In Allston-Brighton and around the region, progressives mount unprecedented challenges against longtime incumbents
In this legislative district, during the entire lifetime of an average resident, there has not been a contested election.
No, this is not a single-party totalitarian state—it’s the Commonwealth’s 17th Suffolk District covering Allston and Brighton.
Running along Comm Ave between Boston University and Boston College, this is by at least one measure among the most millennial legislative districts in the state: 41% of residents were born between 1991 and 1998, which leads all other districts and is a whole 10 points higher than the next, the 27th Middlesex in Somerville.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Kevin Honan won his last contested election in 1986, before a significant majority of residents were even born, and has represented the district ever since. A working-class native son of the community and fixture of neighborhood civic associations, Honan is a big shot on Beacon Hill, and serves as the head of the powerful Joint Committee on Housing.
Even in an uncompetitive system that discourages primary challenges—only about one-third of House members face elections in 2020, consistent with previous cycles—Honan’s 34-year reign stands out. Because Honan has not been challenged since the Reagan administration (other than by a write-in outsider named Sarah Elizabeth Sullivan, who got six votes in 2010), those under 35 years old, or about 69% of residents, have never seen another name on the ballot.
But Honan’s uncontested streak ends this year. Jordan Meehan, a 29-year-old lawyer with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, mounted a primary challenge as part of a cohort of progressives in the Boston area running against incumbents. Others include Nicole Mossalam challenging Malden Rep. Paul Donato, Damali Vidot taking on Rep. Daniel J. Ryan in the 2nd Suffolk District, and Jen Fries of North Cambridge giving Rep. Dave Rogers his first head-to-head in eight years. They’re contrasting the behavior and decisions that creatures of Beacon Hill are known for by offering bold platforms and transparency. Mossalam, for example, “does not accept donations from housing developers, fossil fuel executives, law enforcement associations, or corporate PACs/lobbyists.”
Will Honan’s deep roots in the area and 17 years guiding housing reform help him fend off the outside challenge? Or are Meehan and company a harbinger that the insurgent energy of AOC in New York, Cori Bush in Missouri, and Ayanna Pressley in Mass is coming for state politics?
Meehan, a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), considers his primary campaign to be hitting Honan from the left. But the incumbent is not only a Democrat; he is a self-proclaimed progressive who has sent out mailers pledging support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Coming off three weeks of legislative sessions from “11 [in the morning] to 11 at night,” Honan called me to emphasize his commitment to the neighborhood on behalf of working people. He “attended elementary [and] high school in the district, lived here as a renter, homeowner.”
“My wife and I raised our daughter in this district,” he said. During his tenure, the incumbent recalled, “I have had an extraordinary opportunity to make a real difference in Massachusetts on housing policy, particularly as it pertains to production, preservation of affordable housing.”
Such jockeying for the leftmost lane makes sense. The district is not only very millennial, it’s particularly progressive, in some ways leaning even further than the candidates. While both Meehan and Honan supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary, 46% of voters in the 17th Suffolk cast ballots for Bernie Sanders at some of the highest rates in Boston and the Commonwealth. Warren, by contrast, received 31% of the vote, with eventual Democratic nominee Joe Biden taking only 15%.
As a fairly average resident—a late 20s renter who supported Bernie—I was interested in understanding how the contours of an intra-left primary manifests in a local race. I met up with Meehan just before his socially distanced flyering at Ringer Park, where he mentioned his interest in “drawing contrasts” with the incumbent as the campaign proceeds. Of Honan, Meehan said: “You can’t just rest on your laurels having voted the right way on a handful of good things and say, Oh, I’m a progressive visionary, when you’re not. You’re not standing up [to House Speaker] Bob DeLeo, you’re not standing up demanding rent control, you’re not standing up demanding fair free public transit, you don’t have a climate plan, you have a bad record on criminal justice.”
On climate, Meehan further explained, “He doesn’t have a plan for a Green New Deal, I do.” (Honan’s campaign website’s sparse “issue” page does not have a section on climate policy.) Though Meehan has never held elected office, he has done his homework. He referred to his ideas as a “nerdy” several times; when I asked about the specifics of his climate proposals, he brightened up: “Oh, God, let’s chat about that.”
Meehan’s environmental plan includes using mechanisms like the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires public utilities to transition to 100% renewables by 2030, as well as structural reforms like transferring utilities to public ownership and creating a conservation jobs corps for Mass.
