FOR DECADES, AN East Boston resident has held the state Senate seat representing the First Suffolk and Middlesex District, which extends north from the neighborhood to Revere and reaches west to sections of Cambridge. Michael LoPresti in the 1970s and 80s. Robert Travaglini in the 1990s and early 2000s. Anthony Petruccelli from 2007 until he resigned earlier this year to take a lobbying job.
A special election to fill the seat now looms less than a month away, but if an Eastie resident is going to continue the tradition, the next senator will likely bring a decidedly untraditional profile to a seat long held by an Italian-American son of the neighborhood.
The two East Boston residents first out of the gate were Diana Hwang, the Houston-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, and Lydia Edwards, an African-American lawyer who grew up in a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
They’re now part of a seven-way scramble in the April 12 Democratic primary. With no Republican in the running, the victor is all but assured of becoming the next senator for an economically and racially diverse district, which includes Winthrop, Revere, East Boston, a chunk of downtown Boston neighborhoods, and a slice of Cambridge.
Hwang and Edwards are the latest signs of a changing East Boston and of a less insular political landscape in the region. But they both face an uphill battle in a race that includes several incumbent officeholders and proven vote-getters.
Also vying for the seat are Joseph Boncore, a lawyer and member of the elected Winthrop Housing Authority board, state Rep. Jay Livingstone of Beacon Hill, Revere City Councilor Steve Morabito, former Revere mayor Daniel Rizzo, and Paul Rogers, an East Boston resident and tech company owner.
The district includes some of Boston’s priciest precincts on Beacon Hill; low-income, immigrant-rich sections of East Boston and Revere; Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood; and middle-income neighborhoods in Winthrop. Just over half of East Boston residents are now Hispanic, reflecting the huge change that has taken place in a neighborhood long dominated by Italian-Americans. But the changes in Eastie also include an influx of younger professionals drawn to its relatively more affordable housing and skyline views of downtown Boston.
“Whether your family came here 100 years ago from southern Italy or 10 years ago from El Salvador, we all have the same hopes and the same fears,” Hwang said to a crowd gathered for a fundraiser earlier this month at Kelley Square Pub in East Boston. She ticked off housing costs, schools, and public safety as common concerns, and vowed to fight for parental leave legislation on Beacon Hill.
The 34-year-old Dartmouth graduate served as an aide to the late state Rep. Deborah Blumer and as executive director of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators. In 2009, she founded a nonprofit that helps place young Asian-American women in State House internships. “At the State House, I just noticed how little diversity there was,” she said. The program has placed 50 young women to date.
Hwang has only lived in East Boston for two years (she spent two years in Revere before that), but she has strong ties at the State House and in Democratic Party circles that are paying off.
Hwang quickly raised more than $50,000 in the final weeks of 2015, including $1,000 donations from ex-party pooh-bah and state treasurer Steve Grossman, Kennedy School lecturer and former US ambassador Swanee Hunt, and veteran Democratic operative Dennis Kanin, who runs a South End real estate development firm where Hwang works.
Hwang’s campaign has drawn some of East Boston’s newcomers who have settled in the Jeffries Point neighborhood that fronts on Boston Harbor, while also claiming some of the neighborhood’s old guard, including Paul Travaglini, a younger brother of the former Senate president who held the Senate seat for 14 years.
“My entire career has been building bridges,” Hwang told the gathering at Kelley Square Pub, an East Boston mainstay where the walls are lined with autographed pictures of Boston sports legends, with an extra nod to Italian-American favorites such as Rico Petrocelli and Gino Cappelletti.
“She came from an immigrant family like the rest of us did,” said Tony Leggiero, a retired Suffolk County sheriff’s deputy and lifelong East Boston resident. “Whoever does the job for the people is good for me.”
While Hwang’s fundraising success will help her mount a strong direct mail effort targeting reliable voters, Edwards, who raised $11,500 before the 2015 year-end reporting deadline, is banking on a shoe-leather campaign that draws on her history as a community organizer.
Edwards, who has lived in East Boston for eight years, has good reason to be undaunted by her underdog status in a race against several current officeholders and a former mayor.
A lawyer committed to speaking out for those with little clout, she has become a champion of immigrant workers, household helpers, and others at the economic fringe who often find themselves exploited in jobs where they have historically had few rights and little leverage. Edwards helped lead the charge for sweeping new legislation on Beacon Hill, passed two years ago, that grants nannies, domestic health aides, and other workers protections they have never had. She is taking on the Senate race with the same attitude.
“I’m approaching this like we did the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights,” she said. “I’ve never been the person with the most power, if you will, in the room. But I’ve always been able to marshal the resources to get it done.”
