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Five new lawmakers to watch on Beacon Hill

The latest class of new legislators includes a former boxer, actor, third-grade teacher, and more than one activist

From left to right, top to bottom: Representative Kip Diggs, Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, Representative Kelly Pease, Senator Adam Gomez and Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley.
From left to right, top to bottom: Representative Kip Diggs, Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, Representative Kelly Pease, Senator Adam Gomez and Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley.

Massachusetts’s new class of state lawmakers arrived at a moment like none other on Beacon Hill: amid a pandemic, on the heels of a historic leadership change in the House, and with work still bleeding over from the last legislative session.

But they’ve already splashed into the Massachusetts political scene, scoring surprising — and in some cases, historic — victories to earn their spots in the State House.

Here are five to watch as a socially distanced 192nd General Court settles in:

Representative Kip A. Diggs, Barnstable Democrat

Kip Diggs credits discipline and hard work for his success in the boxing ring, where in the mid-1990s he reigned as world welterweight champion.

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Now the Barnstable Democrat, who defeated Republican Representative William Crocker to win the 2nd Barnstable District seat, says he’ll bring those lessons with him to the state Legislature.

“I’m a competitor. I want to do a great job at it so that I leave a legacy of, ‘Hey, he did what he said he was going to do for his district,’” said Diggs, who is the first Black state lawmaker from Cape Cod to join the Legislature. He also repeated his mantra from the campaign trail: “It’s not about me, it’s about we.”

Diggs, 54, was working as a construction inspector for the Barnstable Department of Public Works when he decided to run. That work helped give him a sense of the district, he said.

He also described serving in the Legislature as a way to give back to a community that supported him following the death of his son, Kraig, in a horrific 2016 car crash while he was driving himself and three friends back to college in Central Massachusetts. The four college students were killed when another driver struck them driving the wrong way on Interstate 495.

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“My community picked me up. So now I’m giving back to my community,” Diggs said. He said he feels the presence of his son, and his mother who died late last year, “helping me with this mission that I’m on.”

Diggs said his focus will be on responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. “Helping people get back to work is the main concern right now.”

Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley, Mattapan Democrat

Brandy Fluker Oakley said she’s long had the “bug for advocacy” — as a public defender, as a third-grade teacher, and well, as a third-grader herself.

That’s when she says she organized her first “protest”: A march around the multi-purpose room at school to advocate allowing students to use the vending machine following after-school activities. Two years later, she tried again, this time using her lunch period to protest a teacher’s rule allowing the boys, but not the girls, to pick up the mats after gym class.

“Even as a 10-year-old, it felt sexist to me,” she said, adding of the protest: “That one was successful.”

The same drive, Fluker Oakley said, exists in her new venture. The 37-year-old emerged from a three-way primary and won the open seat in the 12th Suffolk House district, promising to be an accessible advocate just as she was before she chose to run for office for the first time last year.

As a third-grade teacher in Baltimore, Fluker Oakley said her eyes opened to the need for change during her second year of teaching, when a student entered her class 1 1/2 grade levels behind. But administrators told her students needed to be at least two grade levels behind before they could receive “meaningful intervention.”

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“A light went on for me,” Fluker Oakley said. She needed to get into law.

Fluker Oakley attended Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, and returned to Massachusetts in 2010. A decade later, she said she’s intently focused on pushing change for her district around transportation, housing, and, of course, education. The Mattapan Democrat is just the second person of color to represent a district in which roughly three-quarters of her constituents are non-white.

“When you have folks from different experiences coming to the table, study after study shows it makes the work product better,” she said. “It’s because of the very lived experiences that those backgrounds bring to bear.”

Senator Adam Gomez, Springfield Democrat

Adam Gomez had tears in his eyes as he was sworn in earlier this month — the first Puerto Rican to become a state senator in Massachusetts — as members of his family held aloft a Puerto Rican flag. The Springfield Democrat later told the Globe that he was thinking of his friend and Chicopee activist Jafet Robles, who was shot and killed in 2017.

The plaza where the ceremony took place is the same spot Gomez and Robles used to sit after lobbying lawmakers, including for changes in the criminal justice system, as part of their organizing work, Gomez recalled.

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“I was just a young Puerto Rican kid [back then], just wanting change. And there I was, sitting in front of my family. And I was just looking up into the sky and thanking him for everything that he did for me,” Gomez said of Robles.

