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Activists see heightened interest in Sept. 4 primary races

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Activists see heightened interest in Sept. 4 primary races
State Rep. Byron Rushing greets commuters in Dudley Square.

Outside the Bruce Bolling Municipal Building Wednesday afternoon, scores of political operatives and volunteers lined Washington and Warren streets with signs for their favored candidates, catching the attention of passing motorists.

Inside, candidates mingled with members of Democratic committees from wards 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 19, in what many say is the busiest political season in recent memory. The ward committees jointly hosted a forum for the 11th Suffolk District and 15th Suffolk District races as well as the two candidates in the 7th U.S. Congressional District race. The August 1 forum was live-streamed to Facebook by members of the Ward 19 Committee.

Democratic activists cite as factors in the unusually active primary season a crop of left-leaning candidates challenging long-term incumbents, a rare open race for the Suffolk County district attorney’s seat and a national political environment that has much of the liberal-leaning Boston electorate on edge.

“I can’t think of a time when there were so many contested primaries for state legislative seats,” said Ward 19 activist Steve Backman. “The national environment is not crushing people into the earth. People still feel like they can make a difference.”

As much as the national climate has local political activists preoccupied, state level policies have perhaps even more so grabbed their attention. The 2017-2018 legislative session ended on July 31 with a logjam that saw several key progressive priorities dead in the water.

Nika Elugardo, Jeffrey Sánchez

Elugardo v. Sánchez

In the midst of the electoral battles between progressive incumbents and even more progressive challengers, Conservative provocateur Paul Craney, head of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, sent out a flyer thanking House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez for “stopping MA from becoming a sanctuary state,” a reference Democratic leaders’ move to drop the Safe Communities Act, which would have banned local police from acting as immigration agents.

Sánchez, who told reporters there wasn’t sufficient legislative support for the measure, told the audience at Wednesday’s forum that he has consistently fought for protections for immigrants in the 15th Suffolk District seat he has held since 2003.

“We all want to see it happen,” he said. “The votes weren’t there. But the fight continues.”

Sánchez’s challenger, Nika Elugardo, placed the blame with House leadership, and by extension with Sánchez, arguing that the Safe Communities Act could have passed both chambers.

“In the pit of my stomach I am so enraged that we were not able to pass immigration protections at such a basic level in a state like Massachusetts,” Elugardo said. “The thing is this: The House was ready to do it. There were enough reps. The Senate passed protections to get our tax dollars out of what ICE is doing to terrorize our families.”

Similarly, on the topic of education funding, Elugardo hit Sánchez and House leadership for not passing a bill that would have increased state education spending by $1 billion to bring the state’s funding formula in alignment with fiscal reality.

“I would have fought tirelessly, publicly, and championed the education bill that was just blocked by the House,” she said, noting again that the Senate — including Republican members — voted unanimously in support of the bill.

Sánchez praised the legislature’s investments in education to date.

“In the budget that we put together, we made unprecedented investments,” he said, but added, “Is it enough? No.”

Sánchez said he backed the Fair Share Amendment, the ballot initiative that would have taxed state income over $1 million and raised $2 billion for public education and transportation. That amendment was struck down by the state’s superior court.  He said state leaders have not yet identified a source for the $1 billion needed to bring the state’s school spending up to date.

Democratic activists packed  the School Committee chamber at the Bolling Building.

Malia, Clemons Muhammad, Turnbull

In the forum for 11th Suffolk District candidates, incumbent Rep. Liz Malia faced a similar push from the left from challenger Ture Turnbull, as well as nudges from frequent candidate Charles Clemons Muhammad.

In opening remarks, Malia touted her work on the Legislature’s criminal justice reform bill and her support of mental health and substance abuse programs.

Clemons Muhammad, beginning his remarks with his customary “peace and blessings,” spoke about his advocacy for unlicensed radio stations, including his Touch 106.1 FM station, which federal authorities shut down in 2014.

