September 2, 2022

The race to succeed state Sen. Chang-Díaz in the heart of Black political Boston

The winner of the five-way race to succeed state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who ceded her high-profile seat to run unsuccessfully for governor, will inherit more than a desk on Beacon Hill.

Reps. Nika Elugardo and Liz Miranda, former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, Rev. Miniard Culpepper and James Grant are vying to represent the Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and Mattapan, but also to champion the hopes and aspirations of people of color throughout Massachusetts.

Rev. Kevin Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition last summer called the Senate seat “the most important political district for the Black community in this commonwealth.”

The seat is “the vehicle through which the community gains its political capacity through funding and policy, and the person who represents the district as its senator is critical towards the task of impacting Black life in the state,” Peterson said. When the state’s legislative seats were redrawn last year, Peterson was one of the activists who pushed for the new boundaries that reunited the heart of Boston’s Black community in a single Senate district.

All five candidates in the race for the Second Suffolk Senate seat are Black. Grant, a church deacon, has campaigned minimally, and the field otherwise splits roughly along generational lines.

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Wilkerson, who held the seat for 15 years before her 2008 resignation in the wake of a bribery conviction, and Culpepper, recently retired after 27 years at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, say they have the experience to bring the district what it needs.

Elugardo and Miranda, second-term state representatives in their 40s, each cast themselves as part of a new wave of leaders on Beacon Hill who bring their community’s voice into the State House.

“You do not have to be the person that’s in the suit with a pin, a fancy pin, only at the State House working on policy and legislation,” Miranda said. “You can be a public servant, and that’s what people are voting for, I think, in this race. People who will pay attention to them, will work with them, and work on the hard issues and continue to deliver.”

Canvassing around the corner from her campaign office, Miranda stopped in at a nearby mosque, Masjid Al-Qur’an, to ask after the imam and see when she might return for a visit. After chatting for a few moments, the man who answered the door, Khalid Mustafa, told her, “I want to remind you, you wrote a letter of support for me.”

A man in a green shirt and woman in a green dress pose in front for a photo taken by a man with an iPhone.
State Rep. Liz Miranda poses for a photo with Khalid Mustafa after running into him while canvassing in support of her Senate campiagn.

Katie Lannan / GBH News

“Yes, oh my God! I didn’t recognize you with the mask,” Miranda replied. “How are you, brother?”

Miranda sent a letter to the state Parole Board, backing Mustafa’s bid to end his parole after three decades. Now, he told her he’s glad for her support — and she’s got his in the Senate race.

Spurred to run for office after the shooting death of her younger brother, Miranda has served in the House since claiming an open seat in 2018.

Elugardo was first elected the same year, after toppling Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, the influential chair of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, in the Democratic primary.

“People have been excited about the different ways that we do things, ways not only that we get budget money but participate in collaborative legislation-drafting,” she said. Beyond that, she added, “It’s how I show up — not just listening to you but taking action with you, having your back when you’re not in the room, fighting for you when it’s going to make me unpopular and standing with you when nobody else is standing with you or even with me.”

About three weeks before the primary, a group of high schoolers, all Black girls exploring different career paths, met with Elugardo to learn about running for office. She encouraged them to brainstorm campaign cornerstones — issues they care about.

Three teenage Black girls face away from the camera, listening to and looking at a Black woman surrounded by whiteboards and lists on long sheets of paper.
State Rep. Nika Elugardo stands in her Senate campaign office on Aug. 17, 2022, explaining to a group of high schoolers what it is like to run for elected office.

Katie Lannan / GBH News

Listing things she cares about on a big piece of paper taped to the wall, Elugardo wrote down children thriving, opportunity to follow dreams and freedom. Answering the prompt “where you come from,” she wrote “ghetto,” a word she said she loves because it symbolizes strength and resilience.

She told the group she grew up with parents battling addiction, who are now in recovery, and moved frequently because of housing insecurity. In her adulthood, she said she’s strived to build community leadership.

