Second Suffolk senate hopefuls make case at progressive forum

Four candidates jostling for the recently redrawn Second Suffolk state senate seat participated in a largely congenial forum this week that drew out only slight differences between them on policy and left the distinctions largely to their backgrounds.

Roxbury pastor and lawyer Rev. Miniard Culpepper, state representatives Nika Elugardo and Liz Miranda, and former state senator Dianne Wilkerson made their cases in the Thursday night forum. Moderated by Bay State Banner editor Yawu Miller and GBH News reporter Saraya Wintersmith, the meeting was hosted by the JP Progressives, NAACP Boston, Right to the City Vote, Chinese Progressive Political Action, and Mijente.

The three former and current elected officials pointed to their work in and out of the State House as evidence of their qualifications for the Boston seat, which stretches from Roxbury through parts of Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Hyde Park, and Mattapan. Current state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz is running for governor, leaving an open race for the post.

Elugardo, a progressive who primaried and ousted former Massachusetts House Ways & Means Committee Chair Jeffrey Sánchez in 2018 to take the 15th Suffolk district House seat, highlighted work on voting reform legislation and bringing in small business funding to her district. Miranda, coming from a community and youth organizing background, also took office in 2018 in the 5th Suffolk district. She emphasized her social justice work on Beacon Hill, which arose from family experiences with separation, incarceration, and gun violence.

Wilkerson noted that she previously served as the senator for the Second Suffolk in its prior district lines, before serving time on federal bribery charges, and stated that she is “time tested” and has a proven record of delivering for the constituency on issues like gender and racial profiling data analysis and reproductive care.

Culpepper, by contrast, said his lack of elected qualifications is a boon because he is unburdened by existing obligations or compromises. The reverend referred to his godmother Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first Black congresswoman, like whom he is “unbought and unbossed,” he said. He is the only candidate, he said, with decades of experience in affordable housing advocacy and practically connecting people with homes.

Miller and Wintersmith lobbed some pointed questions at each of the candidates’ political vulnerabilities. Wilkerson, who was the first black woman elected to the Massachusetts state Senate, saw her elected career tumble after she pleaded guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion in 2010.

At the forum, Wilkerson expressed remorse for her actions and said she spent the last decade working in the community to continue advancing the interests of Black and brown Bostonians. She highlighted work to make sure those communities were heard in Boston Olympics discussions, organizing the Black Boston Covid-19 Coalition, as well as advocating for the return of an elected school committee. Her collation in favor of an elected school committee will meet with Mayor Michelle Wu this week, Wilkerson said.

For “the things that I did, and paid a price for, that harmed a lot of people in the district,” Wilkerson said, she “will be forever, forever, regretful and sorry, because I think we lost, we all lost. So I make no bones about what I’m asking people to do; but I also know that if you are concerned about women’s rights, if you are concerned about what happens with voting rights, gay marriage, LGBTQ issues, then you’re not going to have a better advocate in the next two to four years’ battle than I.”

Moderators asked Elugardo about her reputation for butting heads with House leadership, and how she would be an effective senator.

Her reputation on Beacon Hill, Elugardo said, is for being “an honest, straight-shooter with integrity who speaks to you before I speak to anyone in public.” She said Speaker of the House Ron Mariano told her “when” she makes it over to the Senate that “I want you to keep having these talks with me because they’re very important.” Elugardo said her approach – recognizing a person’s strengths and helping them see the strengths of those around them – had served her well in securing job funding for communities of color and low-income education funding. She was tasked with rallying legislators for language enabling same day voter registration opposed by House leadership and ultimately voted down, though Elugardo said the 62 who supported the effort marks an example of effective movement building.

A question for Miranda addressed past tweets with “insensitive language.” Miranda said she has “apologized for those statements that were done 10 to 12 years ago, and are not who I am today,” and her interactions since with her home community and LGBTQ communities have been positive. Generally, Miranda said, “None of us are our worst mistake, none of us are the worst thing that has happened to us, none of us are the worst thing we’ve done… This community, to be honest, is full of people who deserve a second chance, and that’s something I believe in and I have fought for.”

In detailed responses, the candidates emphasized some common themes: priority areas guided by community interests, an equity lens into issues like housing and education policy, and the amount of trust-building and outreach needed to ensure that communities of color have access to Covid health resources and Covid recovery investments.

Culpepper detailed work that faith groups have done to connect Black residents to masks and vaccines over the course of the pandemic. Building on his housing access work at HUD and his local advocacy efforts in Boston, Culpepper said the next senator must work to diagnose “institutional and structural” barriers to community buy-in or getting adequate resources to communities in need.

The candidates said action is needed to continue addressing the addiction and mental health crisis centered around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. Wilkerson said the Charlie Baker administration has “walked away” and “taken no responsibility," and while she does not want to send away the number of people on the stretch who come from outside of Boston, the conditions are “unacceptable and we need to deal with it.”

Miranda, who, like Wilkerson, lives near the Mass and Cass intersection, focused on the transitional nature of many in the area. City and state partners should “get people into homes and into treatment and make sure society is supportive to people in the throes of addiction,” she said. Elugardo said using the enVision Hotel as transitional housing as the city cleared tent encampments was a positive move, and Culpepper said the a solution may be taking a note from Los Angeles and building supportive housing near the area where people are most in crisis. “I don’t think we can run from the problem,” he said. “We have to deal with it right where it is.”

The four candidates opposed putting the Boston Public Schools into state receivership. Miranda described receivership as “anti-democratic.” Elugardo said state officials are often not well situated to understand the needs of different districts and populations. In other instances of receivership, Culpepper said, high staff turnover resulted and parents end up “cut out of the decision making process.” A BPS takeover would be a “big mistake” he said. His organization has been meeting with clergy and expects to have a press conference and make a statement soon in opposition to the receivership proposal.

In the forum, which is archived on the JP Progressives Facebook page, the candidates also called for better mental health supports, citing personal and family experiences with trauma and clinical mental health diagnoses. Miranda established a social-media based mental health resource in her first year in office. Elugardo emphasized the need for sufficient funding for behavioral health in schools. Culpepper said state funds should go to local health centers to incorporate mental health services into community care.

Wilkerson focused on the return to school after pandemic isolation. “There was never a plan in BPS that provided mental health supports,” she said. “Not only that, but the police were gone, and so it was a really dangerous combination every day the result of those two bad decisions.” Her coalition is working with the New England Medical Association to put together a mental health program to meet people where they live and gather, she said.

During rapid fire yes-or-no rounds, the four candidates answered in lockstep each time. As phrased, all said they opposed a statewide ballot measure which would classify gig workers as independent contractors.

They all said they supported a single-payer health care system, insurance coverage for pregnancy care including abortions, a robust early education plan, the Fair Share Amendment to impose a tax on incomes over $1 million, free public transit, eliminating the sub-minimum wage tip system for hospitality workers, legalizing safe consumption sites as a response to the opioid epidemic, same day voter registration, and removing public records exemptions for all three branches of state government.

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