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Four-way race for 12th Suffolk seat

Candidates gather signatures under lockdown

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Four-way race for 12th Suffolk seat
(clockwise from top left) Brandi Flucker Oakley, Javon Lacet, Cameron Charbonnier and Stephanie Everett. COURTESY PHOTOS

Gathering and submitting nomination signatures is a time-honored rite in Massachusetts politics, but during a pandemic, it’s turned into a logistical conundrum.

Attorney Brandy Fluker Oakley, a candidate for the 12th Suffolk District seat being vacated by Rep. Dan Cullinane, took her signature-gathering operation out to the Neponset Greenway on a recent afternoon, armed with a facemask, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes.

“I practiced social distancing and did not come within six feet of people,” she said. “It took some creativity. Many people are feeling stranger danger now.”

In addition to the challenges of voter outreach during a statewide stay-at-home advisory, Fluker Oakley will be facing at least three opponents who have pulled nomination papers to run in the district, which includes parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park and Milton. Attorney Javon Lacet, city worker Cameron Charbonnier and attorney Stephanie Everett are in various stages of gathering signatures, raising campaign funds and assembling campaign teams to vie for the seat.

Although the Supreme Judicial Court on April 17 ruled that candidates may turn in half the number of signatures traditionally required to appear on the ballot, the four 12th Suffolk candidates interviewed by the Banner said they are planning to exceed the 150-signature requirement for House seats. The voter contacts candidates make as they work to secure signatures typically serve as an opportunity for their campaigns to gauge and build support for their candidacies.

Lacet, who ran against Cullinane in 2016 and 2018 and began collecting signatures the first week in February, says he has already collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

His campaign, headed by political veteran Mukiya Baker-Gomez, is using VoteBuilder software to reach out to eligible voters and gauge their support.

“It’s all going to be by telephone and mass mailings until we get the green light to be outside again,” Lacet told the Banner. “Knocking on doors is just not safe.”

In the 2018 Democratic primary, Lacet came within 420 votes of Cullinane, garnering 3,247 votes to Cullinane’s 3,667 in a two-way race. Whether the total vote count is north of 7,000 as it was in 2018, or 2,600, as it was in the 2013 special election in which Cullinane garnered 62 percent of the votes to best Stephanie Everett and Mary-dith Tuitt, this year’s primary will likely be the most competitive in recent years, with three black attorneys and a white city worker who was an advance man for Mayor Martin Walsh.

Charbonnier, who resides on Westmoreland Street near Adams Corner at the far eastern end of the district, may have an advantage if the black vote splits evenly between the other three candidates. While the district is only 19.2 percent white, those votes are concentrated in Ward 16, where turnout is typically higher than in the portion of the district comprising Ward 17 and Ward 18.

In the 2018 primary, for instance, precincts 8 and 11 of Ward 16 had turnout at 36.5% and 34.3%, while Ward 18’s precincts 1 and 2 had turnout at 24.6% and 23.2%.

State Rep. Russell Holmes said candidates should not be deterred by the prospect of a split vote, pointing to Rachael Rollins’ primary win in a race with one well-funded white opponent, two other women and two other black candidates.

With the Sept. 1 Democratic primary more than four months away, signatures are a number-one priority. The candidates must collect signatures of registered voters in the Boston and Milton portions of the district and submit the signatures to officials in both municipalities by the May 5 deadline. The signatures must then be certified by the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Elections Division by June 2.

So far, Lacet appears to have had a head start. He says he had already turned in 560 signatures by March 4, having collected them during the March 3 presidential primary.

Lacet said he also has the added advantage of having run before and has been active in the district.

“I’ve been out here fighting in court, at City Hall, addressing inequalities in education, employment and housing,” he said.

Mattapan resident Fluker Oakley has raised $11,467 since launching her campaign in mid-March. That fundraising prowess may come in handy in a campaign that could depend more heavily on mail contact than in-person appeals for votes.

The former executive director of Educators for Excellence, Fluker Oakley says she honed her political skills advocating for education issues at the local and state level.

“I know what it’s like to advocate on the outside,” she said. “I want to bring those skills to the inside to advocate for the betterment of the community.”

Charbonnier, the director of strategic initiatives for the Mayor’s Office of Tourism, Sports and Entertainment, says he started calling supporters as soon as Cullinane announced late in February that he would not seek reelection.

“I got a very encouraging response back and made the decision to jump in the race,” he said.

Everett, who served as a legislative aide in the office of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, garnered 20 percent of the vote against Cullinane in her 2013 run for the seat, trailing him by 1,124 votes. She says her experience in the State House makes her qualified to hit the ground running in January.

“The governor’s budget will be coming out in January,” she said. “You have to advocate for items in the budget right away. We’re going to have a budget coming out that’s going to look drastically different from last year’s. We have to fight for our share.”

Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council President Fatima Ali-Salaam said the candidates running for the seat will likely hear a wide range of concerns.

“There are so many people who are hurting in every imaginable way — jobs, education, health care,” she said. “As candidates, they all have to address these issues.”

Ali-Salaam said the neighborhood council will likely hold a candidate forum during the summer. Whether it’s in person or online will depend on how well Boston has bounced back from the pandemic.