After ousting power broker, Elugardo navigates House
TO SECURE A victory in last September’s Democratic primary against one of the most powerful members of the Legislature, Nika Elugardo ran a blistering campaign excoriating the entire House establishment, which she later analogized to a slave plantation. The Jamaica Plain Democrat hasn’t recanted her incendiary statements, but her tone has softened, and she has played a subtler game, which appears to have had some success.
Ideologically to the left of practically all of her colleagues, the attorney and one-time legislative aide has developed a rapprochement of sorts with Speaker Robert DeLeo and even found common ground among the conservative Republicans seated next to her in the House chamber.
It’s not that she has compromised any of her ideals, Elugardo insists, but rather that the House has been surprisingly welcoming and DeLeo has demonstrated a willingness to bend to the demands of the emboldened progressive bloc.
“It looks like the speaker’s doing what he’s always done, and trying to build consensus around where there’s momentum, and he’s recognizing where the momentum is and that the momentum includes a lot of passion from the left. It’s not just me,” Elugardo said over lunch this summer at Capitol Coffee House. She said DeLeo has also been responsive to groups of lawmakers who are prepared to buck House leaders if their views aren’t considered in legislation. “He’s always been open to any bloc of people who can show they’re going to vote ‘off’ on something,” she said, “and if we organize those blocs well, he’ll incorporate our viewpoints into the bill.”
Elugardo was part of an insurgent wave of progressive black women from Boston, along with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and Rep. Liz Miranda. Each of those women, defeated a male candidate who was, to one extent or another, an establishment choice. Pressley and Elugardo toppled incumbents; Rollins bested the man endorsed by the outgoing DA; and Miranda’s top opponent had the backing of Democratic party figures, according to the Dorchester Reporter. The geographic heart of those victories was in Dorchester and Roxbury, where Pressley and Rollins ran up the score, as well as Jamaica Plain, which contributed to the victories of Elugardo, Pressley, and Rollins. Ziba Cranmer, who is a co-chairwoman of the liberal political organization JP Progressives, said she thinks Pressley, Rollins, and Elugardo had a synergistic effect on one another’s campaigns in the parts of Jamaica Plain where the three overlapped. Miranda won all of her precincts a mile or two away from JP, and generated buzz and excitement among progressive politicos in her Roxbury-based district and beyond.
“They call us the Fantastic Four. And it’s been really great to be a part of that,” said Miranda, who said she, Elugardo, Pressley, and Rollins have kept in touch about policy issues.
“We have a text thread,” Pressley confirmed. “They are new to elected office but not new to the work of social justice…. They’ve been doing this work a long time.”
After defeating Jeff Sánchez, then the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, in last September’s primary, and then winning the general election, Elugardo continued lambasting House leadership and the Democratic party. In the weeks following the November election, Elugardo, who had staged a protest outside Sánchez’s office months earlier, told WGBH “the Democratic party is straight-up racist,” and likened the power dynamic of the House to a slave plantation, according to the State House News Service. Then in January, Elugardo was among a group of eight Democrats who bucked their party and voted present in the re-election of DeLeo as speaker.
In a phone interview this week, Elugardo explained her belief that the Democratic party suffers from a structural racism inherent in many large and historic institutions, and said Democrats should reckon with that rather than perpetuating it. Her searing slavery analogy, which is a few leaps beyond the usual criticism of the top-down leadership of the House, is in keeping with her stated view that many institutions, especially corporations and corporate interests, fall along a continuum whose most extreme form is a slavery system where people are subjugated to profits. It was a slight rhetorical step back from her charged statements last year, but not a retreat from those beliefs.
Elugardo said she doesn’t believe – as she once did – that House leaders are aware of their role in that sort of dynamic.
“What I realized is that people don’t see what I see. It’s not that they are just sort of callously and intentionally promoting corporate hegemony,” Elugardo said. “I’m learning to have this conversation with people that have never had it.”
Before taking office, Elugardo made her critique directly in a conversation with DeLeo, and according to her, the speaker explained that his style of leadership relies on what he termed a “consensus model” that incorporates viewpoints from multiple members. DeLeo didn’t seem angry, and while he didn’t indicate that he agreed with her, it seemed possible he was seriously considering what she had said, according to Elugardo. She told the speaker she couldn’t support him in the January 2019 election, which he wound up easily winning, but left open the possibility of supporting him in the future.
Though she has not felt retaliated against, according to the tacit code of the House, Elugardo committed cardinal sins several times over.
“What drives the day is how loyal and useful you are to leadership. And if they need you for something and you’re loyal, you’re fine. If they don’t need you, you’re kind of irrelevant,” said Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat who was a state rep from 1999 to 2018 and chaired the tourism committee.
Atkins knows what it’s like to be ostracized from the circles of power within the House. She alone among Democratic reps cast a vote of “present” in the first election of Salvatore DiMasi as House speaker in September 2004. Although it was several years before DiMasi would face federal charges that ultimately lead to his imprisonment for participating in a bribery scheme, Atkins said she declined to support her fellow Democrat back in 2004 because “I knew he was corrupt.”
