Progressive leaders rally behind Sanchez
House budget chief looks to blunt challenge from his left
FACING A FEISTY challenge from his political left, state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez turned to progressive community leaders on Tuesday to vouch for his liberal bona fides, the latest sign that the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee isn’t taking for granted that his powerful perch on Beacon Hill is a guarantee of reelection on Mission Hill and the other neighborhoods of the 15th Suffolk District.
The veteran state rep has steadily climbed the ladder during his 15 years in the House, and was named last year to helm the chamber’s budget committee. It put him a position to deliver on priorities for his district and for budget needs across the state – but it has also made him a target of criticism within his liberal-leaning district for increasingly toeing the leadership line under more moderate House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
Leading that charge is Nika Elugardo, an MIT graduate and former policy aide to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is waging a strong challenge to Sanchez in the September 4 Democratic primary.
“I am the only candidate running who is a proven progressive, passing progressive legislation every single day of my career,” Sanchez said standing Tuesday morning outside the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments, a Boston public housing complex in Jamaica Plain. “This challenge – I’m taking it to heart, I’m taking it seriously.”
“Jeffrey Sanchez, in the 15 years I’ve known him, has been the go-to guy because he does the work,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.
Small pointed to Sanchez’s work on a provision in the recent criminal justice bill that allows people who have criminal records expunged for offenses that occurred when they were young.
John McDonough, a former Jamaica Plain state rep who is now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, credited Sanchez’s leadership on health care. “We are number 1 in the nation in terms of the lowest rate of uninsurance of the 50 states,” he said. “We have an affordability structure in this state that is far better than what’s in the Affordable Care Act because Jeff has maintained the affordability that the state invests in,” he said of Sanchez, who was House chairman of the Health Care Financing Committee before taking the reins and Ways and Means.
But Elugardo has gained traction in the district, which includes a good portion of Jamaica Plain as well as Mission Hill, a slice of Roslindale, and one precinct in Brookline, by painting Sanchez as unwilling to stand firm on progressive issues voters care about.
A flash point in the race came last month when the six-member conference committee hammering out a final 2019 state budget failed to include a version of the Safe Communities Act passed by the Senate that would have prevented local law enforcement officials from striking agreements to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Sanchez said there was not consensus in the House on the issue. Elugardo said he simply bowed to the whims of a speaker who didn’t want to bring the measure to a vote.
In an interview on Tuesday, Elugardo said the immigration measure became a defining moment for her in the campaign. “That’s when I realized I’m in the right race,” she said, “because Jeff Sanchez is so stuck in the old school model of Boston politics that he can’t shift his head when you have the likes of Donald Trump coming after us.”
Small defended Sanchez’s work on the budget conference committee, saying, “You need four votes in that room” to get something done. “To think that Jeffrey, who was one of the guys who was a leader on immigration reform, would not work hard for that, my god.”
However, the four Democratic members of the conference committee – Sanchez, Rep. Stephen Kulik and Sens. Karen Spilka and Joan Lovely – all supported the measure.
Underscoring the divisions among liberal activists in the district, one of those speaking Tuesday on Sanchez’s behalf, Anne Rousseau, serves as co-chair of JP Progressives, one of several left-leaning groups that have endorsed Elugardo.
“As chair of House Ways and Means, Jeff is the first one in the room and the last one out, enabling him to advocate for progressive policies,” she said. “He might not always win, but I know he does not give up.”
Ken Tangvik, director of organizing and engagement for the Hyde Square Task Force, a Jamaica Plain nonprofit that works with youth, said people have long called for electing more progressive people of color to office. “Well, guess what?” he said, nodding toward the district’s Puerto Rican state rep. Tangvik said the cry then is for those people to move into leadership positions.“Then, when they get there, if he doesn’t deliver the whole progressive agenda in his first year, then they crucify him,” he said, referring to Sanchez’s initial year as Ways and Means chairman.
“I’m more than a progressive. I’m somebody that works with everybody,” Sanchez said. “At the end of the day, it’s what I’ve done” that counts.