Four years ago, Jeff Sánchez — then the highest ranking Latino legislator as the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — was ousted in a hard-fought and costly primary. Sánchez had been a Democratic lawmaker for 16 years. His exit from the Legislature stood as a huge loss for a sizeable and growing population group that is politically underrepresented.
But the tide is turning with a rising wave of Latino political power.
In Tuesday’s primary, seven newcomer Latinx candidates won their respective Democrat primaries in various districts across the state, some of which had been newly redrawn as minority-majority seats. Their wins will potentially bring the total number of Hispanic lawmakers on Beacon Hill to 13.
In the Latino-held seats, state Representatives Frank Moran, who represents Lawrence, Andover, and Methuen; Carlos González of Springfield; Andy X. Vargas of Haverhill; Jon Santiago of Boston; and Orlando Ramos, also of Springfield, all cruised to reelection. Representative Marcos Devers of Lawrence lost his primary to newcomer Latino candidate Francisco Paulino. On the state Senate side, Adam Gomez, who represents parts of Chicopee and Springfield, also won his unchallenged primary. They all are the presumptive winners since their races remain uncontested in the November general election. (Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, the first Hispanic woman elected to the state Senate, gave up reelection to run for governor.)
Meanwhile, of the potentially new Latino legislators, just Chelsea’s Judith Garcia and Chicopee’s Shirley Arriaga face an opponent in November. The rest, Sam Montaño of Boston, Manny Cruz of Salem, and Estela Reyes, Pavel Payano, and Paulino of Lawrence, will be unopposed on the ballot.
“There were only three Latino legislators when I first got elected as state representative in 2003,” Sánchez, now a senior adviser at Rasky Partners, told me. “[Tuesday’s primary] election was a turning point for Latinos in Massachusetts. These victories reflect not only that Latinos can win in Latino districts but that Latinos can appeal to a greater electorate in the Commonwealth. We see it nationally and now we’re seeing it here. It’s about time.”
The forthcoming influx of Latino representation to Beacon Hill is no accident. Indeed, it’s an overdue wave. It also confirms that the state’s redistricting process last year, though not perfect, did reflect significant population changes and the rich racial diversity across the state.
In the past decade, the share of the state’s Hispanic population (of any race) in Massachusetts grew from 9.6 to 12.6 percent. It’s the second-largest proportion as ranked by race and ethnicity and it represents nearly double the percentage of the Black-only population (6.5 percent). These increasing numbers weighed heavily during the Legislature’s decennial redistricting process, which created 13 additional districts in the 160-seat House of Representatives and three additional in the state Senate where people of color account for the majority of the population.
Chelsea and Lawrence, the two cities in the state with the highest share of Latino populations, gained newly redrawn, incumbent-free Hispanic-majority districts — and it paid off. Garcia, a Chelsea city councilor with Honduran roots, beat two opponents to win the Democratic nomination for the new House district in Chelsea. Payano and Reyes, two Dominican American Lawrence city councilors, won the Democratic primary for the new Senate district to represent Lawrence, Methuen, and parts of Haverhill and the new House district that includes Lawrence and Methuen, respectively.
But, aside from redistricting, there were other factors at play that can help explain Tuesday’s Latinx victories.
“We know that Latinos are voting at a higher rate in the state, so I’m sure that had something to do with it,” said Luis F. Jiménez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. While there’s no data from Tuesday’s primaries, Jiménez co-wrote a report published earlier this year that the number of Latinos in the state who voted in presidential elections increased 345 percent from 2000 to 2020.
Also, “new faces are winning,” said Jiménez. One of those political newcomers is Arriaga, a US Air Force veteran and an educator who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicopee when she was young. Arriaga pulled an upset win when she beat a city councilor who was the clear favorite in a rare open race for state representative after the incumbent retired after serving for more than three decades in the House. Arriaga decided to run for office after she became unhappy with the issues around school closures during the pandemic. “I personally knocked on over 10,000 doors myself,” Arriaga said. She has to beat an independent candidate in the November election to make it to Beacon Hill.
Meanwhile, in Salem — where one in five residents is Hispanic and nearly half of the student population in the city’s public schools is Latino — Cruz, an Afro-Latino of Dominican descent, won the Democratic primary for an open seat in the House.
There’s no question: Massachusetts’ Latinos are voting in greater numbers. And soon the corridors of power on Beacon Hill will better reflect the interests and concerns of an often-marginalized population.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.