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Progressives win big in primaries

Left-leaning challengers push out long-term Democratic incumbents

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Progressives win big in primaries
Nika Elugardo

A surge of progressive candidates challenging Democratic incumbents proved pollsters and pundits wrong Tuesday, sweeping longtime incumbents out of office and upending the calculus of Massachusetts politics.

Jonathan Santiago at Vejigantes Restaurant in the South End

That surge saw at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley beat incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, attorney Rachael Rollins win a decisive victory in a five-way race for Suffolk County District attorney, political newcomer Nika Elugardo defeat longtime 15th Suffolk District Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, and physician Jonathan Santiago beat 36-year incumbent 9th Suffolk District Rep. Byron Rushing.

In the 5th Suffolk District, Liz Miranda finished well ahead of second-place finisher Darrin Howell in the race to fill the seat Evandro Carvalho vacated to run for Suffolk District Attorney.

“Tonight, in Boston we just made history,” Miranda told her supporters, speaking at her Bowdoin Street campaign headquarters. “Ayanna just won. Nika just won. Rachael just won. Tonight, we made a difference. We showed our city and our commonwealth and the entire country, we ain’t playin.’”

The defeat of Sanchez and Rushing, two top-ranking members of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team, signaled a strong rebuke of the centrist policies of House leadership that have sparked the ire of progressives over the last year. Challengers Elugardo and Santiago both lit into the incumbents on the campaign trail, placing the blame on them for the Legislature’s refusal to pass immigrant protection legislation, environmental protection legislation and a measure to increase state education aid.

Nika Elugardo

In her victory speech at the Frogmore in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square, Elugardo reflected the idealism of the progressive movement.

“The thing that’s important about what we’re doing is not me, and it’s not us,” she said. “It’s the movement to see Massachusetts lead our young democracy into its next level.”

She also spoke out against the expanding influence of corporations in the political sphere.

“The voters in this country can decide that we are not going to elect people who take conflict of interest money in exchange for justice,” she said. “We will demand that our candidates pledge to take no conflict of interest corporate money.”

Rollins, speaking to supporters at Canary Square, a Jamaica Plain bar, told supporters she would bring reforms to the criminal justice system in Suffolk County.

“The daughter of an Irish man and a black woman is about to change the criminal justice system,” she said. “We are going to change this system from the inside out. I give you my word. I am a black woman. Everything I do, I do hard.”

The voters

The victorious challengers appear to have benefitted from a wave of typically disengaged voters who defied conventional political wisdom, turning out in unexpectedly high numbers during a primary many expected would favor more conservative, older and whiter voters.

Miranda attributed her victory to a strategy of targeting unlikely voters.

“When they told us to focus just on super voters, we focused on everyone else,” she said. “We registered hundreds of people because we believe that when we vote, we win.”

Santiago, too, attributed his victory to often-overlooked voters.

“Next time someone tells me that Latinos don’t vote, I’ll say, ‘What about this election?’” said Santiago, an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center and Yale School of Medicine graduate, who campaigned on platforms that included universal health care and addiction treatments that help tackle the state’s opioid crisis.

Nika Elugardo

Nika Elugardo

His focus on these crucial issues, as well as his approachable demeanor, brought voters in the district, which includes parts of Roxbury, the South End, Back Bay and Fenway, to the polls, supporters said.

The surge of new voters was spurred in part by what many called an unprecedented push by campaigns to engage and turn out voters.

“I have never seen anything like I’ve seen today,” said Jamaica Plain resident Eric Berg. “There were armies of volunteers knocking on doors. It was impressive.”

In that neighborhood, Elugardo’s and Sanchez’s campaigns fought door-to-door, each making multiple voter contacts through door-knocks, phone calls and abundant literature drops, Berg said.

Elugardo beat Sanchez with 52 percent of the 7,905 votes cast in the primary. Santiago had 48 percent of the 4,653 votes cast, Rushing 38 percent and Suezanne Bruce 14 percent. With 59 percent of the 4,670 ballots cast in the 5th Suffolk District, Miranda was 1,307 votes ahead of second-place finisher Howell, who had 31 percent of the vote. Rollins garnered 40 percent of the votes in the race for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, while Gregory Henning had 23 percent, Evandro Carvalho 18 percent, Shannon McAuliffe 10 percent and Linda Champion 9 percent.

Catherine McGloin contributed to this report.

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