When nine-year First Suffolk and Middlesex State Sen. Anthony Petruccelli announced his resignation last December, Latino voters in the lawmaker’s disjointed district—which includes slices of Chinatown, East Boston, and the North End in the Hub, as well as parts of Winthrop, Cambridge, and Revere—thought there might finally be a chance to vote one of their own into the critical office. In a district in which more than 40,000 respondents claimed Hispanic origin on the 2010 US Census and where some estimates put the Latino population at as much as 40 percent of all residents, the time seemed ripe to secure the position, historically dominated by white males, for a legislator from a different demographic.
The editorial board of El Planeta, along with readers of the prominent Bay State Spanish-language newspaper, felt similarly, and in January of this year published a poll, writing:
Even though mainstream English-language media don’t cover the potential Latino candidates that are prepared for this position, there are several Latino ready to become elected officials. With the intention to demonstrate that there are Latinos candidates for the position of State Senator that Anthony Petruccelli is leaving open, we decided to open to the public this opinion poll to listen what the people think and look for the ideal candidate.
Among the community figures who the newspaper floated to potentially replace the well-liked Petruccelli, who has since gone on to work as a lobbyist: Dennis Benzan, now-former vice mayor of Cambridge and that city’s first Latino councilor; Ileana Cintron of the Massachusetts Democratic Latino Caucus; and Patricia Montes of the immigrant rights group Centro Presente; all among a local Hispanic dream slate of hopefuls from activist and bureaucratic ranks alike. More than 700 online votes later, two names surfaced at the top of the pack—Camilo Hernandez, the constituent services director for East Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina, and 25-year neighborhood advocate Claudia Sierra.
“I have been an activist in the area,” says Sierra of East Boston, who took the cue and pulled papers to run in the April 12 primary and the special election in May. She continues, “When this seat opened, there was a lot of talk about who should run, and I analyzed all the issues we’ve been facing, the lack of leadership and inclusion, the lack of transparency in community processes, and the changes in East Boston.”
All things considered, Sierra thought the time was right to take the plunge. “We need more representation,” she says of Latinos in the First Suffolk and Middlesex. “I have become a point of reference for many people, and my daily calls are, ‘Claudia, we have problems with this, come and help us.’ That’s what I’m already doing.”
Recalling her early social justice work, Sierra says, “When I first moved here I found out all the deficiencies you face as an immigrant not being able to speak the language. That made me stronger to help other people who are going through the same thing. I started to volunteer as a translator, not just for medical but for immigration, and that’s when I started to be connected with the community … Even though I was born in this country I am still an immigrant. I grew up in Latin America and moved to East Boston when I was 18. Being born here was not an advantage to me—I faced the same challenges as everyone else … Throughout the years I have seen the same issues and nothing getting resolved. Minorities are being made to believe that they have to vote for somebody else and that one of them isn’t good enough to represent them.”
With help from a small group of volunteers, Sierra collected in slight excess of the 300 signatures required to run in the Democratic primary and subsequent May 10 special election. But while the paperwork was filed on time, officials with the Boston Election Department ruled that not enough of her signatures were valid. With that decision, despite the significant Hispanic population of the First Suffolk and Middlesex, none of the seven candidates who qualified for the ballot would come from the Latino community.
“It was a very diverse group,” Sierra says, referring to a seven-candidate field that included former Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo, Asian-American Women’s Political Initiative Founder Diana Hwang, State Rep. Jay Livingstone, and East Boston attorney and low-wage labor rights advocate Lydia Marie Edwards, who received an enthusiastic endorsement from the Boston Globe. Non-Hispanic diversity aside, Sierra says she followed the race closely and observed that “the majority of [candidates] were trying to tap into the Latino community. As Latinos, we see this all the time—they learn a few words of Spanish, they love tacos, they learn how to dance salsa, and it’s insulting. They’re playing with our culture, and they’re only doing it to get our vote.”