For the Senate race, those resources include about 60 volunteers, who have been campaigning door-to-door across the district.
Edwards has assembled a coalition of college students, domestic workers, and liberal activists drawn to her battle-for-the-little-guy message. She is adding to it foot soldiers from the 11 unions that have so far endorsed her, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and 32BJ SEIU, which represents custodians and health care workers.
“We know Lydia will be with us in the fight for good jobs and strong communities,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, which claims more than 600 voters in the district.
Lou Mandarini, a well-known Boston labor lawyer who is advising Edwards, says there is one key to a contest like this, where no other races will be on the ballot and turning out supporters is the whole ballgame.
“Field is everything,” said Mandarini. “She’s got a hell of a field team. I’ve seen it in action.”
Edwards and her twin sister were raised by a single mother who was stationed at a military base in Michigan’s sparsely populated — and overwhelmingly white — Upper Peninsula. Edwards and her sister were the only blacks at Gwinn High School.
“It was very hard not to know the Edwards girls,” she said. “Your mistakes are louder, but so are your successes.”
Her successes include a law degree from American University along with a second legal degree from Boston University in taxation, which she wants to use to help domestic workers establish cooperative businesses.
In 2009, while working at the big downtown Boston firm Holland & Knight, Edwards fell victim to a wave of layoffs that hit the legal profession during the Great Recession. She started volunteering her legal services at the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston while starting the search for a new job. While there, she found herself drawn to the work on behalf of live-in housekeepers, nannies, and others in the so-called shadow economy. Along the way, she picked up Portuguese, which she now speaks in addition to Spanish, and was awarded a grant by the University of California at Berkeley to set up the country’s first legal clinic for domestic workers.
“I found my inner Thurgood Marshall,” Edwards said of the realization that she wanted to deploy her legal training on behalf of social justice causes, much as the country’s first black Supreme Court justice did in his early work on school segregation cases.
Judy Meredith, a veteran State House advocate for issues affecting the poor, worked with Edwards on the domestic workers legislation, which was Edwards’s first foray into the political world.
“Sometimes you get to mentor somebody and it’s like explaining Greek,” Meredith said of schooling people in the often mysterious ways of legislative advocacy. “And there are some people who just get it — and she got it.” Meredith called it extraordinary that the domestic workers’ bill got passed in a single legislative session, a feat rarely accomplished with a new piece of legislation. “You could have knocked me over,” she said.
Edwards points out that she is both an outsider to the political system and the one candidate in the race who can claim to have helped drive a significant piece of legislation into law.
The short sprint to what will likely be a low-turnout primary should favor candidates with name recognition, a clear base of support, and experience in running for office. Hwang and Edwards have none of those.
That’s why most of the political wise guys who are following the race put Livingstone, Rizzo, and Boncore, all with solid foundations to build from in the district, in the top tier of contenders.
“I think it’s great to see these two women in the race,” said Paul Scapicchio, a former East Boston city councilor. “The obstacle is that it’s such a short race. Whoever has a base has a big advantage.”
But grabbing 25 or even 20 percent of the primary vote in a low turnout seven-way race could be enough to win.
“It’s anybody’s game in a special election for state Senate when you have this many candidates,” said Jim Spencer, a veteran campaign operative and East Boston resident, who is not aligned with any candidate.
Edwards has the backing of City Council President Michelle Wu and state Sen. Dan Wolf from Cape Cod, while Hwang has been endorsed by Boston’s two women state senators, Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry.
Hwang and Edwards are trying to follow a wave that saw two women elected last year to the Boston City Council. They’ve both received donations from local philanthropist Barbara Lee, whose foundation works to increase the representation of women in elected office.
There is some quiet grumbling, however, that any chance for a woman or minority candidate to break through in the Senate race is diminished by the presence of two of them.
The 2013 Boston mayor’s race included several minority candidates, prompting calls from some black leaders for the minority community to coalesce around a single candidate. That drew a good deal of blowback from others who argued it was time to move beyond that kind of thinking and welcome more participation by minority candidates, not less.
Edwards says she’s in the race to win. But regardless of how she finishes, she flatly rejects the idea that she and Hwang will hurt each other’s chances.
“It’s a problem in 2016 if we don’t have more progressive-leaning people of color running,” she said. “I don’t think any of the white men [in the race] have been asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid you may cancel each other out?’”
Hwang sounds much the same theme. “I’m excited that she’s running,” she said of Edwards. “There need to be more women running for office. I think we need to get to the point where that’s the conventional wisdom.”