DAMALI VIDOT said she hadn’t given any thought to running for state representative until a day in late April when she was sitting home in Chelsea during the peak of the pandemic in the state’s hardest-hit community.
“I was in my house and looked out the window and there was a line that went down the street and around the corner. There were mothers standing in line for hours to get a box of food,” Vidot said of the pop-up food pantry that drew struggling neighbors in droves. “It set off a fire inside me.”
It was four days before the deadline to file nomination papers to get on the primary ballot, but Vidot, a three-term Chelsea city councilor, decided to scramble to gather the required signatures and challenge state Rep. Dan Ryan in the Democratic primary.
Ryan is a well-liked incumbent with a steady presence across the district, which includes all of his home neighborhood of Charlestown and about three-quarters of Chelsea. But Vidot says there is an urgency lacking in his approach, a shortcoming she said has been magnified by all the ways the coronavirus pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on marginalized communities like Chelsea.
“I just feel COVID has exposed so many vulnerabilities that we need someone who can take the bull by the horns,” she said. “He just seems to benefit by being complacent and too many of us are left in the shadows.”
The Bronx-born daughter of parents from Puerto Rico, Vidot cites the value of the “lived experience” that would inform her approach if elected — whether it’s a chronic health condition that makes her understand environmental justice issues personally, bringing the perspectives of a person of color to matters of racial justice, or looking at criminal justice reform through the eyes of a convicted felon.
Vidot’s message carries a strong echo of Ayanna Pressley’s insurgent campaign for Congress two years ago, in which the African-American Boston city councilor toppled 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano on the campaign theme that “change can’t wait,” vowing to bring new urgency and a fresh “lens” to issues facing the district.
Ryan knows better than most not to take the race for granted in a political climate that has only grown more restive since Pressley’s win: He worked for 16 years as an aide to Capuano.
“It’s a serious race. She’s a good city councilor,” Ryan said of Vidot.
But the 52-year-old Charlestown native, first elected to the seat in 2014, pushes back on the idea that there is a big gulf between him and his challenger on most issues. Ryan said he, too, has a progressive record on everything from environmental issues to police reform, but says his approach is more low-key than the aggressive posture Vidot insists the current moment calls for.
Whether it’s tenant protection measures or environmental justice issues facing the district, Vidot said she’s prodded Ryan in the past to be more vocal. “I kept telling him, you need to speak up,” she said. “He would come to events, but there was no advocacy. It’s almost as if he waits for someone to take a stand and then follow their lead, whereas I’m ready to lead.”
“That’s really just not my style,” Ryan said of Vidot’s complaint that he doesn’t bring enough fervor to problems facing the district. “Don’t get me wrong. When push comes to shove I can get as fiery as the next person.”
Hispanics account for 44 percent of the diverse district, largely on the Chelsea side, and there are stark economic disparities between the communities split by the Mystic River. Median household income in Chelsea is $51,800, while in Charlestown it is $92,000.
Ryan leans toward pragmatic approaches to issues that Vidot says demand bolder, outside-the-box thinking. In an online candidate forum last week sponsored by civic action group MassVOTE, Ryan questioned where the money would come from when asked about proposals to provide free tuition at state colleges and universities or to abolish fares on the MBTA.
“I would love to say, free transportation for everyone. You have to find ways to pay for it,” said Ryan.
Vidot said it’s a matter of budget priorities. “I think we can afford it,” she said. ”It’s about whether or not we want to prioritize this.”
On the controversial issue of qualified immunity from lawsuits currently enjoyed by police, Vidot said repealing the protection is long overdue. “There needs to be accountability,” she said. “For too long black and brown people have been disproportionately affected by the racist inequities within our police system. Absolutely end it, repeal it.”
Ryan wouldn’t go that far, but pointed to his vote for the police reform bill recently passed by the House, which would eliminate qualified immunity for any officer stripped of certification through a new law enforcement licensing system the legislation would also establish.
“I was getting a little heat from both sides,” he said. “There is a progressive element that didn’t think I was progressive enough,” he said. “And I have a blue-collar law enforcement constituency in my district — it’s a big part of my base — and they didn’t like that I voted yes at all.” Ryan said part of being progressive is making progress. “If they put in full repeal of qualified immunity, we will not get policing reform,” he said, suggesting such a provision would imperil the overall bill.
Vidot’s life has taken a big turn since her teenage years growing up in Chelsea. “I was a young person that got lost in the streets, and got caught up in some things I should not have been doing,” said the 42-year-old mother of a 14-year-old daughter.
Things bottomed out at age 20, when she was convicted of assault and battery on a police officer. Vidot said she had a history of tension with the Chelsea officer in the case, and claims she was actually the victim of police brutality in the encounter that landed her in jail for several months. But she doesn’t try to gloss over the fact that she was on a very destructive track.
“The truth is, I had done so many bad things, I took it as karma caught up with me,” she said. “I was contributing to not making the community safer. I don’t like to shy away from it.”
Vidot had dropped out of Chelsea High School, but eventually got her GED certificate, spent several years as a youth worker, and got involved in activism on environmental issues and other problems affecting the city. In 2015, she was elected to one of three at-large city council seats. Last November, she topped the at-large ticket in getting reelected to her third term.
Her campaign has won endorsements from two city council colleagues, several environmental organizations, the liberal statewide group Progressive Massachusetts, and Run En Masse, an organization encouraging more women and people of color to run for seats in the Legislature. Cambridge philanthropist Barbara Lee, whose nonprofit promotes women running for office, donated $1,000 to her campaign, and Bradley Campbell, the president of the Conservation Law Foundation, gave her $250.
Ryan has raised nearly $89,000 since January, but Vidot has pulled in almost $46,000, a respectable haul for a state rep challenger. And they were much more evenly matched as of July 31, the most recent reporting deadline, with Ryan claiming $45,200 on hand to Vidot’s $37,000.
Both candidates say it’s been challenge to campaign amid the pandemic, with door-to-door canvassing taking a back seat to mailed pieces, phone banking, and texting voters.
On top of the fundraising gap, Vidot faces a particularly steep uphill climb because Charlestown turns out roughly twice as many votes in Democratic primaries as the Chelsea side of the district. The seat has long evoked turf rivalry between the two communities, and Ryan is quick to point out that, despite the turnout tilt toward his neighborhood, his election six years ago made him the first elected official from Charlestown in 37 years.
Ryan got a big boost in May when Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes Charlestown, threw her support behind him. “We both represent Charlestown, and he’s been one of the best bridges I’ve had,” Edwards said of Ryan’s help as she worked to establish support in a neighborhood that remains a working-class Irish Catholic stronghold, despite several decades of gentrification.
Edwards, a black East Boston resident who was elected three years ago, said Ryan has been wrongly pigeonholed based on his Irish Catholic Townie roots. “I think it’s not fair that people shove him in the PMS crowd,” she said, shorthand for the derisive label “pale, male, and stale.”
“He’s been there in all the fights,” she said, citing Ryan’s support for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and his backing of state legislation that would strengthen abortion rights.
Edwards said her endorsement is no knock on Vidot, with whom she has a good relationship. “I love her,” Edwards said. But as a Boston city councilor, “you don’t go against a Boston rep for a candidate from Chelsea.”
Vidot said she understands the advantage incumbents enjoy with other elected officials, and doesn’t begrudge Edwards the endorsement.
“There’s no hard feeling there,” said Vidot, pointing to the particular challenges she said Edwards faces as a woman of color navigating her way in Boston politics. But she suggests her views and and Edwards’s are very closely aligned. “If I am elected, I know we will make magic,” she said.