CommonWealth Magazine: New Dem electeds talk race — and racism
By: Michael Norton
MASSACHUSETTS DEMOCRATS, who won race after race in Tuesday’s elections, appear to have a some racial tensions within their party.
In a televised interview that aired Friday night on WGBH, Suffolk County District Attorney-elect Rachael Rollins and state representatives-elect Nika Elugardo and Liz Miranda, all of Boston, pledged to be forceful agents of change, discussed how they built winning campaigns, and raised serious concerns with leadership in the Democratic party, with Elugardo describing the party as “straight-up racist.”
“What I found was a little disappointing was that I think that the Democratic party of our commonwealth and across the country needs to take a look at themselves,” Miranda told Basic Black host Callie Crossley. “We all won without major support for our primaries.”
“Or any,” added Rollins. “Stop being nice.”
Elugardo, who defeated House Ways and Means Chair Jeff Sanchez in the Democratic primary, added, “There was major support for my primary, for the opponent.”
The newly elected black women were prompted to discuss the role that the party played in this year’s elections by Crossley, who mentioned this summer’s apology, from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, during a July fundraising appearance before a predominantly black audience in Atlanta.
“We took too many people for granted,” Perez said, according to The Atlantic, “and African Americans — our most loyal constituency — we all too frequently took for granted. That is a shame on us, folks, and for that I apologize. And for that I say, it will never happen again!”
Miranda said that as a candidate this year, she felt she was “fighting” against a party that she says should have been helping her.
“What I found is, I’m a Democrat. I feel I’m gung ho for the party and then you see yourself really fighting against the system that is meant to support you and that is something that needs to be discussed and brought up,” Miranda said. “It shouldn’t be black women having to shout that. I think the party understands that they are at a crossroads.”
“And it’s tokenism. Let’s be honest,” said Rollins, 57, who beat four candidates, including assistant DA Greg Henning and Rep. Evandro Carvalho, to win the primary in September.
Rollins recalled knocking on the doors of voters in Roxbury with Miranda and realizing the Massachusetts Democratic party literature they were handing out featured “eight white people and Ayanna,” referring to now congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley, who is black. She recalled calling party chair Gus Bickford and complaining that she and Miranda were not featured on the party literature they were handing to potential voters.
“What’s so beautiful about this moment – nobody did anything to help, at least me, get here,” Rollins said. “We don’t owe anyone anything. I report to the voters. … They said resoundingly they want me to do this and all of the people that were not supportive, they know that they weren’t and they need to really look around and see the changing demographics and we aren’t going to ask for permission, we’re just going to take it.”
Bickford said he was “thrilled” with the Democrats elected on Tuesday and cited restrictions on supporting candidates during primary elections.
“We are working every day to build a more diverse and inclusive Party in Massachusetts, and we always welcome constructive feedback on how we can do that better,” Bickford said in a statement. “While party bylaws prohibit us from actively supporting candidates in primary elections, we are thrilled with the slate of candidates who were elected on Tuesday, and look forward to working with them to continue fighting for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, communities of color, and working families here in the Commonwealth.”
Elugardo and Rollins mentioned Tuesday’s Democratic party celebration at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, where Pressley, the first African-American woman elected to the Massachusetts USHouse delegation, spoke along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who won a second six-year term and addressed a crowd that was buzzing over the possibility that Warren will run for president in 2020.
Said Elugardo: “What needs to be said in a very straightforward way is that the Democratic party is straight-up racist. The structural racism that we’re talking about dismantling is in the party. And this is one of the reasons why it’s frustrating to be standing up on a stage at a Democratic party behind speeches behind made about Republicans dividing the country.”
“And that’s why I left early and went to my after-party right after I spoke,” Rollins said, interrupting Elugardo.
Elugardo continued, “And so here’s the thing. You have 30 minutes of a speech. Thirty percent of it is bashing people. Thirty percent of it is talking about why we’re unifiers and then the rest is rhetoric with a couple of sentences thrown in I could actually clap for, legitimately.”
