New voices emerge from 2018 races

Victors are not the only stars to watch

Phil Johnston.

LOCALLY AND NATIONALLY, the midterm elections were great for Democrats and our core values. Progressive leaders helped win back the US House, gained seats in the state Legislature, and held all statewide offices other than the corner office. The midterms also ushered in a new and diverse generation of leaders including US representatives-elect Ayanna Pressley and Lori Trahan, district attorneys-elect Rachael Rollins and Andrea Harrington, and state representative-elect Tram Nguyen.

As we focus on newly-elected stars, too often we overlook the new voices that emerged in campaigns that fell short. Those of us who have been in the trenches for decades know that it’s often necessary — and even beneficial — to run and lose before winning. Former president Barack Obama ran and lost a congressional race years before winning a seat in the Senate. My friend John Kerry lost a tough race for Congress prior to being elected lieutenant governor. Even Gov. Charlie Baker’s sweeping reelection win last month probably wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t lose in his first statewide run in 2010. This year, Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida ran impressive races and almost pulled off remarkable upsets.

Pols and pundits tend to focus on the rising star after they’ve risen. Those of us who have seen it happen try to find them and help them before the star is the star. Locally, this year those include Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jay Gonzalez, lieutenant governor nominee Quentin Palfrey, and congressional candidates Dan Koh and Juana Matias, who ran hard in a crowded field in the Third Congressional District.

Despite falling short in his effort to upset the popular Baker, Gonzalez ran on the compelling aspirational message that Massachusetts should “aim high” and lead on important issues such as transportation, education, and climate change. Gonzalez’s experience as a cabinet secretary under then-governor Deval Patrick and his mastery of policy details gave gravitas to his critique of Baker as a status-quo governor who has failed to stand up to Trump.

If you saw former Obama aide Quentin Palfrey on the campaign trail or caught his televised debate performance against Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, you saw a passionate and articulate new voice for fighting against poverty, inequality, and social injustice. Virtually unknown in Massachusetts political circles before this year, Palfrey ran a disciplined and effective grassroots campaign to win the party endorsement at the convention and eventually the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. By the end of the campaign, Palfrey had a stump speech that was motivating Democrats by appealing to both our heads and our hearts. While Palfrey and Gonzalez were outspent by Baker and were unable to pull off an upset against the popular Republican governor, both opened a lot of eyes.

Aided by his mentor Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the 33-year-old Koh burst onto the scene last fall, raising more than $3 million and coming within a handful of votes of winning a crowded primary. Although he fell just short of being elected to Congress, Koh has a bright future. Meanwhile, Matias — a state representative and immigration lawyer from Lawrence — placed a surprising third in the race to succeed Niki Tsongas despite being outspent by more than $2 million. Matias excited not only her natural base of Latino voters in Lawrence but ran competitively in the suburban parts of the district. Her message resonated with a wide swath of voters. In another year, in a less jammed-packed field, she could have won the race outright.

Meet the Author
I know I’m not the only one in Democratic circles hoping that, as with O’Rourke, Abrams, and Gillum — and with the legacy of Baker, Obama, and Kerry — we see these four on a ballot again soon.

Phil Johnston is a former state representative, state secretary of health and human services, and chairman of the Massachusetts State Democratic Party.