Besides climate change, transportation will be an important issue for this dense district, which is bisected by the Green Line and the 66 bus. Both candidates feel a deep affinity for the MBTA; Honan even told me, “I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was 22 years old, because I took public transit everywhere.” For Meehan, a key proposal, and a phrase he repeated several times in our meetup, was “fare free” MBTA, which he insists is not “such a radical idea.” Until 2006, the candidate noted, “it used to be free on the street level for the Green Line.”
Of all the issues in play, housing may be a deciding factor in this primary. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, rents increased by 30% in Allston-Brighton over the last few years. Considering such trends, as well as Honan’s influential position as chair of the housing committee, it’s inevitable that evictions and affordability emerge at the forefront of the race for the 17th Suffolk.
Notably, Meehan is a vocal advocate of rent control. Honan doesn’t lead with this policy, but he is a supporter, having in June successfully ushered a bill to remove the prohibition on rent control through his committee. In our interview, the representative recalled how he campaigned hard to keep rent control in the 1990s.
Meehan also supports more technical reforms to housing policy from a racial justice standpoint, like changes to eviction procedure and reporting, to zoning reform. Zoning, especially in wealthier suburbs, Meehan said, is “a direct legacy of redlining that has never gone away.” Adding, “It’s just been painted over with new terminology that’s race neutral, but that is racist in its impact.”
These are reforms Honan will tell you he’s been working on for decades. When he first became chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, he worked on a law called 40R, “that empowers municipalities, to designate areas within their town lines where they feel housing would be best built.” The rep said he has been a “strong supporter of building dense housing at MBTA sites in the greater Boston area” and calls to light that he’s the chief sponsor of a real estate transfer tax for the city of Boston that would place a 2% tax on properties above $2 million, with “the money [going] into a fund to build affordable housing.”
Honan has emphasized how his leadership role enables him to create coalitions and pass legislation. His fliers tout recent accomplishments, including a COVID eviction moratorium to protect renters hurt most by this crisis; in one message, fellow state Rep. Chynah Tyler says, “No one in Massachusetts has contributed more to housing and tenants’ rights than Kevin Honan.”
But is it enough? In attempts to set himself apart, Meehan has cast doubt on his opponent’s ability to legislate on behalf of renters, given the number of contributions he accepts from real estate interests. “Especially as the chair of the housing committee, he should not be taking campaign donations from the same developers who are pricing people out of this neighborhood,” Meehan said. “That is a conflict of interest, it is immoral, it is wrong, and it’s easily preventable.”
Honan’s campaign had about $86,000 on hand at the end of June, including significant contributions from large donors in the housing industry who live outside the district. That month alone, the incumbent had more donations of $1,000 than those under $100, with all of those $1,000 donors living outside the district and at least half working in real estate-affiliated industries. Meehan, however, refunds donations from real estate interests; comparatively, his campaign is fueled by small donations, with no donations over $500 in June.
In our interview, Honan stressed that he’s “had one fundraiser [a] year” and has traditionally been committed to putting that money back to community organizations, scholarship funds, and humanitarian relief. “We have reinvested the money into people who are in need,” he said, also pointing out that he’s opposed developments, even recently. “If you think that I’m being influenced and that there’s a conflict of interest? I would not agree with you on that.”
In another point of contention, Honan has also raised thousands of dollars from police associations, a data point that is especially relevant in the recent debate over his votes on bills related to sentencing, prisons, and police authority. A few weeks ago, Patrick Bruce, a volunteer and consultant associated with Meehan’s campaign, released a series of viral (as far as local politics go) tweets slamming Honan’s “absolutely abysmal criminal justice record,” a thread which Meehan boosted. Honan responded, in a heavily shared post, calling the accusations “false” and defending his record.
A Dig review of the thread in question suggests that at least one of Bruce’s accusations—that Honan “co-sponsored a bill to repeal a section of the existing law that reduced time for prisoner blood donations”—misrepresented Honan’s record. Otherwise, the claims present problems of interpretation. Meehan clarified: “If I amplified anything that was incorrect I certainly apologize. But most of Honan’s response was less of a refutation than explanations.”
All issues considered, it’s no surprise that Honan’s past support for mass incarceration—as Meehan notes, specifically, laws that “created mandatory minimums, drug free public housing laws, and three strikes laws”—has become a key point of debate throughout the primary, as a massive and unprecedented police reform bill is negotiated on Beacon Hill.
Meehan concedes that his opponent “has voted the correct way on a lot of amendments to this police reform bill.” Indeed, Honan was one of less than 20 lower-house legislators to earn a 100% rating from Progressive Mass on those measures. Still, the challenger argues that Honan “would not have done [so] if he were not being primaried.”