“I lived in ‘never never land’ for thereafter. That’s not an easy vote,” said Atkins.
Although she doesn’t know Elugardo and doesn’t necessarily agree with her remarks, Atkins, who is white, said she can sympathize with where she is coming from.
“I was very frustrated as a woman, so I can really understand if you’re a female from a minority group feeling the same way,” Atkins said. “You got a whole bunch of white men making a whole bunch of decisions that you don’t even hear about, never mind participate in. It’s America.”
One major outcome of Elugardo’s victory was a vacancy atop the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. DeLeo elevated Rep. Aaron Michlewitz to that position early in 2019. Michlewitz, who hails from Boston’s North End, is close to House leadership and considers himself a progressive, though he dropped out of the formal Progressive Caucus. He has also made a positive impression on both Miranda and Elugardo, who described him as “incredible” in his handling of the roughly $43 billion fiscal 2020 state budget.
In fact, through her first eight months in the House, Elugardo says she has felt “like the wind is at my back,” as she has received advice and assistance from leadership on her bills, a comfortable office on the fourth floor, and some of her top choices for committee assignments.
Elugardo sits on panels covering elder affairs, tourism, technology, and family issues – which are among the less influential committees and stocked with other dissenters, including Rep. John Rogers who battled DeLeo for the speakership more than a decade ago. While it’s tempting to view Elugardo’s outward satisfaction with those postings as evidence of her willingness to conform to the unwritten rules of the State House, she insists she didn’t want to sit on the committees handling subjects more squarely within her area of interest, housing and education, because she worried that would force her to engage in fiercer legislative maneuvering.
“I specifically didn’t choose education or housing because I felt like I was going to have to do bomb-throwing in those,” Elugardo said, about her committee assignment requests.
It’s a surprisingly cautious stance for a pol who spent much of last year launching broadsides against the powers that be.
This session, House progressives have so far notched a few victories – enacting laws to relax strictures on welfare recipients and ban so-called gay conversion therapy on minors, and sending the governor a bill to strengthen organized labor. Bigger battles should arise later this session during planned debates on new revenues to fund transportation this fall and continued discussions about how to adequately finance local education.
On education funding, Elugardo says she will remain resolute and will not support a bill unless it boosts state funding for low-income students in the most poverty-stricken districts to twice the base rate.
“Everybody in the building who cares what I think knows that, and a lot of other people are saying the same thing, so I think we’re actually going to get that,” Elugardo said.
Although outspoken in a way that is exceedingly rare among Massachusetts elected officials, Elugardo said she is strategic in her communications. She gives House leadership a “heads up” and an opportunity to change course when she knows she will vote against their interests, and she keeps many discussions under wraps.
“I don’t believe in, as a general manner, blasting things in public while the negotiations are ongoing,” Elugardo said. “I try to make it clear that I’m not about that until you lie to me or do something that I think the public needs to know that hasn’t been made transparent.”
The liberal firebrand has also earned admiration from some unlikely quarters, such as Republican Rep. David DeCoste, who said he and his fellow conservative colleague Rep. Shaunna O’Connell sit on either side of Elugardo and the three share some common goals.
“We have quite a bit in common in terms of what our districts need. She’s very focused on helping out veterans,” said DeCoste. “She scores a lot of points because she’s very amiable. She’s a pleasant personality. I think everyone would acknowledge that she’s an honest person and she’s intellectually honest. I don’t disagree with her on all things. I don’t agree with her on all things, but we’ve found common ground on many things. And I will tell you, on all things she’s been above board.”
Matt O’Malley, a Boston city councilor whose district overlaps with Elugardo’s and considers himself a friend of both hers and Sánchez, has a similar take.
“She’s incredibly hard working. She’s a constant presence at every neighborhood event or community meeting, or neighborhood watch. If authenticity is the coin of the realm in politics, she’s as authentic as it comes,” O’Malley said.
Miranda said Elugardo has helped ensure her a seat at the table and helped her navigate the State House, where Elugardo was briefly an aide to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.
“We’re only three African-American women in the entire Legislature, and it hasn’t been easy,” Miranda said. “I think we’ve been able to actually get a lot done by sort of working slow and steady instead of sort of blowing up the House.”
In this lull before the Legislature’s return from the unofficial August recess, the most controversial issues have yet to come up on the docket. The big bills passed in the early part of the session were largely bipartisan. Ballooning revenue estimates meant that many lawmakers walked away from the fiscal 2020 budget process satisfied that their priorities received funding. As yet undecided questions about who should pay, and how much, to fund public education and transportation could expose some fault lines in the House and Senate.
For those on the left wondering when the bold progressive agenda envisioned by Elugardo and like-minded colleagues might be realized, Miranda says stay tuned.
“The part that’s been challenging is that people are impatient and thinking about change in a few short months. I know it’s caused me a lot of anxiety thinking about people wanting me to make a whole difference of decades of political policies that have not been really positive for our communities,” Miranda said. “I just think people should wait. I think it’s going to be a really great year, and our second year , I think, is going to be even more powerful.”