ANTHONY D’AMBROSIO SAYS he’s the “anti-establishment” candidate for state Senate, calling out the failures of Beacon Hill leadership to which he says his opponent, Lydia Edwards, is tied. Edwards scoffs at the suggestion that she’s the insider, ticking off ways she has challenged the status quo and charging that D’Ambrosio, with little experience to tout, is largely hoping to trade on his family ties in the district, which includes East Boston, Revere, and Winthrop, along with the North End, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, and a slice of Cambridge. 

With only a week until the December 14 Democratic primary special election, the race is turning increasingly testy, with D’Ambrosio launching mailers attacking Edwards in recent days. The primary will effectively settle who wins the seat, since there are no Republicans on the ballot, and it’s becoming an all-out scramble by both campaigns to identify and pull out voters who are more focused on holiday planning than heading to the polls only six weeks after casting ballots in the November municipal elections. 

The race was set in motion when Joe Boncore of Winthrop resigned his Senate seat in September to take a job as head of the state’s biotechnology council. It is the third straight time an opening in the seat will be filled by a special election.

Edwards, a 41-year-old Boston district city councilor, who represents her home neighborhood of East Boston, along with Charlestown and the North End, has racked up a slew of high-profile endorsements, including Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Attorney General Maura Healey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. She also has the backing of more than a dozen labor unions.

D’Ambrosio, 25, has served one term of the Revere School Committee, and enjoys the support of many elected officials there, including Mayor Brian Arrigo. 

The daughter of a single mother who raised her twin daughters in a tiny town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan while serving in the US military, Edwards served as Boston’s director of housing stability before winning the council seat in 2017. A lawyer, she worked in legal services before that, becoming a champion of immigrant workers and household domestic help. Edwards helped spearhead efforts to enact legislation on Beacon Hill, passed in 2014, that granted household nannies, domestic health aides, and other workers new protections. 

“I’ve been at both ends of the economic spectrum in my life, and that’s a lot of our district,” Edwards said of the First Suffolk and Middlesex District, which reaches from wealthy Beacon Hill to immigrant-rich sections of East Boston and Revere. “And my experience has been in fighting for people on the margins who are always struggling.” 

Anthony D’Ambrosio greets voters at Sunday’s Christmas tree lighting in the North End. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Edwards, who would be the only African American in the Senate if elected, has shown an ability to defy expectations. When she was elected to the City Council in 2017, she beat the Italian-American candidate backed by then-Mayor Marty Walsh to capture a post that had only been held by Italian-Americans in the 34 years since the district seats were established. 

Since then, she’s navigated the politics of what she refers to as a “purple district,” which means, she said, “everybody at some point gets pissed off at me.” She backs legislation on Beacon Hill that would allow municipalities to enact regulations on rent increases, a position not favored by conservatives and some property owners. Meanwhile, she angered some progressive activists when she joined with the council’s more moderate bloc in 2020 to pass Walsh’s proposed city budget over the objection of other councilors who wanted to see deeper cuts to the police budget and redeployment of those funds. 

If Edwards comes to the race without the standard profile of an East Boston politician, D’Ambrosio doesn’t bring the usual resume of a Revere politician. Although he was born in the working-class city of 54,000, his family moved when he was a boy to the affluent town of Boxford. He attended Phillips Andover prep school before going on to get an undergraduate degree from Yale and master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in England.

Though he spent his formative years elsewhere, D’Ambrosio is quick to reel off his connections to the district, reminding voters that his mother grew up in Winthrop and his father landed in East Boston as a boy when he immigrated from Italy with his family, later moving to Revere. “This district is really in the fabric of my DNA,” he told East Boston’s Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association in a recent presentation.

He came back to Revere after his studies, and topped the ticket for School Committee two years ago. Along with that role, he’s worked as a financial analyst in the tech industry. 

D’Ambrosio says the Senate race is “a referendum on Beacon Hill’s performance over the course of the pandemic,” and points to Edwards’s backing from a group of lawmakers, while calling himself “the anti-establishment candidate who has actively called out the failures of Beacon Hill.” 

He was critical several weeks ago of the Legislature’s delay in approving a spending plan for federal pandemic relief funds, and says, now that lawmakers have approved nearly $4 billion in allocations, that it was too long in coming. 

With the primary date approaching, D’Ambrosio, who has loaned his campaign $50,000, has begun sending two attack pieces of campaign literature taking aim at Edwards, who has championed affordable housing efforts while on the council. In one, he uses a headline from a Bay State Banner newspaper story about the surge in luxury housing in East Boston to ask, “Who is Lydia Edwards really fighting for?” saying she’s taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from developers. A second piece claims she sought to jack up rents and that tenants were evicted tenants from a three-family home she bought in Chelsea. 