Culpepper is the senior pastor at Dorchester’s Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church who prayed over Sen. Elizabeth Warren before 2020 presidential debates. He entered the race in March, shortly after retiring as regional counsel at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He calls himself “the housing candidate,” keying in on an issue acutely felt in a district that is grappling with rising home prices and the displacement they cause.

“We’re in a housing crisis. With the housing experience, I thought it was important that I start dealing directly with gentrification,” Culpepper said while knocking doors one evening on Waumbeck Street, around the corner from his church and its youth peace program in Trotter Park.

Miniard Culpepper stands behind a chain-link face, placing a sign in a yard that has his name and a photo of him on it.
State Senate candidate Miniard Culpepper puts up a yard sign in a supporter’s home in Dorchester on Aug. 24, 2022.

Katie Lannan / GBH News

He’s running on a multi-pronged housing plan that calls for rehabbing public housing and transferring ownership to tenants. Unlike his rivals for the seat, Culpepper has not held elected office before. He says he has other experience that matters — “I’m the one that has built housing” — and points to his work in the community and as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan.

“I’m the one out here with the gang kids, walking the streets and doing peace programs and helping them get full-time jobs, so I would do the same thing on Beacon Hill,” he said. “I was chief of staff for a congresswoman in Washington. I know what the legislative process is all about.”

The dynamics of the race changed with Wilkerson’s relatively last-minute entry in April. Her candidacy offer voters the question of whether they’re interested in a political comeback 12 years after she pleaded guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion.

The former senator has been active in the community, recently serving as one of the founders of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition and trying during the 2021 mayoral election to unite the city’s Black leaders behind a single Black candidate.

“Other than saying what I said and apologizing for that disappointment and hurt, the only thing that I know how to do is serve,” Wilkerson said. “So for 10 years I’ve been nose to the grind doing that. And it got to a point where that service isn’t enough to deliver what this community needs right now, and they need resources. There are resources to be had and what is clear to me is that the current group of elected officials have been unable to do that.”

DSC_8637.jpg
Dianne Wilkerson, a former Democratic member of the Massachusetts Senate, poses for a portrait in Boston’s South End on May 23, 2021.

Meredith Nierman / GBH News

With the state expecting a historic budget surplus and billions in COVID-19 relief money still unspent, Wilkerson said it will take an experienced hand to make sure the district gets its share of the bounty. She said it’s no accident that Beacon Hill’s top leadership posts are filled by lawmakers who have been on the job for decades.

“I just feel like right now we’ve got to match the gray hair with gray hair,” she said.

There has been no public polling in the race, leaving endorsements and fundraising as the only ways to gauge support.

Elugardo’s backers include activist and former state lawmaker Mel King and former acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey, Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan, city councilors Kendra Lara and Ricardo Arroyo, and former councilor Tito Jackson. Backing Miranda are Rep. Liz Malia of Jamaica Plain and city councilors Tania Fernandes Anderson and Ruthzee Louijeune, among others. Wilkerson has touted an endorsement from the Boston Bus Drivers Union, and Culpepper has support from former state Rep. Royal Bolling Jr., and Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate.

With more than $350,000 spent by the candidates combined, the Second Suffolk is the most expensive race in the 40-seat Senate. Donors come from within the district as well as across the state and country, reflecting both the profile of the seat and the breadth of the contenders’ networks.

Miranda leads the field in campaign contributions, taking in almost $200,000 since entering the race last December. Culpepper has raked in more than $157,000 since March, including contributions from former Gov. Deval Patrick and former Sen. William “Mo” Cowan.

Elugardo has also crossed the $100,000 mark, while Wilkerson reported around $11,735 in donations heading into August. Grant had a little more than $200 in the bank, and reported spending only 32 cents to verify a PayPal account.

Peterson, of the New Democracy Coalition, said that to emerge from the crowded field, a successful candidate will need to demonstrate a focus on the district’s pressing needs, like poverty, public safety and housing. They’ll have to show they’re prepared to advocate for the most vulnerable, he said.

“A Black senator who emerges out of the Black community in Boston has a unique advantage in terms of understanding the specific trials and tribulations and difficulties that residents throughout these communities feel every day,” Peterson said.

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