FIVE WEEKS BEFORE Nika Elugardo took on state Rep. Jeff Sánchez at a candidate forum in the Democratic primary contest in the 15th Suffolk District, JP Progressives could tell there was a pick-up in voter interest. That’s why the liberal neighborhood political group changed the forum location from a function room at Doyle’s—a bar and political landmark on Washington Street in Jamaica Plain—to what the Jamaica Plain News called a “roomier location,” the First Baptist Church on Centre Street.

The Doyle’s function room, named for John F. Fitzgerald, former Boston mayor and grandfather of John F. Kennedy, was a shrine to continuity in Boston politics. First Baptist Church was known for Black Lives Matter vigils demanding change in policing practices, held every month for more than two-and-a-half years.

July 9, 2018
Jeff Sanchez and Nika Elugardo facing off at July campaign forum in Jamaica Plain. (Photo by Chris Lovett)

When the votes were counted last week, change would be the story in multiple primary races throughout Boston. The groundswell would be seen in challenges against powerful state representatives, but also in the higher vote numbers for the open House seat won in Dorchester and Roxbury by Liz Miranda.

Even where change would still have to wait, it was very apparent: in the second consecutive close challenge in Dorchester and Mattapan to Rep. Dan Cullinane by Jovan Lacet, and in the re-election of the longest-serving House member, Angelo Scaccia. Blessed with four challengers who split the anti-incumbent vote, he got less than 40 percent of the tally in the Hyde Park district, down sharply from his 63 percent share two years earlier.

The turnout for these races was amplified by the higher profile campaigns for Congress in the 7th District and Suffolk County district attorney—two offices without a competitive election since at least 2002, where change also proved very much to be the order of the day.

By the time the Jamaica Plain forum for the 15th Suffolk District was set to begin on a Monday evening in early July, dozens of people were still outside the First Baptist Church waiting in line. Even the “roomier location” was too small.

Inside the church, Elugardo’s supporters were hard to miss. Many were in their 20s and 30s, with cellphones in hand, but some others were baby boomers with a history of activism or advocacy. Several of them wore turquoise tee-shirts with their candidate’s first name and signature exclamation points in orange and white. Once the forum was underway, they refrained from applause but occasionally signaled approval with a chorus of finger snapping.

Nika Elugardo fires up her campaign team in her race for state representative. (Photo by Chris Lovett)

If candidate forums seldom change voter opinions, the event at First Baptist Church may have at least been prophetic. Powered by a persistent grassroots campaign, Elugardo would go on to topple Sanchez, winning almost 52 percent of the vote. She defeated an eight-term incumbent who was also the first Latino House member to chair the Ways and Means Committee. Not surprisingly, Sanchez had the edge in campaign money, this year alone raising more than double the amount for Elugardo.

The upset took place in a district where the turnout in the Boston precincts was 34 percent, well above the citywide average of 24.9 percent (the district also includes one precinct in Brookline). Even more telling than turnout percentages in this year’s primary was the number of votes cast in Boston and how they were distributed.

In an election highlighted by the Democratic primary for Congress in the 7th District between Ayanna Pressley and incumbent Mike Capuano, the citywide turnout percentage was below the figure of for 2006. That’s when the Democratic primary for governor, won by Deval Patrick, helped draw a turnout of 34.1 percent. But, in the 2018 primary, the number of people casting votes in Boston was up by more than 10,000 compared with 2006. That 12-year period saw marked population growth and a swelling of the registered voter rolls to 403,000—an increase of nearly 53 percent. That’s why a lower turnout percentage still translated to more voters casting ballots.

In Wards 11 and 19, which include Jamaica Plan and parts of Roslindale and Roxbury, the number of people casting votes increased over the total in the 2006 primary by 27.3 percent. In Ward 20—typically high-voting neighborhoods of West Roxbury and Roslindale outside the 7th Congressional District—the turnout percentage exceeded the citywide figure, but the number of people casting votes declined by 1.6 percent from 2006.

In the 15th Suffolk District, Sanchez carried precincts in Mission Hill, where he grew up, and areas with the highest Latino population, along with his current neighborhood, in the more suburban Jamaica Hills area. Elugardo carried precincts between Hyde Square and the Arnold Arboretum along with two precincts in Roslindale and one in Brookline. These included the precinct with the Sanchez headquarters in Hyde Square—near the former site of Hi-Lo Foods, a store that was patronized mainly by Latino customers before it was shuttered seven years ago and reopened as a Whole Foods Market.

