Old school outreach and the limits of progressive politics

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/28/old-school-outreach-and-the-limits-of-progressive-politics/

If only the outwardly progressive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the Suffolk and Middlesex state senate seat had looked to history, one of their own might have begun a new Boston dynasty.

The special election earlier this month to replace outgoing state Senator Anthony Petruccelli of East Boston will be known as a lost opportunity for progressives. For years, the district, which stretches from Revere and Winthrop through East Boston into the North End and Waterfront, and also includes East Cambridge and Chinatown, “belonged to East Boston.”

For generations, the seat was held by Italian Americans with names like Mario Umana, Michael LoPresti (both Senior and Junior), and former Senate President Robert Travaglini. They were pols who practiced a moderate, urban- style politics; pols for whom patronage was not a dirty word and loyalty was a supreme value. While reliably holding to the Democratic line, they all emphasized consensus and constituent relations over ideology and symbolism.

The departure of Petruccelli drew a number of candidates, but this time around no Italian-American from Eastie sought the seat. Italian names to be sure, like attorney and Winthrop housing official Joseph Boncore, former Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo and Revere city councilor Steve Morabito —all more or less a mix of old school and urban liberalism – but none from East Boston itself. Add to that mix a new guard of more liberal and ethnically diverse candidates, such as state Representative Jay Livingstone, attorney Lydia Edwards, activist and former State House aide Diana Hwang, and technologist Paul Rogers. (The Republicans failed to field a candidate making the Democratic nominee the de facto winner.)

One of the last outposts of ethnic, moderately liberal Democratic politics, the district is becoming more ethnically diverse and more upscale. In the now-pricey and supposedly hip section of East Boston known as Jeffries Point, socialist Bernie Sanders topped Hillary Clinton and held his own throughout the neighborhood.

So, why didn’t a progressive capture the Democratic nomination for state senate?

It’s hard to believe that the state’s progressive leaders didn’t clear the field for a candidate that could signify the region’s economic, political and social transformation. Clearly liberal activists wanted a new profile candidate.

“Certainly the model for public office has changed,” says Travaglini who began his career as a district city councilor before winning the Senate seat in 1992 and later becoming the first Italian American to lead any legislative chamber in the Bay State.

“There are three things folks in the district want,” Travaglini says: “access, trust and confidence.”

Political observers noted that the candidacies of two women in the Suffolk and Middlesex race made perfect the progressive narrative of Boston’s new politics. But they wound up splitting the vote. The East Boston Democratic Ward Committee failed to reach consensus on the endorsement of a candidate.

One political action committee at the center of a controversy Mass Values PAC hedged its bets supporting four candidates in the field. (Boncore, Hwang, Edwards and Livingstone). The campaign took a turn for the worst when some questioned Edwards’ lack of ideological purity on the topic of abortion.

Leading with progressive values in a blue collar, parochial, quality-of-life domain isn’t always a convincing tactic. Candidates need to know about the core of the district and some didn’t, says Mary Berninger, an activist and member of the Massachusetts Port Authority Community Advisory Committee, who supported Boncore. While some candidates were stressing diversity, Berninger felt they needed to understand across-the-board income diversity which the East Boston waterfront has long desired.

“Progressive’s a term that’s being used too much I thought,” remarks Berninger. “[Candidates]… are putting so much emphasis on it for me.”

In the end, Boncore from Winthrop won the nomination, although Hwang won Boston overall. Edwards, in a historic first for an African American woman, carried East Boston (Boncore finished second there); while Livingstone made a strong showing in the Boston wards. Rizzo, as expected, carried Revere. In the district, it pays to stand out.

The district-wide results show that the progressives divided the vote. In this district, it pays to stand out with some kind of solid base as history shows.

Back in 1932, an undertaker and North End state Representative, Joseph Langone, overtook a field of six Irish candidates to win the Senate. Langone won in a nail-biter and the Boston Italians emerged as a political force. Langone served in the Senate for seven years before serving in the administration of Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.

“Someone was asleep at the switchboard in not recognizing that allowing only one well known popular Italian-American married to a powerhouse of a lady with political skills of her own, Clementina or ‘Tina’ Langone, in a field with six or seven Irish-American candidates would confer an advantage,” explains East Boston historian Michael Laurano. “Certainly not all voted along ethnic lines, though many did.”

Parts of the district certainly don’t march in step. While the Democrats dominate all local races, Revere and Winthrop show an occasional bent to the GOP. Baker did well in both municipalities in 2014 carrying Winthrop and keeping it tight in Revere. In the 2010 special election, GOP candidate Scott Brown enjoyed a measure of popularity that he maintained even in his losing effort in 2012 during the presidential cycle that brought out the Democratic base. Winthrop’s results in the governor’s race almost exactly mirrored the statewide result for Mitt Romney in 2002. Former Governor A. Paul Cellucci carried East Boston, Revere and Winthrop against then Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

With the election of attorney Boncore, some observers noted that Winthrop, now affectionately called “Greater East Boston,” is ground zero. “You might say there’s a new center of power,” remarks former East Boston resident Vincent Basile, a former president of the Republican City Committee of Boston.

“East Boston’s now the outlier with Revere and Winthrop dominating. It’s not fully homogeneous anymore.”

“He was a first-time candidate for an office of any significance and it generates a lot of excitement that will never be repeated again,” says Travaglini who commended Boncore’s “walk-a-bloc” work ethic. The idea of a senator from Winthrop coupled with the fact that they already have the Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo crystallized the mind of voters says the former Senate President. “It all worked in Boncore’s favor.”

What also works in his favor is that the first non-East Boston senator in more than a half a century seems “progressive enough” for the pragmatists on the Left. Over the course of the campaign, Boncore expressed support for the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” criminal justice reform, increased education spending and expects to address the housing crisis based on his experience as a chairman of the Winthrop Housing Authority board.

The question going forward is whether those genuine commitments by Boncore, another Italian American male Senator, will satisfy progressives, who now have the numbers to transform and push the envelope in terms of diversity politics.

Frank Conte is director of communications at the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University where he also serves as project manager for the annual State Competitiveness Report and Index. Read his past columns here.