Meet the 29-year-old who wants to shake up Everett politics
EVERETT — In a paneled third-floor City Hall chamber, votes are cast with a recitation of city councilors’ names that easily reveals their heritage: Capone, DiFlorio, McKinnon, McLaughlin, Napolitano, Sarnie.
The challenger trying to break into this arena has a name that’s harder to place and a background a world away.
Stephanie Martins, the 29-year-old realtor who is challenging third-generation City Councilor Stephen Simonelli, was born in Brazil. And though she represents a large swath of her community — where an astonishing 41 percent of residents are foreign-born, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2015 — she would be an outlier on the council.
In the 125 years that Everett has been a city, its residents have elected just three Latino men, one black man, and 17 women, records from the city clerk’s office show.
The number of white men? 632.
Martins is part of a wave of female and nontraditional candidates across the country trying to make inroads in local government after the bruising election cycle of 2016. She’s one of 60 women who participated this year in Emerge Massachusetts, a candidate training program for Democratic women. Thirty of the women have already launched campaigns.
In Everett, a working-class city of 46,000, demographics have changed dramatically over the past few decades. But politics have not. One of the most diverse cities in the state, Everett is governed by a board that is exclusively white and almost entirely male, just like it has always been.
Martins’s candidacy is “very special for the immigrant community over here,” said Antonio Amaya, executive director of La Comunidad, an Everett nonprofit that helps Latino immigrants ease into the mainstream. Latinos represent 21.5 percent of Everett’s population, according to census data.
City elections here are rough-and-tumble affairs and incumbents are regularly challenged, and sometimes toppled, by newcomers. But most of the races involve feuding family dynasties and established clans, and go unnoticed by most voters. In 2014, only 9,380 Everett residents cast votes, state records show.
“It’s like City Hall’s a secret society,” said Martins. She tells voters she hopes to turn it into “an exciting place where you actually know who is representing you. You have access to that person, someone engaging you, listening to you.”
But Amaya noted that many immigrants, even those who are legal residents and eligible to vote, are disengaged. His organization has been working with Latino residents over the past two years to increase awareness, encourage voter participation, and screen candidates.
“You have to show up,” Amaya said. “You have to make your voice heard.”
He believes Martins has crossover appeal — and will “work with other communities, not just the immigrant community.” She is trying to schedule her first event with Portuguese speakers, after months of courting the city’s steadfast voters — the Irish and Italian immigrants who came before her.
Dynamic, dogged, and brimming with energy, Martins makes change an explicit part of her pitch.
“I’m excited to bring new vision and new energy and work together and really listen to people and be your voice,” Martins told 15 residents of the Everett Villa Co-Op, whom she treated to doughnuts at a morning campaign meet-and-greet. “Not to be there as a politician or for the title, but to really make it about you.”
The promise of change resonated strongly, even among septuagenarians.
“I think she’s wonderful,” said resident Fran Sorrento, 78. “She’s young. You need new ideas.”
Mary Rocco, 82, said Martins’s compelling personal narrative brought tears to her eyes.
“She’s come a long way, I must say,” Rocco said.
Born in Brazil to parents who divorced, Martins came to the United States 15 years ago to join her father, who worked as a restaurant manager. When her father relocated to Florida to open his own bakery, she stayed behind to finish high school in Framingham.
“I had the amazing 17-year-old idea that I wanted to live by myself in Massachusetts,” she said.
That involved paying rent, holding three jobs, and keeping up her grades as an honor student.
Then two weeks before graduation, her mother died back in Brazil. Martins had to miss the funeral to complete school. And when her grandfather died 11 months later, also in Brazil, Martins crumbled. Still underage, she began drinking; eventually, she ran a red light and was arrested for drunken driving.
It was a wake-up call to get her back on track.
“I went back to church to find my healing, and then I started helping other kids to go through the challenges the right way instead of doing things that will only hurt yourself,” said Martins. She became a big sister, started volunteering with a youth group, and now gives young people a talk she calls “When Life Gives You Lemons.”
She worked her way through Harvard Extension School, graduating after eight years, became a realtor, married a developer, and launched a business with him to build and sell properties.
Along the way, she became a US citizen in 2009 and tutored Harvard employees applying for US citizenship through Harvard’s Institute of Politics. She also began volunteering for political candidates, including now-Attorney General Maura Healey, who has endorsed Martins’s campaign.
“I haven’t slept for a few years,” Martins joked.
Her comeback story and her polished presence impressed the senior citizens she was pitching — even Rocco, who asserted that the government should “tighten up the reins” on immigration.
“Years ago, when they came over from the old country, my grandmother came from Ireland, you had to have a sponsor to get in here and had to have some way to make money,” she said.
But Martins? Rocco views her as a success story.
“I think she’s quite well read and very interesting,” Rocco said. “And I think she knows what she’s talking about. I would like to see her get ahead.”
Martins is not the only newcomer — or Latino — trying to break in this year. Also running for Simonelli’s Ward 2 council seat is Lucas Rosa, a Brazilian-American who just graduated from Everett High School. If all three candidates gather enough signatures to make the ballot, they will compete in a preliminary election on Sept. 19. Votes are cast citywide, even for the ward position. The two top vote-getters will face off in the general election Nov. 7.
The circumstances are highly unusual.
Simonelli, 63, has been rendered mostly mute, having lost his tongue to cancer.
He has never smoked, he said. But when he fell ill two years ago, he was told that he had just three months to live — unless he had his tongue removed.
And so he did.
“I’m just very glad I’m alive,” Simonelli said. “You’ve got to live with it, make the best of it.”
These days, his speech is restricted largely to nasal sounds, with little articulation. He communicates mostly through his 31-year-old nephew, Shane, a Liberty Mutual analyst, who understands him better than most, sits beside him at City Council meetings, and casts his votes.
In the clubby confines of council, Simonelli eschews alliances and often goes his own way. When the city embraced Steve Wynn’s proposal for a casino and hotel on the banks of the Mystic River, a waterway associated with industry, not luxury, Simonelli opposed it.
“I’m not afraid to say no,” he said. “Sometimes I’m the only person to say no.”
And though he has come around to Wynn’s plans, he says he is still watching closely, to make sure that the people of Everett see the benefit.
Martins says she was always receptive to the casino and the new business it will bring to the community, acknowledging it will bring transportation challenges and advocating for investments in public safety.
Given his condition, some voters suggest that Simonelli should step aside.
“I feel bad for him,” said Frank Dascoli, 79, but he added, “I don’t feel as if we should have someone on the board like that.”
But Simonelli, feisty as ever, is still in it, and he has three generations’ worth of name recognition in his favor. His father served on council before him and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. His grandfather served while blind.
“The Simonelli name’s a big name in Everett,” said Anthony DiPierro, the council president. “And it has been in Everett politics for decades, and it goes a long way.”