Squeaking past six others, Winthrop attorney Joseph Boncore emerged from a short race full of mud-slinging with just over 4,000 votes—about 400 more than Rizzo, also a white male, in second place—to fill the seat left vacant by Petruccelli. Now in office (the new senator was sworn in last week), Boncore already has to run again, this time in the regular election cycle, and will appear on the upcoming primary ballot in September. Instead of having six opponents, however, this time Boncore will face zero major party foes. According to Sierra, it’s not for a lack of trying.
Having learned from the rejection of her signatures the first time, Sierra says that on her second attempt, she brought friends and volunteers to find signers outside of polling stations on Super Tuesday in March. The would-be candidate then submitted 373 signatures to the Boston Election Department—about 24 percent more than required—and was again told that she failed to qualify. According to the city, 88 of her signatures were invalid, leaving Sierra 15 signers short of the mandatory threshold of 300. After wrestling with election officials over individual signatures, Sierra was able to get four more people counted, which still only put her total at 289.
Though she is calling for more Latino voices on Beacon Hill, Sierra says she isn’t asking for special treatment in the electoral process. At the same time, the twice-rejected candidate has grown weary of the Boston Election Department, which she argues has been stubborn in reviewing her signatures. Several submissions shown to the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and El Planeta, for example, were rejected because the name listed on the form did not match exactly with the department’s internal record. Sierra says this isn’t surprising, since many Hispanics have multiple family names that they do not always list exhaustively. Furthermore, election officials appear to have rejected the names of some active voters including Jose Callejas, a well-known member of the East Boston community and the owner of La Hacienda, a Meridian Street restaurant where pols like to pass through and press flesh with constituents.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson from the City of Boston wrote in an email, “The Boston Election Department thoroughly reviews all signatures to ensure a fair process for all potential candidates. Although Ms. Sierra did not formally file a complaint identifying the signatures that she believes were unfairly rejected, the department took extra steps and conducted an informal review of all signatures that we were unable to certify. That review was conducted in Ms. Sierra’s presence, and it led to the department accepting four (4) additional signatures, which was still short of the number of certified signatures that she needed.” As for their process, the spokesperson added, “Signatures are reviewed to ensure that eligible voters have signed the nomination papers. Voters signatures must match the name and address on the file with the state voter registration database, their party designation and assigned districts are also reviewed.”
Elections experts contacted for this story were unwilling to address the Sierra situation specifically. As a rule of thumb, however, those familiar with the qualification process recommended that political hopefuls collect at least 150 percent of the number of signatures needed to avoid falling short. As for Sen. Boncore (or anybody else) running solo, Pam Wilmot, executive director of the government accountability nonprofit Common Cause Massachusetts, says, “Where there’s only one name on the ballot, that’s not democracy. Having more names on the ballot requires a candidate to be sharper. It gives voters choices—even if there’s one frontrunner who is going to run away with it. I can’t comment on this particular case, but that’s a real problem in Massachusetts.”
At this time during the last legislative election cycle, in 2014, more than 60 percent of state representatives slid to victory past no real opposition. Likewise, about half of the incumbent senators statewide faced no primary or general election opponent, while only one of the six senators from Boston had company on the ballot. As for minority representation: According to a recent Globe report on State House diversity, “not quite one in 10 legislators on Beacon Hill is black, Latino, or Asian, whereas these minorities collectively account for a quarter of the state’s population.”
“This is another battle that I’m just going to have to fight—just like many other battles that I fight daily,” Sierra says. “I take this as a normal challenge. It should be easy, this shouldn’t be happening, but I can sit and cry about it or I can do something about it. I can let people know that regardless of what happens with the signatures, we still have a chance of running. It’s a chance for me to educate the community about how the write-in ballot works, and maybe that’s an advantage.
“As immigrants, as a working community, every day is a challenge for us—whether with work, or with school, or anything else. It’s always a battle.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in coordination with El Planeta and DigBoston. For the Spanish version visit elplaneta.com