Turnbull opened by taking aim at House leadership’s apparent unwillingness to pass the education funding bill and the Safe Communities Act.

“I want to be that bold progressive representative for our district and our state,” he said.

Malia listed as the most pressing issues in the district substance use disorders and the high cost of housing. Clemons Muhammad cited living wages — “not minimum wage” — and affordable housing. Turnbull cited transparency and accountability in state government.

Asked what strategies they would support to raise revenue for their priorities, Malia said she talks with her colleagues and constituents about what she says is a $2 billion-$3 billion funding gap.

Clemons Muhammad argued against increasing taxes.

“We’re always hit with taxes and end up with less resources,” he said, arguing instead that Boston should end its voluntary Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program with local nonprofits and require them to pay property taxes.

Turnbull said the Legislature should pass its own version of the Fair Share Amendment.

“It shouldn’t have gone to a ballot question,” he said. “Lawmakers need to make laws.”

Turnbull took a shot at Malia when asked whether clerks should post roll calls showing how legislators vote during committee deliberations, a process that’s normally shielded from public view. While Malia said she would support such a measure, Turnbull said she already had a chance to do so.

“This vote came up and Liz voted against it,” he said.

Ayanna Pressley

Capuano v. Pressley

In remarks at the beginning of the forum, Capuano urged the Democratic activists to urge their neighbors to vote in this year’s election.

“We need them all to vote, we need them all to vote Democratic and we need them all to vote for people who are going to stop Mr. Trump and his agenda,” he said.

Capuano left the forum early, citing a schedule conflict. Pressley, then, had the forum to herself, answering questions delivered by WGBH Senior Editor Peter Kadzis.

Pressley said she would support single-payer health care and a tax on stock trades and said she supports student loan forgiveness, noting that she herself incurred debt and was unable to complete her college degree.

“Higher education should be debt-free,” she said. “I signed away years of my life to loans and credit cards because I didn’t know any better.”

Michael Capuano

In her closing statement, Pressley said she would bring a different lens to the 7th Congressional district, if elected.

“This is a dark-blue seat,” she said. “That means whoever is in this seat needs to be bold, needs to be leading, needs to be legislating, needs to be innovating — because we have the liberty to be completely unrestrained and

unencumbered, and that’s why I’m running.”


JP takes center stage

With two hotly-contested legislative races, Jamaica Plain has become somewhat of a “campaign central” in Boston. Elugardo and Sánchez are both mobilizing small armies of volunteers who fan out throughout the district, making voter contacts at doors and dropping campaign literature. In the southern end of the district, Malia, Clemons Muhammad and Turnbull are engaged in similar door-to-door combat.

“Every Saturday it feels like the streets are filled with canvassers, like it would before a presidential election,” said Ward 19 member Ed Burley.

Other candidates who turned out for the August 1 forum but did not debate included 9th Suffolk District incumbent Byron Rushing and 5th Suffolk District candidates Darren Howell and Liz randa.

Miranda and Howell, both of whom who have been knocking on doors furiously in the Dorchester/Roxbury district they’re contesting, said they expected higher than average turnout for the Sept. 4 primary.

“I haven’t seen this many signs in the neighborhood before,” Miranda said. “It’s my hope that as we’re campaigning, we’re engaging the electorate.”

Howell, who noted the turnout for Democratic primaries in the 5th Suffolk hasn’t topped 2,800 in recent years, said this year may be different.

“We’re hoping for 3,000,” he said.

In yet more key races, five candidates are running for Suffolk County district attorney, City Councilor Josh Zakim is challenging incumbent William Galvin for Secretary of State, and Katie Forde is challenging Suffolk County Registrar of Deeds Stephen Murphy.

There’s no presidential race this year, but with divisive rhetoric and a steady stream of investigations, scandals and often bizarre tweets emanating from the West Wing, voters’ interest in elections is heightened, Howell said.

“People are more aware of what’s going on,” he said.

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