A recent campaign mailing that featured a darker, black-and-white image of one Black candidate for City Council has sparked controversy and accusations of racism in the race for the District 6 seat.
The flier sent to voters last week showed the two candidates: Mary Tamer, a former School Committee member from West Roxbury, and Kendra Hicks, a community organizer from Jamaica Plain. The flier, sent out by Tamer’s campaign, showed Tamer, an Arab-American, in color, and Hicks, a Black Dominican woman, in black-and-white.
“There are stark differences between the candidates for District 6 City Council,” reads text between the photos.
The flier stoked an intense backlash from political activists, Hicks supporters, and Hicks herself. “In 2021, there is no place for such blatantly racist messaging in a campaign hoping to represent as diverse a community as District 6,” Hicks said in a statement.
“Darkening or editing a photo of a Black person to look more menacing is a racist tactic that has long been used by candidates in political campaigns, most notably by Republicans. The decision to print and send this mailer to thousands of residents is not only damaging to me but sends a message to the tens of thousands of Black and brown residents across the city. We see it for what it is — a racist trope that has no place in City Council.”
Tamer’s Twitter account on Monday addressed the controversy, but stopped short of a full apology.
“Candidates for public office make errors in the midst of long campaign days, and everyone on this multiethnic, multilingual campaign team has learned a valuable lesson,” read one tweet.
Another tweet said, “What we intended to focus on and will continue to focus on are the significant policy differences between Mary and her opponent. Elections are about choices, and District 6 voters have a clear choice to make on November 2.”
In a Monday statement, Tamer’s campaign said that the photo of Hicks used in the flier was originally in color “and converted to greyscale, a common design element used in campaign advertising.” The campaign continued that the photo “was never intended to cause harm or show racial animus. Based on the feedback we have received and heard, it is clear that it did not set the right tone.”
Political activists took to social media over the weekend to denounce Tamer’s mailing. On Monday, Jamaica Plain Progressives, which endorsed Hicks in the race, put out a statement calling the campaign flier racist and unacceptable.
“It is difficult to believe that the Tamer campaign was unaware of this trope in the year 2021,” the group said in a Monday statement. “This morning, after several days of outrage and pushback from the D6 community, the Tamer campaign released a statement noting that the mailer ‘did not set the right tone.’ We call this a statement and not an apology because nowhere in it was an expression of regret, an acknowledgment of the harm caused, or the word ‘sorry.’ ”
JP Progressives also called on Councilor Matt O’Malley, the incumbent in the seat who is not running for re-election, to withdraw his endorsement of Tamer. O’Malley did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe.
Rachel Poliner, chairwoman of the steering committee for Progressive West Roxbury/Roslindale, which has endorsed Hicks, thought the flier was polarizing and absurd.
“Of course that’s playing on old tropes,” she said. “Anyone running for office should know better.”
Poliner said the mailer arrived at her household on Friday, but that she has been hearing complaints about the document for three days.
“One thing I’m gratified about is that people recognize how bad this flier is,” she said.
Lee Nave, an Allston-Brighton resident who has volunteered for the Hicks campaign, said he was disappointed with the mailer, which he called offensive and racist. He thought its presentation was intentional.
“It wasn’t some mistake,” he said. “They did it on purpose.”
Nave speculated that Tamer’s campaign directed the flier toward “firefighters, cops” and those voters who lean toward the center or right-of-center. He hoped this would be the last municipal election in Boston that features such imagery on campaign materials.
“It tells me that they’re desperate,” he said of the Tamer campaign.
The back side of the controversial mailer drew contrasts between the two candidates on an array of issues, including public safety and endorsements. Tamer’s campaign tried to frame her as the more moderate choice in the race, saying Hicks wants to abolish police and close prisons, while highlighting the Boston Democratic Socialists of America endorsement of her.
1/3 It's been a very painful weekend for me. I've being actively supporting Mary Tamer for City Council in Boston. But this, weekend her campaign, @TamerforBoston, started circulating this flyer below, which viciously attacks her opponent, @hicks4district6. pic.twitter.com/YBb2yWVtHI— Alex Hahn (@alexhahnlaw) October 17, 2021
The flier claimed Tamer supports “common sense criminal justice reform” and emphasized some of her endorsements, including O’Malley’s.
The mailer also drew attention to Hicks’s voting record, saying she had failed to vote in 14 of the last 20 elections, including the 2016 presidential tilt that saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
In her statement posted to Twitter over the weekend, Hicks ignored some of the critiques featured on the document, but did push back against Tamer’s criticism of her voting record, arguing it is not disqualifying.
“Implying that my voting record bars me from running for public office is a form of voter disenfranchisement,” Hicks said.
“If my opponent believes that the only people who have a right to have their voice represented in City Hall are people who turn out for every election, how will she represent the 60 percent of voters who don’t turn out in our own preliminary election?” she asked.
Hicks, however, did not challenge the veracity of Tamer’s claim about her voting history.
State Representative Nika C. Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who has endorsed Hicks, labeled the flier “tone-deaf” for suggesting that “people who have been disenfranchised from voting, from our economic system, should not be leaders in our government.”
“The outcome of that flier is perpetuating structural racism,” she said.
Hicks, a community organizer and artist, who has received the endorsement of Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, is seeking public office for the first time.
The Council district includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, and parts of Roslindale, Roxbury, and Mission Hill.
Hicks came out on top in the September preliminary contest, garnering 49 percent of the vote, compared to Tamer’s 43 percent. Winnie A.I. Eke came in a distant third, with 6 percent, and was eliminated. About 18,400 people voted in that preliminary.
Eke, who has endorsed Tamer, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe Monday night that Tamer is “a person of integrity” who cares about the “equitable treatment of all.”
“I [implore] voters not to accept the false narrative of racism. I hope many will take the time to understand the very distinct differences between these two candidates,” wrote Eke, who is Black. “Differences matter. Elections matter. Voting matters. And whom we vote for matters most.”