“You can’t just vote the right way in a few amendments … and say, I’m a progressive, I care about criminal justice reform,” Meehan said, “when your entire legislative record is the antithesis of that.”
As Meehan’s campaign manager, Micaela Clark, told me in late July, “If we could canvass in this race, I think we would win this election.”
COVID-19 has changed everything, including campaign tactics, and in major ways—some obvious, others less so. In this race, neither campaign plans to knock on doors. Meehan told me their campaign is making thousands of calls, as well as running a relational organizing program. Honan, meanwhile, has been “working closely with nonprofits in the neighborhood” who provide PPE and food “to people who were a couple of paychecks away from losing it all.”
There was a Zoom debate on Aug 10 hosted by Ward 21 Democrats and a couple of forums since, but otherwise there’s been limited attention on or coverage of the race by the media—no articles since February, by our count, outside of an occasional Politico newsletter notice. Some voters may rely on endorsements to guide their decisions, and in that regard activist groups are relatively split: Sunrise Boston and Mass Peace Action have endorsed Meehan, while NARAL and Stonewall Democrats have endorsed Honan. With the exception of the Boston Teachers Union, which supports Meehan, Honan has garnered considerably more support from labor.
Despite the lack of coverage, many in the district are starting to follow the race via social media, or even word of mouth. However people get their information, a key question for both campaigns, in the context of an overwhelmingly young and left-leaning district, is still, How do you get them to care?
“I would say the people who went out for Bernie … do not know who their state rep is,” Meehan said. That’s not because voters are stupid or apathetic, he adds, but as far as Allston-Brighton politics are concerned, because Honan’s “never had to put up signs before.” “He’s never had to go and ask someone for their vote,” Meehan said.
In response to such characterizations, Honan said he is visible in the community, citing his “extraordinary attendance” at civic association meetings and relationships that run deep, including friends “in the music industry who play at the Paradise, who have played at Brighton Music Hall.” The incumbent is also putting forward a personal story centering on his working-class heritage.
“Look, my grandfather bought the house on Gordon Street in the 1940s,” Honan said. “He came here from Ireland, he was the janitor of the buildings on Gordon Street. His grandson has gone on to become the chairperson of the Housing Committee of Massachusetts. I think he’d be very proud of me, and that’s what I want to do, I want to make people like my grandfather proud of me.”
Meehan’s pitch also carries a personal appeal, particularly to young, left-leaning voters: “I think, coming out of their same lived experiences as a renter, as someone who relies on the T, I can tell them straight up, yeah, I’ve had problems with my landlord, I’m facing a rent increase. I’ve lived exactly what you’re going through in this exact neighborhood, and I know how to bring that lens to policy making to fix exactly what is broken here because I have lived it.”
Such sentiments were shared by many of the volunteers at Meehan’s flyering event Ringer Park. One couple, Zack Goldhammer and Lina Raciukaitis, served as staging captains for the Bernie Sanders campaign’s Allston-Brighton location. They both first heard about Meehan when he showed up to their Harvard Ave apartment ahead of Super Tuesday.
“It was an incredibly inspiring speech,” Goldhammer told me. “It was very early on in his campaign, but he already had a very powerful message, which really energized my tiny apartment.”
For Raciukaitis, criminal justice was a top issue. She recognized that Honan has “written a bunch of bills that … put more Black and brown people into prison” and said, “It’s really just not what anybody is going for at the moment.”
Another volunteer, Jackie Tayabji, also stressed the importance of criminal justice, pointing out that for her, Meehan proved a better alternative than “the incumbent, who’s gone with the wind throughout the past few decades, who’s gone with what’s popular at the time, and in hindsight it’s turned out to really hurt people, and specifically to hurt communities of color.”
For Tayabji’s friend, Isabel Burlingame, the “two biggest” issues “are probably rent control and free MBTA because I think that would just help so many people. … As a renter and commuter, it would make a huge difference to me, I can’t even imagine; when you multiply that by how many people are in this district it would be huge.”
Whatever the outcome, at the very least, the primary offers voters in the 17th Suffolk a rare contested election. For many, it’s the first primary in their lifetimes where there’s been an opportunity to ask critical questions—about housing, policing, and a number of other issues that are ignored when incumbents go unchallenged—and get answers from multiple candidates. If this trend continues in subsequent elections around Mass, with progressives pushing longtime incumbents to the left from the left and even winning races in some places, you can count on ruling centrist Dems eventually bending further in that direction.
In some places, they already are.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.