Progressives target the political sausage-making in Boston

Left-leaning Democrats are mounting campaigns to take control of local ward committees

Ward 18 Fresh Slate Group 2 candidates Isabel Frankel, Cecily Graham, Duckens Petit-Maitre, and Jean-Claude Sanon prepared to go out canvassing following a community meeting at Blake Estates in Hyde Park.
Ward 18 Fresh Slate Group 2 candidates Isabel Frankel, Cecily Graham, Duckens Petit-Maitre, and Jean-Claude Sanon prepared to go out canvassing following a community meeting at Blake Estates in Hyde Park.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Voters from several Boston neighborhoods who head to the polls for the March 3 presidential primary could also be deciding on the future of the city’s progressive movement.

In East Boston, downtown and in the South End, and out to Hyde Park and Mattapan, progressive Democrats are mounting campaigns to wrest control of Democratic Party ward committees from the old guard. They are asking voters to elect new slates of candidates that, they argue, better represent the diversity and values of their neighborhoods.

Often seen as the sausage-making of local politics, ward committees can build party clout by helping to develop and promote a party platform, and nominate and support the party’s candidate for office. Members can also represent their neighborhoods at the state Democratic convention.


The campaign to push ward committees to the left represents a broader shift of the political landscape in Boston, according to interviews with political analysts and insiders.

The effort, dubbed “Fresh Slate," is trying to harness the grass-roots energy that has grown out of the frustration with national politics — a movement that has produced a new swath of elected officials, including US Representative Ayanna Pressley — and unleash it at the local level.

“I think it’s the fact that we’re reaching a boiling point here in the city, of folks just tired of the same-old, same-old,” said Segun Idowu, a Hyde Park resident and director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, an advocacy group for the city’s Black community.

Members of the existing ward committees in East Boston and Hyde Park, meanwhile, have teamed up to create their own “unity” slate, leading to rare local clashes on a ballot that has been overshadowed by the presidential primary.

Voters decide on ward committee members every four years, during a presidential election, and can vote for individual candidates or for a slate of candidates who organize as one team.


Idowu has joined a team of nearly three dozen new candidates looking to represent Ward 18, which includes Hyde Park and parts of Roslindale and Mattapan, saying the party could do more to reflect the neighborhoods’ values, “as opposed to just talking about them.”

The team includes local politicians who have already served as flag-bearers for the progressive movement, including City Councilor Michelle Wu, the council’s top vote-getter in the last election. She has been mentioned as a potential challenger of Mayor Martin J. Walsh. She’s already a committee member but has joined the new slate of candidates pushing for more diverse representation.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, elected to represent the district in November, is also part of the new group. Though his family has been involved in local politics for decades, he believes he would be the first Arroyo to serve on the committee.

Similar campaigns have been mounted in the South End, downtown, and in East Boston.

The effort follows the recent history-making transformation of the City Council from a white, male-dominated panel just a few years ago to a body with its first-ever majority of women and councilors of color. At a time when Boston is grappling with a housing crisis and a transportation mess, the progressive ward candidates say their activism can push city government to act more boldly on reforms.

“People are ready to embrace that Boston has shifted, and let’s make it shift in more ways,” said Rachel Poliner, of the Roslindale and West Roxbury chapter of Progressive Massachusetts. She said the independent growth of the Fresh Slate campaigns in separate neighborhoods shows a citywide desire for change.


Thomas M. Menino, the late mayor, was known to stock ward committees with hand-picked candidates, helping him influence who won local races, such as for district councilors and state representatives.

But newer, progressive candidates have been clashing with the local establishment in recent years, finding committee members to be out of touch.

Arroyo overcame the establishment’s support of his opponent in the fall election, for instance, and is now the first councilor to represent Hyde Park and not be a member of the committee. Likewise, City Councilor Lydia Edwards shocked the political establishment in East Boston with her first council win just over two years ago. She is also part of the new slate.

Several members of the current committees, including the chairs, welcomed the newfound interest in the committee positions, saying the excitement with local politics is the same reason they got involved. Yet they said they share the same policy visions with the newer progressive candidates. They believe that the new interest is centered more on the frustration with Washington, D.C., politics than on what’s happening in Boston.

“Anyone who wants to run for office is a good thing,” said Rob Consalvo, a former city councilor and Boston Public Schools employee who runs the Ward 18 committee. He said his slate similarly includes locals from every one of the ward’s neighborhoods, including politicians, business people, and Little League coaches — everyone who makes up the “civic and social fabric of our community.”


“I just see it as a sign of people wanting to be involved, be engaged, and have a voice in the representation of their neighborhood,” he said.

Claudia Correa, a member of the East Boston ward who also works for the city, agreed, saying the ward committee was the organization she went to when she was looking to get involved in neighborhood politics two decades ago.

“It’s great to see other people’s platforms — it’s what we’re advocating for, too,” she said. “We’re advocating for more housing, to have conversations about climate change, to be more diverse when we’re putting this all together . . . the people on the list represent what we’re all trying to accomplish here.”

But the new candidates cited what they called a history of their committees failing to be truly inclusive of new residents, and often deferring to insiders or an old guard. Several complained that their committees aren’t active enough, don’t promote their agendas, and don’t look to excite the party with get-out-the-vote drives or other events.

Brian Gannon, who is behind the new effort in East Boston, identified as Group 2 on the ballot, said he has seen for the first time a movement that’s based in the neighborhoods, and not centralized in City Hall.

“We just felt [the East Boston committee] wasn’t as active and representative of the neighborhood, as inclusive as we’d like it to be, and we’d like to see more advocacy coming from the ward committee standpoint,” Gannon said. “There’s a lot of our neighbors that made this a great place to live, and we’d be better if we could represent them.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.