A liberal showdown in Brookline
Vitolo touts pragmatism, while Fernandez looks to challenge status quo
IN MICHAEL DUKAKIS’S hometown, a place that delivered 88 percent of its vote to Joe Biden two years ago, it’s not a question of whether to elect a left-leaning Democrat as state representative, but what kind of liberal lawmaker to send to Beacon Hill.
That has become the overarching issue in the Democratic primary showdown in Brookline pitting two-term incumbent Tommy Vitolo against challenger Raul Fernandez. It’s a race that has drawn a slew of high-profile endorsements, including from two former congressmen who are divided on the contest, and it’s providing a window into the internal tensions that have long animated the Democratic-dominated Legislature.
With no Republicans seeking the seat, the September 6 Democratic primary will effectively decide the election.
Vitolo, who holds a Ph.D. in systems engineering, brings some of that analytical training to politics, arguing that the key to advancing progressive policies is learning to work with other lawmakers who may hold different views in order to build majority support on issues.
“The larger issue with the incumbent and others like him is that the idea seems to be, let me be as non-committal as possible but really make everyone feel like I’m with them in some way,” said Fernandez, who grew up in public housing in New York City and served one term on the Brookline select board. “It’s beyond frustrating to residents in Brookline to not know whether their representative is going to advocate for things they care about to make changes.”
Vitolo, a Connecticut native, says there is little difference in overall political outlook between himself and Fernandez. “We’re both dyed-in-the-wool lefties,” he said. “The difference is leadership style. He’s long on lofty rhetoric, short on results,” Vitolo said of Fernandez. “He’s not one who makes compromises. He’s not one who collaborates with folks across the spectrum.”
“I am a person who takes the time to listen to folks with whom I disagree, particularly with folks with whom I disagree,” said Vitolo. That’s how you “find out what you need to know to get things to pass.”
He cited his work in recent years on climate change goals as an example. Efforts in Brookline to enact a local ordinance banning fossil fuel hook-ups in new construction or major rehab projects were twice ruled out of step with state law by Attorney General Maura Healey. Vitolo initially pushed for language to allow communities to adopt similar changes as part of a 2021 climate bill, but said he pulled the amendment when it didn’t have the votes to pass.
New climate legislation, passed last month by the Legislature and awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Baker, would allow up to 10 communities to opt in to a pilot study banning natural gas hookups on most new construction as long as they’ve met the 10 percent minimum affordable housing standard set by the state. The 10-community initiative was brought into the bill by the Senate, but Vitolo says he helped do the spade work for the idea.
“It’s not only helping Brookline get where it wants to go,” Vitolo said. “It needs to be part of a bigger vision. We need every community to get there as fast as they can,” he said of the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
Fernandez said Vitolo embraces progressive positions on issues but is too quick to fold in the face of pressure from House leadership.
“We just saw this happen with the recent vote on the economic development bill,” Fernandez said. The bill — which never actually made it over the finish line before formal sessions of the Legislature ended on August 1 – would have made one-time payments of $250 to single tax filers earning $38,000 to $100,000. Fernandez decried the fact that the House defeated an amendment to extend the payments to lower-income earners on a voice vote. “No one has to be on record saying they opposed it,” he said.
Fernandez said it’s part of an overall lack of transparency in the Legislature. He pointed to a House rule Vitolo supported that shields from public view the full vote of legislative committees on a bill and the House’s rejection, with Vitolo’s support, of a proposal to allow lawmakers at least 72 hours to study a bill before a floor vote on it.
“In two different legislative sessions he voted to support some of the worst policies related to transparency and accountability in the country,” Fernandez said of Vitolo’s support for the House rules. “The leadership runs the State House, not the members, because members like the incumbent allow it to be that way.”
There is some precedent for voters in the Brookline district showing their displeasure with lawmakers who seem too deferential to House leadership. In 2000, Frank Smizik defeated first-term incumbent Ronny Sydney in the Democratic primary by hammering away at her willingness to go along with House leaders.
Vitolo, who won the seat in an open race in 2018 when Smizik opted not to seek reelection, dismisses the idea that the current race has parallels to the election more than two decades ago. Sydney paid a steep price with voters in the liberal district because of her close ties to then-Speaker Tom Finneran, a conservative-leaning Democrat with a reputation for autocratic rule. Vitolo, who was named House vice chairman of the Election Laws Committee this term, said it’s a different world under House Speaker Ron Mariano, who has led the way on a range of progressive issues.
