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Candidates face off in JP Progressives debate

Sanchez, Elugardo spar in packed Jamaica Plain church

Catherine McGloin
Candidates face off in JP Progressives debate
State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez and challenger Nika Elugardo at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain. Photo: Chris Lovett

State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez faced challenger Nika Elugardo as the two candidates in this year’s 15th Suffolk District primary debated important issues facing voters, including jobs, education and the environment Monday night.

By 7p.m. a long line of residents from across the district, which includes parts of Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roslindale and Brookline, snaked around the driveway of the First Baptist Church on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain.

“He’s an outstanding man who represents the neighborhood he came from,” said Christopher Grant, a lifelong friend of Sanchez and resident of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. Grant was expecting a challenging debate, but was confident Sanchez would connect with the people.

Meanwhile, 15th District resident Jenny Hochstadt borrowed Elugardo’s sentiment in expressing that “this is one of the most progressive states, and Sanchez just isn’t progressive enough.” Elugardo has repeatedly used this phrase and criticized Sanchez for the slow pace of progressive change in Massachusetts, often citing his C+ grade by the group Progressive Massachusetts.

It became clear that the large crowd, comprised of Sanchez’s base supporters and progressives looking to challenge the Legislature’s leadership, would not all fit inside the 140-seater venue, and some residents were turned away.

The debate was hosted by three progressive, political groups: JP Progressives, a grassroots organization affiliated with Progressive Massachusetts, which aims to mobilize the voters of Jamaica Plain; the Boston chapter of Our Revolution, a non-profit organization whose work is inspired by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign; and Amplify LatinX, a non-partisan group who campaign for increased Latino representation in government and corporate leadership.

Moderators, Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch, and Jamaica Plain youth leader Angelica Maria Aguilera, outlined the format for the discussion before Elugardo went first with her opening statement.

“I’m running for state rep because I’m excited about these times and I’m excited about the opportunity for our district to lead Massachusetts,” said Elugardo, “values without action, without a strong change in how we’ve been operating is not going to get us anywhere but where we’ve been.”

Elugardo spoke about the “true champions” in her life who helped her overcome the financial and social challenges of her childhood in Cincinnati, and to move to Boston and graduate from MIT in 1995.

Similarly, Sanchez used his first minutes to highlight his personal journey, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived in Mission Hill 1973, the first Latino to hold the position of chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Pointing out his mother, Maria Sanchez, and sister in the audience, Sanchez made the first of many references to his commitment to community.

“For the past 15 years, I’ve advanced the progressive agenda that we’re proud about,” said Sanchez, referring to his work on the $15 minimum wage, paid family medical leave and, as he stated, “a criminal justice act that is second to none around the nation.”

Round 1

The first round of rapid-fire questions followed, in which each candidate answered either yes or no, with time to elaborate only when they were in disagreement, which occurred infrequently throughout the evening.

On the first issue up for debate, jobs, the economy and taxes, both were in favor of opposing a rollback of the collective bargaining rights of state or municipal employees, and of closing corporate tax loopholes.

In tackling financial and social inequalities, Sanchez emphasized the need for the community to work closely with the Legislature, while Elugardo proposed a re-evaluation of the minimum wage, suggesting that $15 does not constitute a living wage. 

Candidates were also in agreement over capping the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Despite both voting in favor of age-appropriate and inclusive sex education, Elugardo could not resist poking Sanchez.

“The bill is still on your desk so please pass it,” said Elugardo in what was one of the very few, more combative moments in the debate. She was referring to the “Healthy Youth Act,” which passed by the state Senate but is stalled in the House.

Candidates differed when it came to the question of eliminating all mandatory minimum sentencing. While Elugardo voted in favor, Sanchez said, “I struggle with this every time that it comes up because I don’t like the idea of mandatory minimum sentences, I hate the idea of it,” but ultimately, he said he would not support removing all mandatory minimum sentences. Instead, he highlighted the changes outlined in the latest criminal justice bills, passed by the Legislature in April this year, including the expungement of criminal records for offenders under the age of 21.

On the environment, Sanchez and Elugardo showed their commitment to the state’s clean energy and climate plan for 2020, and opposition to the expansion of gas pipelines in Massachusetts. As for a fee on carbon emissions, Elugardo showed her support, while Sanchez said he was open to the idea but was unsure about how it might affect residents’ pockets.

Both candidates expressed support for same-day voter registration as a means to improve access and increase the number of voters in the district, and for increased funding for early voting. But Elugardo went one step further, expressing her support for ranked choice voting, whereby voters rank their choices rather than vote for one single candidate.

Given that voting for Elugardo would mean losing the chair of the Ways and Means committee in Sanchez, Sullivan asked why 15th District residents should risk that loss and vote for her.

Elugardo pointed to her previous experience, managing the National Consumer Law Center’s foreclosure prevention program and as a senior policy advisor to Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, as examples of how she would work collaboratively to get the job done. She spoke about House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s apparent reluctance to not take certain bills to vote and said she would be the one to fight for progressive change.

“My theory of change is that the leadership is the people,” she said. 

Audience members were invited to ask questions submitted prior to the event, and topics ranged from the safety of immigrants, advancing lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights, to public safety, with particular reference to the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Bromley Heath.

In the final round of the debate, each candidate was permitted to ask the other one question. Elugardo wanted Sanchez to make a joint pledge “to support no new non-renewable infrastructure and not to take money from corporations in [her] campaign finances, particularly from real estate,” that might present a conflict of interest in making this promise. She pointed out the more than $40,000 Sanchez has already taken from developers for his campaign funding.

Following this minor dig, Sanchez kept his response brief, failing to commit to the pledge and stating that he had raised money from other sectors.

Sanchez put Elugardo in the hot seat by quizzing her on ear marks in the budget. But before she could present her answer, Sanchez interrupted Elugardo and Sullivan allowed her to reset her response time, prompting her supporters to take up the hashtag #reclaiminghertime on social media.

Finally, Elugardo said she would support this method of allocating funds, but “that cannot be our model for social change and for social justice.”

In his closing statement, Sanchez spoke of his pride in serving the community, as well as the importance of continuing advancement in educational opportunities and health care. “There’s so much to do and I want to do it with you,” he said.

Elugardo used her closing remarks to recall the state’s progressive historical legacy, particularly in the areas of education, transportation and health care. But, she said, voters should strive to make Massachusetts a home for progressive politics once more.

“I want to be your voice that is doing the lobbying just as loud inside the offices,” she said.

With the primary set for Sept. 4, Sanchez and Elugardo have just eight weeks to convince residents, that they are the true progressive voice of the 15th Suffolk District, fit to represent them in the state House.

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