm and fuzzy,” he said. “White progressives have issues with him.”

Elugardo and Sánchez have 11 weeks to make their cases to voters before they face off in the Sept. 4 primary.