WHEN IT COMES to taking on the problems facing the state, Sonia Chang-Diaz regards patience far more as vice than virtue.
A call for a more aggressive approach to everything from climate change to education funding seems likely to frame the liberal Jamaica Plain state senator’s campaign for governor, which she launched last week with a three-minute video describing her as a fighter willing to take on the status quo.
“Massachusetts is known for being this place that produces all of this great leadership on the national stage, progressive leadership, but here at home, it is getting harder every day for working families to live here and raise their kids here,” Chang-Diaz said in an interview. “Health care and housing costs are getting higher and higher across the state. Black and brown kids are still facing yawning achievement gaps in education. And we have among the largest wealth divides in the country. Working families are told again and again to wait, and we just need somebody in the corner office who is going to have the urgency to tackle these problems head on and not run away from them and not minimize them.”
Chang-Diaz, the first Latina to serve in the Senate, arrived on Beacon Hill 13 years ago after knocking off incumbent Dianne Wilkerson in a Democratic primary. The 43-year-old lawmaker has established a record of outspoken advocacy on criminal justice reform and education.
She was a leader of last year’s legislative passage of a major police reform bill, and a strong voice behind the 2018 criminal justice reform bill.
She served for eight years as the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, and played a pivotal role in helping to push the Student Opportunity Act over the finish line in 2019. The bill, which will steer $1.5 billion in new funding to school districts, was years in the making and came after a 2015 commission said the state was woefully underfunding districts educating lots of low-income students and also not keeping pace with rising costs for educating English language learners and special education students as well as employee health coverage.
Passage of the bill came after negotiations the year before between the House and Senate ended in a bitter stalemate. The Senate was backing a more ambitious funding formula that addressed all four of the main areas identified by the 2015 commission, while the House had passed a more limited funding increase. Chang-Diaz lashed out at House leaders at the time, saying they “moved the goalposts” during negotiations.
When the new legislative session began in 2019, Chang-Diaz was stripped of her position as Senate chair of the committee, a move that drew harsh criticism from a group of women leaders of color in Boston. But the bill ultimately passed that year and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker hewed much closer to the original, more ambitious Senate funding plan that she had pushed.
“Beacon Hill insiders dragged their feet every step of the way, saying, ‘think smaller,’” Chang-Diaz says about the education funding bill in her kickoff video.
“It took five years to drag the Baker-Polito administration to the altar on the Student Opportunity Act,” Chang-Diaz said this week, focusing her early campaign fire on the Republican administration that she says has consistently been too timid in taking on important issues.
But she acknowledged that it was not just the Republican-led executive branch but also Democratic leaders in the Legislature that showed reluctance to embrace the funding revamp that advocates said was desperately overdue for lower-income districts.
“I don’t shy away at all from sharing that critique that we need a culture change on Beacon Hill,” she said. “And that spans branches and that spans parties. But the governor has a huge role in setting the culture on Beacon Hill.”
Running against the status quo Beacon Hill is probably the only path for a veteran legislator in a race for governor, but Chang-Diaz is also remaining true to the reputation she’s earned at the State House. She’s heard the criticism that she can be too hard-charging in her advocacy, but doesn’t make apologies for it.
“My North Star is, are we getting results?” she said. “It is for everybody out there to judge a tree by its fruits. And, absolutely, I believe that a key ingredient to accomplishing systemic change, not nibbling-around-the-edges change, but the systemic change that working families actually need, is that often you have to speak truth to power.”
Chang-Diaz also points to her track record when asked about the two other Democrats so far in the race — former state senator Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. “Something that I bring to this race, particularly in the primary, is a record, that 12-plus year record of speaking truth to power, building, winning coalitions, and delivering real results,” she said.
Only one Democrat, Deval Patrick, has won the governor’s office in Massachusetts since 1990. It’s long been put forth as a bit of conventional political wisdom in the state that voters are happy with a moderate Republican in the Baker mold to serve as a check on the Democratic-dominated Legislature.
“I think that’s a limited scope of view,” said Chang-Diaz. “The Patrick coalition was the example, the break in the pattern, and so I think we have seen that it can be done here in Massachusetts, that we are able to put a Democrat in the corner office when we build a wide and strong coalition of Democratic voters that includes the ‘new American coalition’ of young voters and communities of color. And those are communities that I can connect strongly with, that I have strong relationships with that have been forged in the trenches over the years.”