Changing of the guard in East Boston

Changing of the guard in East Boston

Lydia Edwards election is full manifestation of shift

IT SEEMS LIKE YESTERDAY to me, but it was a long time ago – 1983 – when I ran Bob Travaglini’s campaign for District 1 City Council.  It was the first year of district council races in Boston, and our strategy was to treat the election as if it were a State Senate race – win big in his hometown of East Boston and run well everywhere else.  Travaglini won the election handily, the first step on a political journey that would bring him to the presidency of the Massachusetts Senate.

Since Travaglini’s election an unbroken chain of Italo-Americans have held the seat.  That will change in January, when Lydia Edwards becomes the new city councilor for District 1.  In a race of historic importance, Edwards defeated the candidate backed by the long powerful but increasingly diminished political old guard.  Edwards won for many reasons – an impressive background and resume; a passionate cadre of supporters; and, perhaps most important, the ability to see, understand, and appeal to the changing demographics in the district.

I first took note of this change in 2013 with the decisive defeat of the Eastie-only ballot question on the proposed casino at Suffolk Downs.  That election was meant to be a setup, let’s be clear about that.  There was only one reason why the Suffolk Downs casino decision was left solely to East Boston voters, and it had nothing to do with location (although that was a magnificent pretext).  The real reason was the insiders’ assumption that East Boston would vote yes.  A stereotype of East Boston voters was ingrained in the cynical decision makers who chose to limit the election to East Boston voters, and that stereotype was of a person who either went to the track and wanted to gamble, or someone who could be influenced by the largesse being doled out by Suffolk Downs and its many consultants.  The stereotype was profoundly out of date, and on Election Day 2013 over 56 percent of East Boston voters said “no” to a casino there.

I was asked before the voting to speak at an anti-casino meeting held in the Sacred Heart Church hall. I was surprised by the diversity of the audience.  I, too, had old stereotypes in my head, and what I saw was a revelation: about a third of the audience was comprised of older Italo-Americans, and a third was Latinos. I expected that. What I did not expect was the final third – young professionals who were aligned with the others in common cause to protect their community from the casino proposal.

Lydia Edwards campaigning for the state Senate in 2016.

The vote against the casino was the first clear piece of evidence that the old ways of thinking were expiring in East Boston. In their place was a community that looked balkanized to many outsiders, but in reality was bound by shared values.  When shortly after the vote I helped found the group East Boston 2020, it was an effort to build upon the anti-casino vote and demonstrate that the community could reach broad consensus on principles for the sustainable, transit-oriented development of Suffolk Downs.  Because of the hard work of many people – especially those who opposed the casino plan, and who participated in EB 2020 – the discussion about development at Suffolk Downs today is focused where it should be: on good 21st century jobs, on housing, on transit orientation, and on sustainability.

The election outcome this week represents the full manifestation of the shift.  It is no accident that the two most recently elected state legislators, Adrian Madaro and Joseph Boncore, share a more progressive political outlook and endorsed Edwards.  The real test of change: choosing Edwards was an easy decision for my 91-year-old Italo-American parents, who are constantly amazed and sometimes threatened by the changes taking place in their neighborhood but who quickly embraced Edwards (with no prompting by me) as the kind of person they wanted to trust with the future of the community they have made home for many decades.

The campaign had some ugly moments, reaching a low point in my judgment when the local newspaper ran a letter to the editor (placed as the lead editorial) that was a carefully worded but barely concealed racial appeal hiding behind the guise of Italo-ethnic pride. I suspect that sort of thing happens when people refuse to believe, or cannot see, the changes taking place before their very eyes, and the embrace of those changes by a genuine majority.  I remember, after the casino vote in 2013, saying to Bob Travaglini that the then-incumbent councilor and legislators no longer understood who their constituents were and what their constituents stood for.  The disconnect was laid bare for everyone to see if they wanted to.

If you look at the electoral map of East Boston, you will see that for political purposes the community is two places. 

Edwards lost the northern precincts closer to Revere and Winthrop – places where the changing demographics haven’t yet caught up with the rest of the community, but even there, you can notice that change is coming.  For example, Edwards shocked the local politicos by winning Precinct 13 (on the hill where the statute of the Madonna presides) in the primary.  She narrowly lost it in the general election, but the handwriting is on the wall.

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She won by large margins in Precincts 1-10 – basically the neighborhoods directly abutting the waterfront and Logan Airport that reflect an East Boston that’s increasingly gentrified but also home to many “old timers” aging in place, and many new residents and citizens, mostly Latinos from South and Central America.  These people may not always agree on issues, but on the important ones – like the future of Suffolk Downs, like the need for better transit and open space, like the importance of a safe community where neighbors treat one another with respect and understanding – they have shared values. And that is the enduring strength of the place that, no matter where I live, will always be my hometown.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group.