A host of progressive challengers — including numerous women of color — are taking aim at seats on Beacon Hill in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election. Frustrated by the disparities laid bare by COVID-19 and encouraged by the protests for racial justice in the streets, they are trying to capitalize on the moment to break into the corridors of power.
“It changed everything about what we knew about our systems and really brought a magnifying glass to many of the inequities that exist in the district,” said Damali Vidot, 42, a Chelsea city councilor who decided to challenge her state representative when her struggling community became the state’s hardest hit by coronavirus at the peak of the pandemic.
And while she describes incumbent Representative Daniel Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat, as a nice guy, the Afro-Latina and environmental activist said, “I feel we need a change in new energy.”
Others are vying to succeed legislators who decided not to run for reelection, such as state Representative Daniel Cullinane, a white Democrat from Dorchester who has held the 12th Suffolk seat since 2013. The three candidates competing to succeed him in Tuesday’s primary — Stephanie Everett, Brandy Fluker Oakley, and Jovan Lacet — are all Black attorneys.
The lone white candidate in the 12th Suffolk race, Cameron Charbonnier, bowed out in early July, amid nationwide protests over racial injustice, concluding this was not his moment. He endorsed Everett, one of the candidates he said “represents the overwhelming diversity of the district,” which includes parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Milton. Whoever prevails in that race Tuesday faces no Republican in November and will almost certainly join the Legislature, which is 90 percent white.
In the 200-seat, Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature, 14 legislators are members of the Black and Latino caucus and six are members of the Asian American Caucus. Massachusetts’ population is 71 percent non-Hispanic white.
A total of 22 Democratic incumbent state representatives and senators face competition in Tuesday’s primary, a rate on par with the last two election cycles. (One Republican incumbent also faces a primary.)
In the Senate, Michael D. Brady, a Brockton Democrat who was stripped of his committee chairmanship last year after a 2018 drunken driving arrest, faces competition from Brockton City Councilor Moises M. Rodrigues.
During a recent debate sponsored by the Brockton Area NAACP, Rodrigues, who is from Cape Verde, responded to a question about racial justice by saying he had been dealing with it his whole adult life.
“Some of us are not born from a position where we have been given everything because of our skin color or are allowed to get away with things because of our skin color,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues also accused the incumbent of passivity in the Legislature — supporting measures, rather than championing them.
Brady, who won the Senate seat in 2015 after seven years in the House and 13 years as a Brockton city councilor, countered that Rodrigues has little to point to in his own time on the council. “Every challenger tries to make those assertions,” Brady said. “The people that I represent, they know me. They’ve worked with me over the years. He has no record.”
Brady, who is white, pointed to getting funding for and working side-by-side with diverse constituents in the Brockton-based district, which includes East Bridgewater, Easton, Halifax, Hanover, Hanson, Plympton, and Whitman.
State Representative David Nangle, a Lowell Democrat who was indicted in February on 28 counts related to bank fraud, faces Vanna Howard, 51, a Cambodian-born candidate from Lowell, and Lisa Arnold, 55, a Lowell Democrat who is campaigning for mental health care and transparency on Beacon Hill, among other issues. Both women said the 11-term incumbent needs competition.
“He has run mostly unchallenged for 22 years,” said Arnold.
“The community asked me to be the voice of change,” asserted Howard, chief of external and government relations for the Lowell Community Health Center. “We need a full-time representative to get us through this crisis.”
Though she’s a first-time candidate, Howard ran the Greater Lowell regional office of former representative Niki Tsongas, and says she’s accustomed to constituent services.
Nangle, however, said he continues to deliver for the district and that his next priorities are support for nursing homes, whose staff and residents have been devastated by COVID-19; homelessness; and schools trying to reopen during the pandemic.
“Constituent services has always been my trademark and is always at the top of my list,” said Nangle, who declined to speak to the criminal charges, to which he pleaded not guilty.
State Representative Frank Moran, a Lawrence Democrat undergoing chemotherapy treatment for throat cancer, faces a challenge from Marianela Rivera, 34, a former Lawrence school committee member and a special educator for Peabody Public Schools. Rivera, who is Puerto Rican and has been an advocate for education reform, was endorsed by major labor unions and pledges to do more for a community that she says often feels neglected.
“I think at this point we really need somebody who’s going to be a champion for our people. It’s not enough to be an average politician,” Rivera said.
But the Dominican-born incumbent, who has received support from a group that backs charter schools, and from a super PAC with ties to Republican Governor Charlie Baker, ceded no ground to his challenger.
“As an immigrant who came to the US when I was 8, I have always championed the poor, the forgotten and the weak,” Moran said in a statement. “I will continue to take on the status quo and fight for those voices who cannot be heard.”
In Charlestown, Ryan, who was elected state representative in 2014, said he feels good about his chances Tuesday, pointing to major endorsements from Attorney General Maura Healey and progressive women’s groups. (He also was supported by Baker’s super PAC.) But he also acknowledged the vagaries of campaigning during a pandemic in which little door-to-door canvassing can be done.
“It feels good,” he said, “but there’s also a whole lot of unknowns.”
Another 15 legislative seats are open to newcomers this year, including the Mattapan-based seat that Cullinane is vacating and that only one person of color has ever previously held. That representative, Linda Dorcena Forry, then served in the Senate before leaving the Legislature two years ago.
Lacet, 55, a Haitian-born Marine Corps veteran who ran for the same seat in the last two elections, aims to bring more funding to the district to address disparities in education, health, housing, and more.
“These small mom and pop stores, they’re not getting their share of the bailout,” he said.
A former Boston police officer, Lacet was fired in 2004 and accused of committing perjury in a murder investigation in which his brother was the suspect, according to the Dorchester Reporter and court documents. His brother was acquitted in the 1998 homicide. Lacet maintains that he was coerced by a detective to make false statements and wrongfully terminated. He has repeatedly appealed the decision without success.
Everett, 44, of Lower Mills, was raised by a single mother with a mental health condition while her father was in jail. After having a baby at 19 and becoming homeless, Everett went to college and law school, and became a legislative and top government aide.
Her early campaign message, “Better Together,” was tailored to the coronavirus crisis, but took on new meaning with the summer’s racial unrest. But Everett has also faced racist backlash during the campaign: Someone crashed one of her Zoom meetings with voters with pornography and repeatedly called her racial slurs.
“When someone’s calling you the N word, it’s like a flash of the history — this is what my family dealt with,” Everett said.
Fluker Oakley is a 37-year-old advocate, former public defender, and former teacher in Baltimore who lives in Mattapan. She has worked as an advocate for education funding reform, and has the backing of teachers unions and progressive women’s groups.
As she campaigned early this month, wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Never Underestimate a Black Woman Born in August,” Fluker Oakley seized on a voter’s complaint about disparities in auto insurance costs to say she’ll stand up against all such inequities.
“If now isn’t the time to . . . make sure we’re actually providing equity for all of our residents, then I don’t know when will be,” she said. “And I don’t think we should let this opportunity pass us by.”
Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.