“The work product of the House today looks nothing like the work product of the House under Tom Finneran,” said Vitolo. Ticking off recent legislation passed on abortion rights, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, affordable housing, and LGBT protections, Vitolo said the House has been passing “bills that progressives are proud of, including progressives in my district.”
Vitolo brushed off concern about recording all committee votes, arguing that the final floor vote is what’s important. And he said the proposal rejected by the House to require 72 hours after a bill is released before a floor vote would just give Republicans more time to rail against legislation. “Progressives aren’t complaining that we do too much,” Vitolo said.
Vitolo said the product, not the process, is what matters, invoking the classic metaphor of legislating being akin to sausage-making – not always a pretty sight, but with an end result people like.
“Our job is to roll up our sleeves, put on our protective gear, and make the sausage,” he said.
That view grates on progressive reform advocates who say it’s important to change both the means and the ends on Beacon Hill.
“Tommy is someone who will mostly agree with you on the issues but is not going to be one of the most outspoken representatives on issues,” said Jonathan Cohn, policy director at the liberal advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts. “If you view the House as having a fundamentally broken culture in the way that many representatives will just fall in line, you need representatives who will push back against that. And Brookline is a district that can elect someone like that, because it’s a community that is very engaged and expects their representative to be more outspoken.”
Four years ago, Progressive Massachusetts endorsed Vitolo in the race for the then-open House seat. The group is backing Fernandez in this year’s primary.
Fernandez is also one of a handful of down-ballot candidates endorsed by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz when she suspended her own campaign for governor in June. The liberal Jamaica Plain lawmaker dubbed the group “Courage Democrats” based on what she called their willingness to put “courage over politics.”
Vitolo has won endorsements from a slew of liberal groups, including Reproductive Equity Now and Bay State Stonewall Democrats, as well as backing from six of the seven select board members who served with Fernandez. “The folks who know us both well are overwhelming choosing me,” said Vitolo.
The race started with a bit of pandemic-politics intrigue. When Fernandez held his campaign kickoff last December on Zoom, Vitolo suddenly appeared on screen under another name. Vitolo declined to comment on the incident beyond a statement he put out at the time on Twitter. “On Sunday curiosity got the better of me and I logged onto my opponent’s public kickoff on Zoom,” he wrote. “My camera came on, and I left before it started. They didn’t teach Zoom 101 when I was in college.”
The race has pulled in a who’s who of Massachusetts Democratic figures, testament to the outsized role Brookline plays in state as well as national politics.
Dukakis, the state’s only three-term governor and the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, is backing Vitolo, as is fellow Brookline resident and state treasurer Deb Goldberg. Former congressman Barney Frank, who represented Brookline, has also thrown in with Vitolo.
Meanwhile, ex-congressman Joe Kennedy, who succeeded Frank, has endorsed Fernandez along with Jesse Mermell, a former select board member who ran for the open congressional seat two years ago.
“I’m supporting Raul because the Brookline that I know and love deserves true progressive representation in the State House, and having worked with Raul on countless issues around town I know he is the candidate in the race who can deliver progressive results,” said Mermell.
Underscoring the divide over the kind of leadership Brookline wants, Neil Wishinsky, a former chair of the town’s Select Board, called Vitolo an “extremely effective legislator” precisely because he eschews the “ideological purity” some progressives demand and is someone who “collaborates across the board.”
“I like Raul as a person,” Wishinsky said, “but from what I’ve seen he hasn’t collaborated and he hasn’t been able to work with people outside of his base, and he hasn’t built coalitions outside of his base.”
Most local observers say Fernandez is a clear underdog, but he has built an energetic field organization and done well with fundraising. Fernandez has raised nearly $112,000 since last December, the most, he said, of any challenger running against a House incumbent in the current cycle.
Vitolo has raised more than $155,000 over that span. Because he started the year with a hefty balance, he still had $151,000 on hand as of August 1. Fernandez had $28,000 on hand.
Massachusetts has among the least competitive legislative races of any state. Though plenty of incumbents are happy with that, even one strong Vitolo supporter said a contested race is a healthy thing.“Honestly, it’s not bad to have an opponent,” said Betsy Pollock, a longtime Democratic activist. “It’s helped Tommy clarify his message and speak up about issues he cares about.”