Elugardo, who said she personally knocked on 5,500 doors during her campaign, said she has been “sick to her stomach” since voting, at the age of 19, for Bill Clinton for president because she “hated” his policies on race, welfare, and criminal justice. She said she registered as a Democrat on June 12, 2017 when she filed papers to run for office.
“Eventually I said, you know what I’m going to be a joiner. I’m going to join you,” Elugardo said. “Right, now we’re the Democratic party. But if you think it’s time to change the face of leadership – get out of the way. That’s what has to happen. Because the leaders that have been leading it have led us down the wrong path. That is not leadership.”
“We need not people that speak for us, but speak with us,” said Rollins. “White women are wonderful. You don’t understand the black community, right. You believe that you can speak to us and about us but you don’t even include us in the decision-making and I don’t have time to be nice about it anymore because things are urgent right now. It is life or death. We don’t have the death penalty in Massachusetts. We send people away for life without the possibility of parole all the time and we are impacting people’s lives that changes them drastically all the time. I don’t have time for your feelings. We’re going to change it now.”
Miranda, executive director of the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, is a first generation Cape Verdean-American and Roxbury resident who has spent her entire life in the district she will represent on Beacon Hill in January. A Wellesley College graduate, Miranda described her district as “one of the most diverse districts in the country, yet one of the most unequal districts with high unemployment, high poverty.”
Her brother Michael’s murder last year spurred her to run for office. “The number one factor I would say was 14 months ago my youngest brother was murdered and we need to end gun violence,” Miranda said. “And I felt that the best place to start ending it was to look at where the resources and where the laws were being made and I knew that that was the State House and that’s what I was aiming for.”
Miranda said she “challenged the status quo” during her campaign, by turning to people who felt disenfranchised – young men released from prison and others who she said were told they “don’t matter.” As she picked a campaign manager and volunteer coordinator, she began to build her network.
“I didn’t know where to pull these people from,” Miranda said. “And I decided that when I went back home I was going to pull from what I did have – I had young people. I had my family. I had neighborhood homies. And I felt that if I can excite them that they would excite their networks. And what we saw was we won in every precinct, which had never been done before.”
Rollins, who said “everyone” told her she wasn’t going to win the September primary, captured more than 80 percent of the vote Tuesday against independent candidate Michael Maloney.
“On the 6th, we got a mandate because we’re going to change the criminal justice system,” she said. “This is a very sort of acute problem and I think we needed a mandate in order to change it. I’m proud that we got one.”
Rollins said she made it clear during her campaign that she would be a “bold and different” district attorney.
“We didn’t hide the ball from people like a lot of political people do and speak in vagaries,” she said. “I said specifically, ‘there’s mass incarceration, there’s massive wealth and race-based disparities, women are ignored and treated terribly in the criminal justice system.”
Saying she outworked her opponents, Rollins recalled having a laugh with Pressley when a poll showed their opponents, Henning and Capuano, leading them.
“I say that to my 14-year-old daughter all the time – it’s about the work,” said Rollings. “Bill Belichick. Do your job. Stop complaining. Do your job.”
Elugardo said she had been thinking about running for an at-large Boston City Council seat in 2019, before deciding to run for state rep.
“I was recruited by a number of people in and out of the State House and across the neighborhood because they know it’s time for Massachusetts to lead and while we have many politicians who are mastering business as usual, and mastering the game as it’s been played, we don’t have time for games anymore,” said Elugardo, who upset House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Sanchez of Jamaica Plain in the primary, and was uncontested Tuesday.
Elugardo said the Democratic party has become fond of “speaking negatively” and “attacking the other side, finding scapegoats.” Touting “justice for all” and “taking down structural racism,” she said her experience in community development and understanding of the 15th Suffolk District helped her win.
“That’s a vision that resonates,” she said. “That’s what the wave is. The wave is people are grabbing on to a vision for change.”
Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, who won that post last year and joined Rollins, Elugardo and Miranda on the program, said African-American women are resilient and able to advance when they “step out on faith” and are fearless.