A progressive battle for 9th Suffolk District seat
Doctor battles seasoned incumbent for votes in South End
Making the case for re-election to his 17th term in office, state Rep. Byron Rushing cites his decades of community activism and legislative leadership on progressive issues, ranging from his advocacy in the 1980s movement to divest state investments from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa to his leadership in gay rights issues.
On the other hand, making the case for new blood in the office, Boston Medical Center surgeon Jonathan Santiago expresses frustration with the slow pace of change in the state’s House of Representatives, which has held up progressive legislation that sailed through the Senate, such as a recent school funding bill and a comprehensive environmental protection bill that aimed to expand the state’s use of renewable energy.
“I think we can do better,” Santiago says. “The Senate has moved forward, but the House has not.”
Santiago is one of three progressive candidates challenging various members of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team who are up for reelection this year. Rushing is the majority whip — responsible for helping DeLeo corral votes in the House. Also facing challengers are Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez and Ways and Means Assistant Vice Chairwoman Liz Malia.
These challenges to a large extent represent a growing sense of frustration among progressive activists with the cautious approach DeLeo has taken to state government and his socially liberal but fiscally conservative stance on government that sometimes seems to differ little from Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s positions.
Rushing, however, insists there’s no major ideological differences between Santiago and himself, but more of a generation gap.
“This is not an ideological fight,” he said. “This is a fight that seems to be about a generation of progressives who feel it’s their time.”
Born in the Bronx, New York, Rushing came to Boston in 1964 to attend college. He stayed, becoming involved in community organizing. He served as president of the Museum of Afro-American history and oversaw the lobbying effort in Congress to establish the Boston African American National Historical Site.
Since his election in 1982, Rushing has been a member of various iterations of what is now the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus and the Black and Latino Caucus.
He has championed affordable housing, organizing the entity that is now the Madison Park Development Corporation and advocating for mixed-income developments in his district such as Langham Court and Roxbury Corners through the South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative, which pioneered a one-third affordable, one-third moderate-income and one-third market-rate model for development on public land.
Santiago, born in Puerto Rico, spent part of his childhood in Roxbury before his family moved to Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, joined the Peace Corps, serving in the Dominican Republic, graduated from the Yale School of Medicine and has since served as an emergency medicine doctor at Boston Medical Center.
He says his medical experience inspired in him a desire to get to the roots of the problems that land teenagers in the emergency room with gunshot wounds and drug users with overdoses.
“It taught me that if we don’t get at the social causes of health disparities, we’re not going to effect change,” he said. “You end up seeing the same people cycling through the emergency room. If we don’t get to the social determinants of health, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Santiago points to the opioid crisis, which has seen people from across the state who are struggling with addiction converge on the methadone clinics and shelters in the Newmarket area, which lies squarely in the 9th Suffolk District. Users who at times collapse on the front stoops of South End buildings end up in the emergency room at Boston Medical Center.
“When you look at who’s leading on this issue on Beacon Hill, it’s the Republican governor,” Santiago says. “I make the case that the person who should be leading on this issue is the representative of the 9th Suffolk District.”
Rushing notes that he has regularly attended neighborhood meetings in which residents have sought to strategize around the impact of the opioid crisis in his district. He suggests the key to changing the way the crisis is dealt with is to convince doctors to treat it as a disease, giving patients better access to methadone, rather than channeling them to specific facilities.
“You can’t give me an example of another disease where people have to go somewhere to get medicine and show up at a certain time,” he said. “Can you imagine diabetics being treated that way? We should be talking about how do we service them in the places where they are.”
It’s been 20 years since Rushing has faced a challenger, so fundraising, assembling a campaign team and recruiting volunteers hasn’t come easy.
But with solid ties to his fellow elected officials and decades of community activism under his belt, Rushing has been able to assemble the makings of a campaign. At a June 25 fundraiser held at the Columbus Avenue restaurant, Shun’s Kitchen, Rushing was introduced by colleagues Jay Livingstone and Aaron Michlewitz from the state Legislature and At-large City Councilor Michelle Wu.
Santiago lacks the high-profile endorsements, but has a fierce ground game, having reached the door of every registered voter in the district before the end of May. His campaign has knocked on more than 5,000 doors. He himself has knocked on 3,000 in the district, which includes Kenmore Square, the parts of the Fenway, stretches through the Back Bay to Berkeley Street, much of the South End, Widett Circle, the Newmarket area, and extends into Dudley Square in Roxbury.
As a majority whip, Rushing has been in the midst of a busy legislative session. When the session concludes at the end of July, Rushing will have just one month for full-time campaigning, with the state’s primary election date moved up to Sept. 4 to avoid the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays on Sept. 11 and 19.