scorecardresearch Skip to main content

After redrawn districts, far more candidates of color are poised to join State House ranks

Priscila Sousa won the Democratic nomination for the new majority-minority 6th Middlesex District.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Priscila Sousa remembers visiting the Massachusetts State House on a fourth-grade field trip. Two and a half decades later, there aren’t many details she recalls, aside from one.

“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me,” said Sousa, a Brazilian immigrant. “Unless they were pushing a mop.”

If only her younger self could see her now. Sousa, a 34-year-old Framingham Democrat, is among a new class of candidates — many of them women, young people of color, or immigrants — who last week captured primary victories in newly drawn legislative districts designed to empower communities of color to elect the candidates of their choice.


In four House districts drawn with no incumbents, Democrats nominated a woman of color in each one. Pavel Payano, a Dominican American, is on the verge of representing Lawrence, a majority-Latino city, in the Senate after decades of it having only white senators. The roster of the Black and Latino legislative caucus, currently with 17 members, could grow by at least seven next session, depending on November’s general election results.

“When we take the oath of office in January, that session will have more people of color than any other session in the history of the commonwealth. And that didn’t happen by accident,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat who has led the once-in-a-decade redistricting process for the House.

Representative Mike Moran (center) and Senator Will Brownsberger led the state's redistricting process last year.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

The Legislature last year overhauled the state’s political maps following the 2020 Census with a focus on reflecting the state’s quickly diversifying population. That included reworking the boundaries of many of its 200 legislative districts, with an eye toward giving communities of color more political power.

Lawmakers doubled the number of Senate districts with majority-minority populations to six and added 13 more in the House. Four of those new House districts did not have an incumbent, opening what lawmakers and advocates considered some of the clearest avenues to diversifying a Legislature that remains far whiter than the state it represents.


As a first test, Tuesday’s primary was, in some ways, an affirmation. A woman of color won the nomination in all four of those districts, including Sousa, chairwoman of Framingham’s school committee. And in two other House majority-minority districts that had open seats in Boston, a person of color is the Democratic nominee.

Across all 39 majority-minority districts the Legislature drew, the number of candidates of color who ran jumped by 25 percent compared with two years ago, according to the Drawing Democracy Coalition, a collection of advocacy groups.

“We can see that something different is happening,” said William Dickerson, executive director of the nonprofit Brockton Interfaith Community. “Part of that is a result of the redrawing of the lines. We’re seeing it right in front of us.”

Of course, overhauling the political lines doesn’t guarantee a changing of the guard immediately, if ever. In 2011, lawmakers also made a concerted effort to encourage more diverse representation. They created the state’s first majority-minority congressional district, where in 2018, Ayanna Pressley upset Michael E. Capuano to sweep into office.

They also doubled the number of majority-minority seats in the House, then from 10 to 20. But a decade later, just half of those 20 districts were actually represented by lawmakers of color.

Of the 39 such districts in the House and Senate this year, Democratic primary voters on Tuesday nominated white incumbents in 20 of them, according to a Globe analysis.


That includes in Brockton, where, under enormous pressure, lawmakers carved out a new majority-minority Senate district to encompass New England’s only Black-majority city. State Senator Michael D. Brady, a white Brockton Democrat, easily fended off a primary challenge from Katrina Huff-Larmond, a Black Randolph town councilor who said she ran, in part, because it was “important to show that a person of color should run.”

“It was important not to just leave it,” said Huff-Larmond, who said that with a background as a clinical social worker, she could bring an on-the-ground perspective to addressing mental health and other issues.

Brady, however, has deep roots in Brockton and elsewhere in the district. The 60-year-old incumbent said his late brother served as a selectman in Avon, a new addition to the district, and that he’s worked to build ties with Brockton’s growing Haitian and Cape Verdean populations.

“I’ve very active within these communities,” Brady said. “They call me their brother.”

Advocates also caution that it’s far too early to judge a political map from a single election, let alone a primary. Reconfigured maps can help provide opportunities for new candidates, analysts say, but they are still just one piece of a complicated puzzle.

The power of incumbency remains real in Massachusetts, where political insiders are usually white and male. The goal of a majority-minority district is also not necessarily to elect a person of color but to give those communities of color more voice in electing their preferred candidate. That could be a white candidate, just as some people of color represent districts on Beacon Hill now that are dominated by white residents.


“We definitely are taking the long view in many of these districts. In some places, it will require the incumbent to step down to field several candidates of color,” said Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table. “Redistricting alone is not going to be the fix for representation.”

Pavel Payano stood on Essex Street in downtown Lawrence.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Where there were changes this fall, in many cases candidates took advantage. That included a Merrimack Valley Senate seat where the majority of residents identified as Hispanic. The new map split Lawrence from Andover — its much wealthier, white-majority neighbor that regularly produced Lawrence’s senator — and instead paired the immigrant city with parts of Haverhill and rapidly diversifying Methuen.

Payano, a Lawrence city councilor who twice ran for state Senate before, emerged from a three-way primary for the seat. With no Republican opponent in November, he is poised, with Boston’s Liz Miranda, to be one of two new people of color to win seats in the Senate this fall and bring the total in the chamber to four.

A different city councilor in Lawrence, Estela Reyes, won the Democratic primary in the newly created Fourth Essex House district, another incumbent-free majority-minority district.

Chelsea City Councilor Judith García said the Legislature’s move to redraw an incumbent-free House district encompassing the city, where more than two-thirds of the 40,000 residents are Latino, motivated her to run. The 30-year-old won her primary, and should she win in November against Republican Todd Taylor, a fellow city councilor, she said she would be the first Honduran American ever elected to the House.


“I saw a clear path to victory as a woman of color,” García said. “For the first time, Chelsea has the strong majority of votes to run in an election and actually win it.”

Judith García, a Chelsea city councilor, is the Democratic nominee for the 11th Suffolk House district.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Back in Brockton, Rita Mendes, a city councilor and Brazilian immigrant, won the Democratic nomination for another incumbent-free seat. She faces no Republican opponent, all but ensuring she’ll join what had been the city’s all-white State House delegation.

“This new district was a game changer,” said Mendes, a 38-year-old lawyer. The 11th Plymouth previously included Easton, home to its last representative, Claire D. Cronin, who is white. It now includes only parts of Brockton, a city where one-third of the residents are foreign-born.

“Maybe I still would have ran in that old district. I don’t know if the results would have been the same,” Mendes said. “I kept telling [residents], ‘We are the majority, we have the voice, we have the power.’ We need true representation at the State House of those who’ve lived the struggles.”

Sousa, the nominee in the Framingham district, said she, too, hopes her victory can embolden others.

“One of my best friends has two little girls,” she said. “When she congratulated me [on the primary win], the conversation quickly shifted to, ‘Do you think the girls can visit you at the State House? I want them to see someone like you doing this.’”

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.