Progressives push for takeovers of Boston ward committees
When Massachusetts voters head to the polls on Tuesday, March 3, most will have their minds fixated on their presidential candidate of choice. But as fierce as the 12-way race for the party nomination is, many Boston voters will face even more heated battles at the bottom of the ballot, where dozens of candidates are vying for seats on their local ward committees.
“People need to know that the confusion on the rest of the ballot is worth paying attention to,” said Rachel Poliner, an organizer with Progressive West Roxbury and Roslindale, who is part of an effort to diversify the Ward 18 Democratic Committee.
The Hyde Park-based Ward 18 is one of four in Boston where insurgent progressive slates of candidates are seeking to unseat incumbent members in the once-every-four-years committee elections. The other committees are Ward 1 in East Boston, Ward 3 in downtown Boston and Ward 9 in the South End and Roxbury.
Poliner said that in the last presidential primary, 74% of Ward 18 voters left at least some of the ward votes blank, indicating a lack of interest in the contest. She stressed the importance of ward committees, emphasizing their direct connection to neighborhoods across Massachusetts.
“The ward committee can do a lot,” Poliner said. “They’re supposed to be the grassroots of the party.”
The hundreds of ward and Democratic town committees across Massachusetts function as the grassroots arm of the party, providing residents with direct access to the party apparatus. The committees elect delegates to the annual state convention, where they nominate candidates for statewide office and vote on the party platform.
“A ward committee is the face of the political process in Massachusetts, and it’s the face of our political party,” said Melvin Poindexter, a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Hyde Park’s ward committee is the state’s largest, with 35 members. But it’s also seen as being somewhat insular. While Boston’s more active ward committees maintain webpages, communicate with voters, host candidate forums and engage in get-out-the-vote activities, Ward 18 seldom does more than post the time and date of its annual caucus, as required by state party rules.
In many ward committees, candidates are elected as part of a slate. Most of those currently serving in Ward 18 are part of a slate made up largely of current or past city workers and elected officials. Current Ward 18 Caucus member and City Councilor, Michelle Wu, is one of 35 people on the insurgent progressive slate who say they’re committed to a committee that reflects the demographics of the majority-people-of-color neighborhood.
“Right now we need engagement and activism in all levels,” said Wu.
Wu noted the diversity of Ward 18’s candidate slate, which includes members of the Haitian, Nigerian, and Latinx community — including WBUR radio host Jose Massó and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. Poliner said that the new slate was assembled using a specific formula to ensure representation, guided by the 2010 census. Most of the current ward committee members live in Hyde Park’s whiter precincts, she said, but the district, which includes much of Mattapan, is 75% people of color.
Candidate Segun Idowu, also on the slate, ran against Hyde Park state Rep. Angelo Scaccia in the 2017 Democratic primary. He said he hopes that Ward 18’s new slate reflects the citizens living there. He said that as an African American, he doesn’t feel like the local Democratic party is particularly representing his principles.
“This particular committee has been dominated by a very small and select group of people that have never represented my views and my values,” he said. “In fact, they’ve never even asked me.”
A broader push for change
Roxbury resident Armani White is currently running for Ward 9’s new slate and the 2nd Suffolk District state committee seat held by current Ward 9 Chairman Jeffrey Ross, who last year mounted an unsuccessful bid for an at-large seat on the City Council.
White says he wants to make the committee more open to voters who are currently not involved with the party, and to push the committee to hold events to educate voters on the Democratic election process.
“I’m transparent and easy to reach and committed to [encouraging] broad participation and getting more people involved,” he said during a fundraiser for his state committee campaign.
Vanessa Snow, a community organizer for a Massachusetts union, is helping to chair White’s campaign for the state committee seat. She said that she wants the Democratic party to invest more in people of color, and she hopes that the ward committees can “help shape the party’s platform to focus on issues in our community.” These issues include gun violence, justice reform, and housing — matters that White hopes to prioritize.
In East Boston’s Ward 1, Brian Gannon also hopes to see some changes. Although Gannon has previously been involved in ward committees, he is now promoting the “Fresh Slate Eastie’’ movement. For years, Gannon has seen a need for a stronger ward committee.
“A lot of us feel…we just want better representation in local government,” Gannon said. He hopes that an “organization of neighbors, activists, and Democrats” can act as a better voice for Ward 1.
“We’re really looking for it to be an active force representing East Boston and supporting a rich discussion of some of the issues that East Boston has,” he said.
Gannon said that ward committees act as a great “unifier for people with like ideas,” which is especially important as East Boston has faced issues around transportation, housing, and even the proposed development of a casino.
Gannon said that if elected, the Ward 1 slate hopes to “engage with more of the neighborhood and have a big say in how the city operates.” He said he expects to see better attendance at ward committee meetings, with the whole neighborhood being represented.
The committee should also be aware of what the community needs from elected officials. Local residents can leverage the ward committee to meet their needs, Gannon said.
“We’re just trying to really be a more transparent committee and communicate broadly with the neighborhood on what we’re doing,” he said.
Gannon said that he was surprised that other movements similar to “Fresh Slate Eastie” were surfacing throughout Boston. Ward 1’s movement is independent of any other groups, he said.
“We did this independently and then learned through other groups that there were other actions happening elsewhere in the city,” Gannon added.
Idowu, however, saw a greater pattern emerging.
“There’s definitely a connection,” he said. “This is part of a larger movement.” After years of disengagement, things are beginning to change. Idowu said that this transformation is “a culmination of many, many years of frustration”
Idowu said that the fresh slate in Ward 18 is mostly a new group of people who have never had a voice in the ward committe, reflect the diversity of all Ward 18’s neighborhoods and focus their efforts on their own communities.
“We see what’s happening on a national level,” said Idowu. “And it’s very easy to say we need more transparency and diversity on a national level. But people running in wards know that these things also don’t exist at home.”
If the slate wins, Idowu wants to start with what he called the “basic thing” — talking to neighbors and educating them about what the ward actually does.
Some say the lack of visibility of ward committees benefits current incumbent committee members.
“For many of the existing office holders, that is the best arrangement,” Wu said. “There’s no threat to who’s in office, because people don’t turn out to vote as much.”
On March 3, voters will decide the outcome of the ward elections — but only if they pay attention to the choices at the bottom of the ballot. At stake is whether committees that represent new neighborhood demographics can function better as a direct route to electoral transformation.
“The ward committee represents you. It’s your voice,” Poindexter said. “You have just as much or a right to play a role as anyone else.”
An earlier version of this article attributed Brian Gannon’s comments to Patrick Coyne.