Liberal groups boost Sanchez challenger

Backing for Elugardo has House budget chairman running scared

IF THERE IS a campaign equivalent to the see-through pane in front of a fire alarm marked, “In case of emergency, break glass,” Jeff Sanchez has put his fist through it.

Two weeks ago, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee pulled together a group of local community leaders in Jamaica Plain to testify outside the Mildred C. Hailey public housing development to the good work he’s done over a 16-year career in Legislature. A few days later, his campaign announced endorsements from Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. Now, for the home stretch leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Sanchez has called in the Democratic Party A-team. On Saturday, Healey is slated to rally Sanchez supporters at his Jamaica Plain campaign headquarters, while US Rep. Joe Kennedy III will appear with him on Monday in Brookline.

Meanwhile, Sanchez is barraging the district with campaign mailers, courtesy of a year of prodigious fundraising that included nearly $60,000 ponied up by more than 300 lobbyists.

The donations and show of big-name Democratic Party firepower highlight Sanchez’s important standing on Beacon Hill. At the same time, bringing in a congressman and the state’s attorney general to bolster an established state rep’s reelection campaign underscores how worried Sanchez is about the challenge he faces in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Nika Elugardo, a charismatic Boston University Law School grad with an undergraduate degree from MIT, is giving Sanchez a run for his money in the 15th Suffolk District, which includes a big chunk of Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, and pieces of Roslindale and Brookline. Elugardo served previously as a policy aide to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and has worked in several nonprofit and community development organizations. Her left-leaning agenda is resonating across the decidedly liberal district, and it has Sanchez and his backers scrambling to push out a message aimed at shoring up his progressive credentials.

“This challenge – I’m taking it to heart, I’m taking it seriously,” Sanchez said at the event last month at the Hailey apartments. “But I’m not taking it personally. This is democracy and this is what it’s about.”

August 14, 2018

State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez speaks to progressive leaders outside the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain in August.

A son of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in the Mission Main housing development, Sanchez has climbed the ladder to the one of the top positions on Beacon Hill. But that rise has become something of a double-edged sword in the district, where critics say he bends too easily to the whims of the more conservative House speaker, Robert DeLeo, at the expense of causes his constituents care about.

“The impression we’re left with is he’s waiting for instructions from DeLeo on what he can and cannot do,” said Andrew Breton, a member of the steering committee of the local organization JP Progressives, which has thrown its support behind Elugardo. The group is part of the statewide organization Progressive Massachusetts, which also endorsed Elugardo and gave Sanchez a C+ on its legislative scorecard for the first half of the two-year session lawmakers just wrapped up.

“The House always ends up being the place where good legislation goes to die,” said Jonathan Cohn, co-chair of the elections committee for Progressive Massachusetts.

Among the measures progressives put in that category from the recent session were a proposed budget provision that would have barred local law enforcement from cooperating in certain instances with federal immigration authorities and a bill to revamp the education funding formula for school districts. Sanchez maintained there was not enough support for the immigration measure to override a potential veto from Gov. Charlie Baker.

Statewide environmental groups, meanwhile, were critical of renewable energy legislation the House passed that they say was much weaker than bills passed unanimously by the Senate with Republican backing.

“Grass roots organizations and activists are really starting to question the power structure on Beacon Hill,” said Deb Pasternak, interim director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, which also endorsed Elugardo. “The House leadership was really the bottleneck that stopped the more progressive climate action and environmental justice bills from going through.”

Sanchez supporters say he does the best he can in a House that is not nearly as liberal as some might think. “This is the Massachusetts General Court, not to be the confused with the reputation of Massachusetts being the most progressive place on earth,” said Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods at the Sanchez campaign event last month with local community leaders. “That building is full of conservative, moderate white guys.” Small said Sanchez has been “the go-to guy” on many progressive issues over the years, including health care and welfare policy.

“I’m more than a progressive,” said Sanchez. “I’m somebody that works with everybody. That’s how I see what being a representative is all about.”

When it comes to pushing progressive legislation through the House, “he’s a massive disappointment,” said Elugardo, who says Sanchez is stuck in the “old school model of Boston politics” that operates on the type of top-down leadership structure DeLeo has imposed on the House. Though Sanchez’s position is considered one of the most influential on Beacon Hill, Elugardo’s frequent refrain on the campaign trail is that he operates “with permission, not with power.”

The race is, in many ways, a referendum on the best way for progressives to notch victories and approach Beacon Hill politics. Sanchez and his supporters say he can make a difference with the prominent seat he has at the table of power. Elugardo and the progressive groups lining up behind her say that’s a failed model and they want to shake up the heavily centralized power structure of the House.

“Some of these things don’t happen from one day to the next, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying,” Sanchez said of the pace of progress in the Legislature, citing the effort to revamp the school funding formula, which he hopes to see action on next term.

“Jeff has been fighting for this community for progressive values ever since he’s been in the Legislature,” Don Gillis, a longtime Jamaica Plain resident, said at a Sanchez fundraiser in early May. Gillis, who has spent years in the workforce development field, said Sanchez has delivered on funding for anti-violence programs and youth jobs. “We haven’t seen that in previous ways and means chairmen, so he’s bringing a new urban lens.”

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.

But whether it was his support for doing away with term limits for the speaker’s post or his reluctance in tense community meetings last year to lay out his position on criminal justice reform issues before the speaker played his hand, Sanchez is finding that power not only has its rewards, in a politically active district hungry for change, it also brings its own challenges.

“What the speaker of the House wanted is what happened,” said Cohn, the Progressive Mass. leader. “For that to change there have to be systemic reforms in how the House operates, and that requires primary challenges. The House is filled with well-meaning people who at the end of the day will do whatever they’re told. That needs to change, and I think Nika’s candidacy is part of that dynamic.”