D’Ambrosio has also received donations from developers, but he says much less than the amounts received by Edwards. What’s more, he said, “I have not built the vast majority of my identity as being a housing advocate while taking tens of thousands of dollars from developers.” 

Edwards says the suggestion that she tried to raise rents on tenants or evicted tenants in a house she and her former husband once owned are flat-out false. As for donations, she said lots of the money has come from developers of affordable housing with whom she has worked to increase the supply of lower-cost housing across her district. 

“I am the housing advocate” in the race, she said. She also pointed to her work drawing concessions from the developers of Suffolk Downs to increase the percentage of affordable housing they have committed to in the massive redevelopment of the former race track. Edwards has also worked on state legislation to bar eviction filings that aren’t upheld or that result in settlements with landlords from staying in public records that can harm tenants’ credit or pose an obstacle to renting apartments in the future. 

“It’s a racial and economic justice issue, and I’ve fought like hell for that,” she said. 

“She’s proven she can be effective, work hard, and get things done,” said state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of the North End, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and endorsed Edwards. “I think it’s a natural progression to go the next step and come work with us on Beacon Hill on issues like housing affordability and social justice.”  

Edwards has the backing of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who showed up for a canvass kick-off on Saturday in East Boston. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Edwards said D’Ambrosio has no real record to run on and has resorted to unleashing “hit piece after hit piece,” a sign that he’s “feeling desperate,” she said. 

Who has the upper hand in the race is hard to say. 

“We feel great,” said D’Ambrosio, who has claimed at forums that he is leading the race. 

Though he has been in office in Revere for less than two years, D’Ambrosio enjoys widespread support there, thanks in no small part to his father Gerry D’Ambrosio, a successful lawyer who once served on the school committee himself and who has strong ties throughout the community. 

The race is, in many ways, becoming a turf battle, with D’Ambrosio counting on a huge margin in Revere as well as strong support in Winthrop, while Edwards is banking on support from East Boston, the North End, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, and the small chunk of Cambridge in the district. 

“You have the entire city of Revere really coalescing behind one candidate,” said Arrigo, the city’s mayor. “What brings my support is Anthony fighting for the city of Revere. That’s not to say Lydia wouldn’t, but it’s better to have a home grown senator.” 

While most local officials are behind D’Ambrosio, Stacey Rizzo, who serves on the school committee with him, is supporting Edwards. “It’s not the Thanksgiving game for the high school, where you bring the trophy back,” she said, dismissing the idea that it’s important to “bring the seat back to Revere,” which hasn’t had a resident in the state Senate since the late 1980s. 

“He’s a fine young man and he’s going places – I’m sure of that,” she said of D’Ambrosio. But Rizzo said he has little experience and Edwards is a better fit for the district. “She is a product of public education, which is huge to me,” said Rizzo. She also pointed to Edwards’s work to secure a project labor agreement guaranteeing union construction jobs at the Suffolk Downs redevelopment. “Her advocacy work for unions is extremely important,” said Rizzo. 

In the last special election primary for the seat, in 2016 –  a race where Edwards made her first run for office and placed fourth in a seven-way field – 8,683 votes were cast in Revere and Winthrop. Just under 7,000 votes were cast in the Boston and Cambridge precincts in the district. That has led some observers to give D’Ambrosio the advantage.  

But it all depends on how effectively the two campaigns can identify and then turn out supporters. An added wrinkle that could affect turnout this time is that mail-in ballots and early voting are both options. 

“I would take our grass roots on-the-ground support 10 days out of 10 over her endorsements,” D’Ambrosio said of the impressive list of high-profile supporters Edwards has. 

But her campaign said the endorsements are coming with support to turn out voters. Michelle Wu, who has made support for Edwards the first test of her political operation after last month’s landslide win for mayor, is deploying volunteers to Boston areas of the district. Meanwhile, unions that have endorsed Edwards have had members out canvassing door-to-door for her. 

“The agenda that I have been entrusted to push by the residents of Boston involves building partnerships and moving issues that cross city, state, and federal lines, and this is a clear example of how important this is,” Wu said at a recent canvass kickoff for Edwards in East Boston where Markey announced his endorsement. “We need a coalition, we need a team across all levels to get big things done.” 

Arrigo said it’s difficult to predict the outcome of a special election, which will almost certainly have low turnout. “It comes down to field organization,” he said. And the mid-December timetable, the Revere mayor said, only adds another element of uncertainty. “You don’t know if it’s going to snow.”