Is there anything lonelier in political circles than a special election? There’s typically not much interest from voters, and Election Day is usually a scene of forlorn-looking sign holders huddled outside precincts while the odd voter saunters by.
But not the race for the 19th Suffolk, a special election with no shortage of symbolism and political icons, a rare amount of off-season energy and a microcosm of the political moment in Massachusetts and beyond. The race has Bernie Sanders, sexual misconduct allegations, hydroxychloroquine, and an immigrant Latino. There’s a candidate who has called himself a Reagan and a John F. Kennedy Democrat, and is antiabortion. The word “socialist” is being thrown around. Representative Ayanna Pressley has weighed in. There’s a Republican challenger and an independent, which means there will be the not-so-common phenomenon of the winner of the Democratic primary, to be held Tuesday, facing opponents in the general election on March 30.
The election is also being held in the shadow of former House speaker Robert DeLeo, who occupied the seat for roughly 30 years before leaving to take a position at Northeastern University earlier this year. DeLeo’s decision to run for reelection only months before bowing out set the stage for the sudden scramble to take his place, with six candidates in all. It ultimately may prove to be a litmus test for change in the district — made up of half of Revere and all of Winthrop. And it’s not a stretch to suggest the race underscores the divide in the Democratic Party, one where moderation, embodied by the powerful DeLeo, has held sway on Beacon Hill for many years.
Winthrop’s population is mostly white, while Revere’s is roughly 33 percent Latino. Four Democrats are on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary, including Alicia DelVento, a Winthrop native who worked as an aide to former House Ways and Means chairman Jeffrey Sánchez and Representative Danielle Gregoire; Jeff Turco, an attorney who previously served in Winthrop’s town council and school committee; Juan Jaramillo, a union organizer, former DeLeo intern, and former budget director for state Senator Joe Boncore; and Valentino Capobianco, a former chief of staff to state Senator Paul Feeney and current Winthrop School Committee member.
Capobianco faces accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment, leading to the withdrawal of endorsements from former Rep. Joe Kennedy and Attorney General Maura Healey. Capobianco has strenuously denied the allegations. The self-described Kennedy Democrat is Turco, who opposed abortion and who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. On the other end of the spectrum is Jaramillo, an immigrant and union organizer who received the endorsement of Sanders and Pressley. Revere went to Sanders in last year’s presidential primary, while Winthrop went to Joe Biden, with Sanders in second place.
Jaramillo, 27, embodies the classic immigrant’s story. Originally from Colombia, he arrived in Revere with his parents in 2000 when he was seven. As a teenager, he cleaned bedpans in an ICU. He went to UMass Boston, majoring in political science. He landed an internship with DeLeo, worked for Boncore, and then started organizing for 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents property service workers. He says he’s raised about $70,000 in campaign funds and has received, in addition to Sanders’ endorsement, local support from unions and progressive elected officials in the State House, like Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Jamie Eldridge.
“My biggest opponent is a pro-Trump, anti-choice, anti-immigrant Turco. He put $25,000 of his own money,” said Jaramillo in an interview. Turco has raised more than $100,000, the most money among candidates.
At a candidate forum Thursday organized by the State House News Service, Turco warned of “socialist” policies that were alienating moderate Democrats. It should be noted that Turco also has received union support, most prominently the police unions in Winthrop and Revere. At the forum, Turco also said he supports the fair share amendment, known as the millionaires tax.
If Jaramillo wins the special election, the State House will gain a lawmaker of color. It’s no secret that the Legislature has remained stubborn to diversity and inclusion, and special elections are one factor to blame, according to a recent MassINC report on electoral reform in the state. Special elections are generally very low turnout and tend to favor establishment insiders who already have political relationships and can quickly call on potential donors and form a team. Once a lawmaker is elected, the power of incumbency makes a challenge unlikely. “Nearly one-quarter of state representatives and over one-third of state senators currently holding office first entered the legislature through a special election,” according to the MassINC report.
But Jaramillo resists the label of “insider.”
“The facts were there that [DeLeo] was probably not going to be there for a long time and that the seat was going to open up soon,” said Jaramillo. “I am deeply tied into community and grass-roots, work so it was easy to make those first initial calls, and so things aligned. Politics is all about timing.”
While Massachusetts’ political brand is heavily liberal on the national stage, the reality in the State House is far more moderate. Someone like Jaramillo would add another progressive voice and bring a bit more diversity to Beacon Hill.