Edwards beats D’Ambrosio in special election primary for state Senate 

Boston city councilor rolls over Revere official with strong support from her Boston base, Winthrop, and Cambridge

BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR Lydia Edwards rode a wave of progressive support – and high-profile endorsements that included both of the state’s US senators and Boston’s new mayor – to defeat Revere school committee member Anthony D’Ambrosio in a special election Democratic primary for the state Senate seat covering Revere, Winthrop, and chunks of Boston and Cambridge.

With unofficial results in from all four communities, Edwards rolled over D’Ambrosio by a decisive 60-40 margin, capturing 8.149 votes to his 5,413. She won by big margins in Boston, and in Cambridge she captured an astounding 95 percent of the vote. Edwards won the key battleground community of Winthrop, where D’Ambrosio hoped to do well. She had 1,189 votes there to D’Ambrosio’s 873.

Edwards, a 41-year-old Black lawyer who championed domestic workers rights before winning her city council seat in 2017, pointed to a long record of advocacy and accomplishments in office to beat back a well-funded campaign by the 25-year-old D’Ambrosio, who tried to unify Revere’s sometimes splintered political forces behind the idea of putting a local resident in a seat that was held for decades by an East Boston politician and then, over the last five years by Joe Boncore of Winthrop.

In a district that has sent a succession of Italian-American men to the Senate for decades, it was another sign of the sweeping change in the region’s political order, where Black women have, in recent years, been elected to Congress and district attorney, and where Boston chose its first woman and first person of color as mayor in electing Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, last month. In the Senate race, Edwards prevailed in mainly white district in campaign where race largely took a backseat to other issues

Boncore’s resignation in September to take a job as head of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council triggered the special election. With no Republicans vying in the primary, Edwards is almost certain to be elected to the seat in the January 11 general election. If she prevails, Edwards would become the lone African American member of the Senate.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards racked up an impressive roster of endorsements in her state Senate race. Flanking Edwards are, on the left, state Rep. Nika Elugardo, state Rep. Adrian Madaro, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and on the right (in glasses) newly-elected Teamsters International President Sean O’Brien and US Sen. Ed Markey. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Edwards has been an affordable housing advocate and pushed reform of the city budgeting process, authoring a ballot question approved by voters last month that gives the City Council more say in the city’s annual spending plan. She has pressed developers of the massive redevelopment of the Suffolk Downs race track, which straddles the East Boston-Revere border, to increase the share of housing units they will set aside for low- and moderate income residents.

D’Ambrosio won 75 percent of the vote in Revere, but it was not enough to overcome Edwards’s strength across the rest of the district.

“My team is awesome and the way in which our base rallied around me is something that I will remember for of the rest of my life, and is something that put me in contention in this race,” D’Ambrosio said. “They were here for me. It just wasn’t quite enough.”

Edwards sought to position herself as a battle-tested elected official with a record of accomplishment against an opponent hoping to ride the coattails of his family ties in the district, especially in Revere, where D’Ambrosio lived as a young boy, and Winthrop, where his mother grew up. D’Ambrosio’s father, Gerry, is an influential lawyer who once also served on the city’s school committee.

Edwards had the backing of both of the state’s US senators, Attorney General Maura Healey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and newly-elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

While the race largely turned into a turf battle pitting D’Ambrosio’s solid base of support in Revere against Edwards’s strength in Boston and Cambridge, it was also a referendum on whether the district would embrace the progressive wave has that sent Wu, Pressley, and other political change agents into office in recent years or stick to a more moderate Democratic lane. 

There was little difference between them on many issues, but they differed on several points. While Edwards supports legislation that would allow cities and towns to reestablish rent control, D’Ambrosio opposes the measure. Edwards favors eliminating qualified immunity that protects police officers from civil liability in cases of wrongdoing, while D’Ambrosio  said he would leave it in place.

It was the first big test of Wu’s political punch following her landslide win in last month’s mayoral race. Wu went all out for her one-time city council colleague, making multiple appearances at canvassing rallies that sent volunteers out to door-knock for Edwards. She also recorded phone messages for her in both English and Mandarin, a valuable asset in a district that includes Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

“The agenda that I have been entrusted to push by the residents of Boston involves building partnerships and moving issues that cross city, state, and federal lines, and this is a clear example of how important this is,” Wu said on a frigid Saturday following Thanksgiving when she ventured to a East Boston canvassing rally for Edwards. “We need a team across all levels to get big things done.” 

Edwards recorded messages in English and Spanish that went out to voters in the district. East Boston, where Edwards lives, is home to a large Spanish-speaking population. Robo calls also went out for Edwards from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and from Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Sidiqui to voters in the seven Cambridge precincts in the district.

Anthony D’Ambrosio greets voters at the Christmas tree lighting in the North End. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

But the race was won in a heavily contested ground game that saw both campaigns going door-to-door and phone banking to identify supporters in the weeks leading up the race. Along with the slew of elected officials backing her, Edwards was endorsed by more than a dozen labor unions, several of which deployed members to work the district’s streets on her behalf. 

D’Ambrosio banked heavily on uniting often fractured political forces in Revere. He had the backing of the city’s former mayor Dan Rizzo and current Mayor Brian Arrigo, who have been adversaries in local races but united behind the push to put a Revere resident in the Senate seat.

“You have the entire city of Revere really coalescing behind one candidate,” Arrigo said during the campaign. “What brings my support is Anthony fighting for the city of Revere. That’s not to say Lydia wouldn’t, but it’s better to have a home grown senator.” 

The working-class city of 62,000 has not had a resident in the Senate since the late 1980s.

Edwards said the issues of economic empowerment, health care, and the need for climate resiliency in the coastal communities of the district cross municipal boundaries and she vowed to be a strong advocate for all four communities. 

It was her second run for the Senate seat. Edwards placed fourth in a crowded seven-way Democratic primary in the 2016 special election that Boncore won.

Edwards was raised with her twin sister in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by a single mother who served in the military. She and her sister were the only Black students at Gwinn High School, and Edwards said their mother often had to scrape by to provide for them. 

“I’ve been at both ends of the economic spectrum in my life, and that’s a lot of our district,” Edwards said earlier in the race of the First Suffolk and Middlesex District, which reaches from wealthy Beacon Hill to immigrant-rich sections of East Boston and Revere. “And my experience has been in fighting for people on the margins who are always struggling.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

It was a hard-fought campaign that saw D’Ambrosio go on the attack against Edwards, mailing literature that suggested she was beholden to big developers and had sold out tenants in a property she once owned in Chelsea.

But after the results were in he offered praise for her and said he is “eagerly rooting for her” going forward. “Lydia Edwards is going to be a really good senator,” he said, “and I’m so excited to see what progress she brings to our district.”