“This is a dream come true. Not just for me, but this is a dream come true for a whole community.”

Gomez lives in Springfield’s North End, where he grew up. He described it as home to some of the state’s poorest residents, as well as some of its biggest economic development engines, such as the MGM Springfield casino.

“When it comes to housing, food insecurity, we need individuals in the Massachusetts state Senate who actually understand and are impacted by some of these laws, like myself,” Gomez said.

Gomez was serving his third term on the Springfield City Council when he toppled incumbent state Senator James Welch in the Sept. 1 Democratic primary for the Hampden District seat.

The 37-year-old progressive has a background in grassroots activism, including Neighbor to Neighbor, which focuses on organizing people of color, immigrants, and workers, and Raise Up Massachusetts, an influential statewide coalition of labor and activist groups. It is an experience that he believes will be an asset as he works to push his priorities, including additional criminal justice reform, veterans issues, and affordable housing.

“One of the things that I can bring to the table is understanding what’s really going on on the ground,” Gomez said.

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Representative Kelly W. Pease, Westfield Republican

Kelly Pease once imagined a life of juggling auditions and waiting tables in New York, growing an acting career that began when he was a child. By his count, Pease has appeared in 91 commercials, and a handful of television credits, including an episode in 1981 on the TV series “Nurse,” where he played a boy with a heart issue.

“I didn’t make it in the end,” Pease, now 55, said laughing. He remembered going to school the day after his primetime appearance and having other students who watched it say how sad it was. “My sister was on the other couch laughing when I died.”

Four decades later, Pease’s career has been reborn several times over — first as a volunteer firefighter and town selectman in Chester; then as a 20-year veteran in the Army, where he worked in military intelligence; and finally in a government civilian role, including in Germany.

After he returned to Massachusetts, Pease worked an aide to former state Senator Donald Humason, which helped lay the groundwork for his new act as the 4th Hampden district’s newest state representative.

Pease was the only Republican in November to flip what was a Democratic-held district in the Legislature to the GOP, capturing the seat former Representative John Velis, a Democrat, vacated before successfully winning Humason’s Senate seat.

The Westfield resident ran as a fiscal conservative and an opponent of raising taxes, with a promise of ensuring his communities in Western Massachusetts get “adequate” local state aid. It’s a winning message in the relatively conservative district, where Pease advocated for controlling spending to join whatblocnow, a 30-member GOP caucus in the House.

“You can talk to the Democrat, you can talk to the independent, you can talk to anyone – the priorities are basically the same,” Pease said. “Everybody’s biggest complaints are their roads and property taxes.”

Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, Somerville Democrat

In 2018, Erika Uyterhoeven founded a growing organization, known as Act on Mass, that pushed progressive causes and changes on how the notoriously opaque Legislature operates. Now, in 2021, she finds herself working from a different vantage point: inside the State House.

“The goal for me has not changed for me one bit,” said Uyterhoeven, a 34-year-old Somerville Democrat and self-described Democratic socialist elected to represent the House’s 27th Middlesex district.

“Ensuring that advocates, communities, and organizations have a voice is one of the many things that we as reps have a big responsibility to ensure happens,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been reflecting a lot on, how to do it.”

Uyterhoeven has already managed to stand out. She was one of just two state representatives to vote “present” on the first day of session when Ronald Mariano was overwhelmingly elected to his first full term as House speaker.

It offered a not-so-subtle protest to what some progressive Democrats, including Uyterhoeven’s predecessor, criticized as a “cynical power grab,” when Mariano quickly ascended to the speaker’s house just before Uyterhoeven and 18 other new legislators were sworn in.

“The speaker election is supposed to be an election,” said Uyterhoeven. “Different views and debate, even concessions, negotiations, voting blocs of demands that we need to see. . . . There were no promises or commitments — demanded or given by other reps or the speaker himself. That’s a really alarming piece, that we’re not having an open debate.”

Her goal now is to push for more open debate and to bring different perspectives to the House. Uyterhoeven is a former “antitrust” economist at Compass Lexecon, and, as an Asian-American, one of the growing number of women of color in the Legislature. Her mother immigrated from Japan in the late 1960s, Uyterhoeven said, and raised her daughter on her own while working as a flight attendant.

“That is something that informs what policies I put forward and how I connect with voters,” Uyterhoeven said, “and how I connect with institutions.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.