LAWRENCE — “¿Inglés o Español?” state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz asked the women of Mercy Beauty Center & Spa.
“Español,” they chorused back, craning their necks from manicure stations, gazing at her from beneath the round crowns of hairdryers, and peering over noses as their scalps got scrubbed in side-by-side sinks.
Thus began the bilingual campaign pitch of the Jamaica Plain Democrat, delivered Tuesday afternoon in this immigrant city 40 miles north of her district, as part of a Democratic gubernatorial bid that is looking increasingly quixotic.
The first Latina elected to the state Senate, Chang-Díaz would make history again if she prevails in November, as both the first woman and the first Latina elected governor of Massachusetts. But her path to that milestone is slim and rapidly narrowing. A recent poll showed Chang-Díaz lagging the front-runner, Attorney General Maura Healey, by 45 percentage points. Chang-Díaz’s prospects in the money race are no cheerier: She spent more than she raised last month, and Healey’s cash stockpile dwarfs hers by $4 million.
So less than three weeks before the party’s nominating convention, it’s an underdog story, an all-too-familiar Massachusetts political tale. Two serious candidates — one former state senator, one well-credentialed academic — have already dropped out of the Democratic contest, a testament to the substantial barriers facing candidates who wage statewide campaigns, even when armed with political experience and fund-raising success.
To make it onto the primary ballot, Chang-Díaz will have to earn at least 15 percent support from delegates at the early June convention, a threshold she said she is confident she can clear. Even still, if she doesn’t shake up the race, she may lose it.
This week, that uphill battle brought Chang-Díaz to Lawrence, where she made her pitch at times one-on-one, at others in a polite yell to groups of business owners, shoppers, fellow elected officials, and, of course, the captive audience at the blow dry station. Gaining traction outside Boston, particularly in working-class cities such as Lawrence, will be crucial for Chang-Díaz, whose Democratic opponent has already run two successful statewide campaigns.
Amid the sweet clean scent of hair products and the buzz of relaxed afternoon chatter, Jonathan Guzman, a member of the Lawrence School Committee and a supporter of Chang-Díaz, introduced her as “una Latina como nosotros” — a Latina like us. Then, alternating between Spanish and English, the progressive senator fielded questions about herself and her platform. In conversations over the course of the day’s business walk, she touted her work in the state Senate securing education funding for low-income students like those in Lawrence, promising to continue such efforts if elected governor.
For at least some who heard it, that pitch was effective.
“Oh heck yeah,” said Julie Ortiz, right hand in her manicurist’s grip, when asked whether Chang-Díaz had her vote. Ortiz said she was pleased to see a former teacher in the running; in Lawrence, where the public schools have operated under state receivership for more than a decade, education is an issue at the forefront of many voters’ minds.
“We need someone that has been in the profession,” Ortiz said.
Maria Gonzalez, of Methuen, also said Chang-Díaz had her support — not least because she is a fellow Latina.
That representation is meaningful, supporters said, particularly in Lawrence, a majority-Hispanic city whose elected representatives have not always resembled them.
“It makes a difference,” Guzman said.
In an interview, Chang-Díaz downplayed the importance of the metrics that show her lagging. She said she measures her support in rooms like the beauty salon, through the strength of her volunteer network, and the adherence of her campaign to her values.
“I don’t think there’s been a political endeavor within 13-plus years where I haven’t been an underdog,” she said. She pointed to legislative victories on issues including education funding and police reform as evidence she can succeed even when facing stiff odds.
A progressive with the vocal support of some of the state’s most engaged activists, Chang-Díaz has sought to distinguish herself from her opponent by highlighting a number of her policy positions that are popular on the left. She said she is the only candidate in the race who has rejected fossil fuel donations and voiced support for fare-free transit, single-payer health care, and debt-free college.
“The next governor is going to need to be willing to endure political discomfort and build effective coalitions,” Chang-Díaz said.
She has also set herself apart from Healey merely by dint of taking so many distinct positions. Throughout her campaign, the attorney general has been light on specific policy proposals, even as many in Massachusetts political circles prepare for her coronation.
Chang-Díaz characterized Healey as the establishment candidate, though in her first bid for attorney general, Healey ran as the outsider. Chang-Díaz pointed to other underdog candidates, such as former governor Deval Patrick, who managed to beat the odds and win major political victories.
The Democratic convention in June will test how effectively Chang-Díaz has persuaded Democratic activists that she has more to offer than her opponent. If she clears the 15 percent threshold and gets on the ballot for the primary in September, she’ll have just a few months to close the substantial gap between her and Healey.
Republicans Chris Doughty and Geoff Diehl are also running for governor, but the winner of the Democratic primary is heavily favored in blue Massachusetts.
In Lawrence on Tuesday, not all minds were made up. And residents weren’t all counting Chang-Díaz out, either.
Wendy Luzon, a business owner who met with the senator during a campaign tour of local businesses, said she is looking forward to voting for a Democratic woman but has not yet chosen a candidate.
Luzon opened her fruit store, Casabe, during the economic uncertainty of the pandemic; she knows what it is like to beat the odds. Chang-Díaz could do the same, she said.
“It’s a challenge for any candidate, but I think other candidates like that have made history,” Luzon said, standing before platters of shining organic apples. “This is a time to make history.”