Voters in the Fifth Suffolk House District had a chance this week to see the candidates hoping to succeed former state Rep. Carlos Henriquez up close. Four of the five Democrats on the April 1 primary ballot appeared before a crowd of 50 people at First Parish Church on a Sunday afternoon, offering answers to questions about charter schools, constituent services, and how to handle gun violence, particularly in Bowdoin-Geneva.
The four Democrats include Evandro Carvalho , an attorney and former prosecutor; Karen Charles Peterson , who has served as chief of staff at the state Department of Telecommunications and the Registry of Motor Vehicles; Jennifer Johnson , a local activist who worked on Martin Walsh and Felix Arroyo’s runs for mayor last year; and Barry Lawton , a former teacher who has mounted previous campaigns for the seat. Roy Owens, a perennial candidate, is also on the ballot.
Mayor Marty Walsh, a Dorchester resident whose House district shared a border with the Fifth Suffolk District, is staying neutral in the race. The winner of the April 1 primary and the April 29 general will only be filling out Henriquez’s term and would need to seek election again in the fall.
Whoever the winner is could also end up facing Henriquez in September. The former Dorchester lawmaker, who was ousted from his seat by his fellow House members in February, could be paroled later this month, in time to pull nomination papers for the fall election cycle. Henriquez, who has been adamant about his innocence, is serving a six-month sentence after he was convicting of assaulting a former girlfriend in 2012.
The candidates will also be facing voter apathy. The Fifth Suffolk District has long suffered from low turnout in its elections.
In 2010, when Henriquez was first elected, he won the Democratic primary by a 41-vote margin. Lawton came in second place with 678 votes, while Althea Garrison, a frequent candidate, received 400 votes and Owens picked up 226 votes.
Owens did not attend the First Parish Church forum, while Garrison, who did not enroll as a Democrat in time for the election, sat in the audience.
The forum was moderated by Chris Lovett, an anchor on Neighborhood Network News and a longtime political observer who grew up in Dorchester.
Out of the four candidates who appeared at the forum, Lawton was the only one who was unequivocal in his opposition to lifting the cap on more charter schools in Boston. Addressing one of Beacon Hill’s hotly debated topics, Lawton questioned whether the waiting lists for charter schools were inflated. “Some of these children are on the same list,” he said.
In her answer, Johnson focused on many district school teachers spending thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for supplies. But after the forum she acknowledged that she was open to considering lifting the cap only on charters that were performing well.
“We have to look at it strategically,” she said.
Charles Peterson said she wants to ensure district school money isn’t harmed if the cap is lifted.
“For me, there would have to be a caveat in the legislation,” she said.
Carvalho said he was still weighing both sides of the chart school debate. “It’s a very complex issue,” he said.
Asked how they would engage constituents in the low-voting district, the candidates offered various ideas, from lunches to district offices. Johnson suggested meeting constituents for dinner at local eateries like Laura’s and Caesaria’s. She said she would model her outreach efforts on state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s efforts to post her whereabouts “so people know where I am.”
“I’m going to do more than have district hours,” Lawton said. “I’m going to have a district office.”
Carvalho said he would also have both office hours and an office, on top of attending church services in the district in order to reach constituents. He said he would also speak on TOUCH 106.1, a low-frequency radio station that frequently featured former Rep. Henriquez.
Charles Peterson pointed to her experience handling constituent services for the late City Councillor Bruce Bolling. “I love helping people,” she said. “Constituent services runs through my veins. Breakfast at Ashley’s? No problem.”
The candidates were also asked about crime. Johnson and Carvalho both said they support the city’s gun buyback program, which allows weapon owners to turn in their guns in exchange for a gift certificate.
“We should be talking about how we stop them from picking up a gun,” Carvalho said, adding that it’s a “matter of education.”
Charles Peterson pointed to Bowdoin Geneva’s high rate of violence and successful programs like Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing (LIPSTICK). The program seeks to prevent girlfriends from buying or holding onto guns for their boyfriends or paramours. “I want to work with such programs,” said Charles Peterson, who was endorsed by the Boston Globe this week. The Boston Herald endorsed Carvalho in a Tuesday editorial.
The Sunday forum’s audience included state Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and a Henriquez friend.
The winner will be a freshman representative, Holmes said, and will have little impact on the state budget and committee work, so constituent services should be the primary focus. Holmes’s office has been receiving some of the constituent phone calls for Henriquez, he added.
Holmes said he was pleased with the candidates’ responses on how they plan to engage Fifth Suffolk constituents. “I was heartened to hear that,” he said.