Elugardo and her supporters tried to make Sanchez’s leadership position a liability. Because of his ties to Speaker Robert DeLeo, Sanchez was blamed for setbacks in the House on education funding and protections for unauthorized immigrants. Then came an ad on Facebook paid for by the conservative Mass. Fiscal Alliance. Calling on voters to thank Sanchez for keeping Massachusetts from becoming a sanctuary state, the ad unspooled a contentious thread, with comments from either side egged on further by some non-progressive trolls. A subject with broad agreement, in a progressive district with two left-of-center Democrats, had become a trigger for polarization—thanks in part to an organization flagged by progressives as a conduit for dark money.

On election day, with less than two hours of voting left, Sanchez was outside a polling place near his old neighborhood, at the Tobin Community Center in Mission Hill, talking about neighborhood change. With more new housing, more students living off-campus, and more units booked on Airbnb, the old base was shrinking, at least percentagewise. Even in two Mission Hill precincts carried by Sanchez, the vote for Elugardo was more than 40 percent.

Last gasp: State Rep. Jeff Sanchez, who lost his seat to challenger Nika Elugardo, working the polls on primary day with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who strongly backed him. (Photo by Chris Lovett)

In races covering larger ground, campaigns were defined more by media strategy. In a recent commentary piece for WBUR, Josiane Martinez, a consultant to Ayanna Pressley’s campaign, said 10-term Congressman Mike Capuano failed to keep pace with change in the district’s demographics—and with how voters get their information. With his sizable advantage in fundraising, Capuano placed ads on network and cable TV. Pressley spread her message outside the mainstream, with the only television ad appearing—in Spanish—on Univision.

In the open race for Suffolk County district attorney, Greg Henning, who had the backing of outgoing DA Dan Conley and the law enforcement establishment, used his own sizable advantage in fundraising to run ads in Boston’s mainstream TV market. But much of Henning’s strongest support was outside the 7th Congressional District, in South Boston, West Roxbury, and parts of Dorchester. In South Boston, voter turnout was even below the citywide average, despite a primary race there for an open state representative seat.

Rachael Rollins, the winner in the five-way primary for DA, like Pressley, relied more on messaging outside mainstream media. That included campaign posts on Twitter but also tweets from supporters with no explicit ties to the campaign.

Rachael Rollins, the victor in the five-way Democratic primary for Suffolk district attorney. (Photo by Chris Lovett)

There were also grassroots pitches just urging people going to vote. On August 25, the day of the Caribbean Carnival parade in Roxbury, voters on Martin Luther King Boulevard saw a series of election reminders—complete with a Facebook tag–posted by organizers of a DA candidate forum, Prophetic Resistance Boston.

Support for Pressley and Rollins went beyond precincts dominated by the city’s black voters. In Wards 12 and 14 (parts of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan) Pressley received more than 78 percent of the vote—from a turnout that was close to the citywide average. In the more diverse precincts overlapping with the 15th Suffolk District, Pressley’s figure was 70 percent, but the turnout was much higher, at 34 percent.

In the 9th Suffolk District (parts of South End, Fenway, Roxbury), Jon Santiago, defeated an 18-term incumbent, state Rep. Byron Rushing. The 36-year-old challenger won 47.9 percent of the vote over Rushing and a second challenger. Some of the precincts carried by Santiago have seen new development over the past two decades, but he gives more credit for his victory to voters who may have been previously overlooked—or under-mobilized. “I personally knocked on 8,000 doors,” he said.

After growing up in Roxbury and moving with his family to Texas, Santiago returned to Boston to practice medicine, following time in the Peace Corps and the Army Reserve. He also got active with South End neighborhood organizations and worked for political candidates.

“I was knocking on the same doors,” he said of his campaign this year, “but this time it was for myself.”

Between the South End and Roxbury, the district pivots on a graphic picture of the opioid crisis at Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Santiago ranked it as the top issue for voters, followed by housing, immigration—and, among South End residents, the feeling of living in “two different neighborhoods,” a reference to the wide wealth divide in the neighborhood.

It was no surprise that Santiago’s Puerto Rican heritage helped him carry the South End precinct with the Villa Victoria development. In Lower Roxbury, he also knocked on doors of Dominican immigrants and spoke with them in Spanish. The efforts helped him win all but one of the district’s seven precincts in wards 8 and 9. The number of votes cast in the precincts was also three times the total in 2006, when Rushing was unopposed.

Unlike Pressley, Elugardo, and Rollins, Santiago was the 9th Suffolk’s front-runner in fundraising, but he campaigned like a classic underdog.

“I think what it comes down to is knocking on doors and talking to people,” he said. “You have to ask for their vote, and you have to give them a reason to vote.”

Chris Lovett is news director for the Boston Neighborhood Network on Boston public access television.