Early barbs fly in Fifth Suffolk: Four Democrats eyeing open House seat

The Fifth Suffolk District is set for a race for its first open state House seat in over a decade, with a four-way Democratic primary that will decide who will replace retiring Rep. Marie St. Fleur. The campaign isn’t expected to heat up until this summer but the candidates are already trading barbs over personal finances and charges of opportunism.

The roster includes a Boston schoolteacher who’s campaigned for the seat twice before, a youth worker who has in the past run against City Councillor Chuck Turner and a pair of candidates who frequently run for elected offices within the area.

Political observers say the fight for support in the traditionally low-voting district will likely come down to Barry Lawton, a high school teacher from Meetinghouse Hill who has also worked for a variety of former lawmakers on Beacon Hill, and Carlos Henriquez, a youth worker from Uphams Corner. Roughly 2,500 voters are expected to go to the polls on Sept. 14.

With no Republican challenger – Ward 17 Republican Committee chair Sean Malloy pulled papers but was not able to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot – the winner of the Democratic primary will have a free path to the seat in November’s general election.

Both Lawton and Henriquez will face two perennial candidates: Althea Garrison and Roy Owens, running as Democrats. Garrison came out swinging this week against both and took a shot at Lawton’s finances in particular.

Lawton, who currently teaches at East Boston High and has previously worked at Jeremiah Burke High, and Madison Park High, says he plans to to highlight his experience and attempt to tap “new voters, disinterested voters and unidentified voters,” including in the Vietnamese and Cape Verdean communities.

Lawton’s campaign slogan is “Community First,” he said. He said he’ll have a stronger organization than he had in previous runs, and will tap 23 years worth of students that he has taught to help. He is also being helped by the Victory Group, a Beacon Hill consulting firm.

He also pointed to support from state Sen. Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat who was a state representative when Lawton was an aide in the State House.

Lawton said he has “sufficient” funds for the race, but declined to go into details. According to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, House candidates in 2008 on average spent $32,439.

“I guess I’m supporting Barry,” said longtime Ward 15 activist Judy Meredith. “I know he’s a hard worker and he will do a good job of representing our district.”

Lawton, 53, said he was thwarted several times from winning the seat, including when neighborhood activists backed Charlotte Golar Richie in 1994 and then St. Fleur, who is leaving for a job in City Hall in June, in a special election in 1999.

“It just seems that paradigm might be in play now again,” Lawton said, pointing to a number of people who worked on the campaigns of both Richie and St. Fleur who are backing Henriquez.

While calling Henriquez a “smart young man,” Lawton pointed to Henriquez first speaking with local activists as “opportunism.” “You don’t just do it after strangers convince you that you can win,” Lawton said over a dinner interview at the Blarney Stone in Fields Corner.

“This is the only office I’ve run for,” he added. “This is the only office I’ve trained for.”

Lawton also dismissed Henriquez’s name recognition in the district, garnered through his two runs against Turner. Lawton said Henriquez’s name recognition is highest in the Roxbury and Dudley Street area.

But Henriquez, in a separate sit-down, said there was more overlap between District 7 and the Fifth Suffolk District and noted that his parents had worked on Golar Richie’s campaign.

“It definitely wasn’t a group of strangers,” who spoke to him about running, Henriquez said. Several people he knows from his work with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community planning and organizing nonprofit that covers the Roxbury and Dorchester area, he said.

“For me it’s about leadership. It’s not about the glitz and glamour of the seat,” he said, adding that he views the run for the seat as a “great opportunity to lead the community.”

The slogan for his campaign that Henriquez, who worked in City Hall for City Councillor At-Large Michael Flaherty, is leaning towards also includes the word “community”: “Committed to Community.”

He said that community members in both District 7 and the Fifth Suffolk District care about the same issues, such as education and crime. “I’ve been in the neighborhood when houses were being burnt to the ground, when the crack epidemic had just hit,” he said. “I didn’t leave the community.”

Henriquez, 33, is also making his third run for elected office. “We’re a lot more strategic,” he said when asked about the difference between his campaign for state representative and his two runs for City Council. “We’ll knock on every door, we’ll call every registered voter.”

Henriquez said he plans to kick off his campaign in mid-June. Lawton formally launched his campaign in March.

Henriquez, whose mother Sandra ran the Boston Housing Authority before joining the Obama administration, said he will be fundraising through the “grassroots,” similar to how President Barack Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick raised money for their respective campaigns. “We’re talking about getting a little bit from a lot of people,” he said.

John Barros, a Boston School Committee member who has worked with Henriquez at DSNI, is among those backing his candidacy. Barros was briefly and unsuccessfully courted to run for the seat himself.

For both Henriquez and Lawton, there will also the Garrison factor. “She waits for the top candidates to stumble and she is the one who stands to benefit,” noted one Fifth Suffolk observer.

Garrison held the Fifth Suffolk seat for one term as a Republican, after challenging the nomination signatures of former state Rep. Nelson Merced and pulling him off the Democratic ballot in 1992. (She also unsuccessfully challenged Henriquez’s signatures when both ran against Turner last year.)

Garrison refused to answer questions from the Reporter about her candidacy over the phone, citing a distrust of the media and demanding that questions be faxed to her. She faxed back her responses, riddled with spelling and syntax errors, and questioned whether Lawton still lived in the district, since his Mount Ida Road home had been foreclosed on and auctioned off several weeks ago.

Lawton confirmed that occurred, but said it is part of an ongoing divorce he is going through and he is in negotiations to repurchase the home. “I still live there and will remain there,” he said, adding that Garrison had been in a similar situation.

The district is familiar with candidates who struggle with personal financial issues: When St. Fleur was picked as Attorney General Thomas Reilly’s gubernatorial running mate in 2006, the Globe reported she was behind on taxes and student loans. She immediately dropped out of that race, but went on to handily win re-election later that year and in 2008.

Garrison wrote that Lawton and Henriquez were “ego tripping” in running for the seat. “I am a study-hand (sic) and fights to improve the conditions of the 5th Suffolk, constantly such as improving the frequency of Bus Route 15, 16, 17 which service mainly 5th Suffolk District residents,” she wrote.

She added: “I have earned the voters support and if I get re-elected to the 5th Suffolk seat I pledge to do great things for the 5th Suffolk District.”

“She’s having an identity crisis,” Lawton shot back, pointing to Garrison running in the past campaigns as a Republican, independent and a Democrat.

For his part, Henriquez welcomed Owens and Garrison to the race. “The more challengers you have, the more people are paying attention,” he said.

Then there is the potential impact of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who is facing federal corruption charges, on the race. She has pleaded not guilty and her trial starts this summer.

Both Lawton and Henriquez also have ties to Wilkerson, whom Republicans have touted as a symbol of Beacon Hill problems.

Lawton worked for her as a press secretary several times, and she made an appearance at Lawton’s kick-off at the Philips Old Colony House. Lawton said he considers her a friend, but added that he has criticized her in the past. “Once you’re my friend, I stick with you,” he said.

He added he wasn’t sure what the outcome of the trial will be. He hopes “she will be able to come back,” he said.

Henriquez said he and Wilkerson attend the same church – Morningstar Baptist Church in Mattapan.

He largely shied away from criticizing Turner last year over similar federal corruption charges. Turner has also pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled to start in October.

“They’re due their day in court,” Henriquez said. “I look at her as a human being first. Everybody has some trials and tribulations.”