Jeffrey Sánchez was 20 years old when the Stuart case ripped open the stitches on Boston’s racial scars, sending police into the Mission Main housing project where he grew up, cops grabbing kids and telling them to drop their pants, he recalls.
“It was a nasty time,” Sánchez says.
Sánchez moved to San Diego, where he met his wife and worked in a homeless shelter. With a background in financial services, he figured he’d eventually come back to Boston and make some money. But then he met Thomas M. Menino, and Sánchez has been in public life ever since.
Now, the eight-term Democrat is the new chairman of the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, the powerful budget-writing panel that is widely seen as a stepping stone to the speakership. He is the first person of color to hold the role, a bit of trivia he dismisses with a wave.
“There’s too much to do,” Sánchez says over coffee at El Oriental de Cuba in his Jamaica Plain neighborhood. “I’ve got a lot to learn.”
But the political shift compared with Sánchez’s predecessor, Brian Dempsey, who stepped down this week to take a lobbying gig, is tectonic. Dempsey hails from Haverhill, part of a far more conservative district on the border with anti-tax New Hampshire.
While Dempsey’s hometown of Haverhill narrowly sided with Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last year, by 11 percentage poins, Sánchez’s home ward overwhelmingly favored the Democrat, by 81 percentage points. He represents one of the most liberal districts in the state — markedly to the left of the current House’s ideological trends.
Sánchez grew up in public housing and represents a district hungry for state funds. Once back from California, he enlisted as a foot soldier in Mayor Menino’s army of urban mechanics, thinking he could finish his undergraduate degree quickly at UMass Boston. It took 11 years.
“It took me a long time because I was putting out fires all over the city all day,” he says.
One sweltering day this week, he stood talking with four elderly women in a new building at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments . Public dollars made it happen.
Giving a tour of the development’s Nurtury child-care center, Sánchez notes the vegetable garden, the kid-sized climbing wall, and the mini-gym (“How cool is that?”), and notes that just a few years ago, children the same age were spending their days quite differently, just as he had growing up in Mission Main.
“We were all in basements,” he says. “They were running day-care centers out of the basements of the projects.”
When he was 4, his family relocated to Boston from New York’s Washington Heights because his mother, Maria, wanted better medical care for his sister. Maria Sánchez became a legendary Boston political activist, for whom a senior housing development adjacent to Roxbury Crossing was named in 2015.
Before winning election as a state representative and taking office in 2003, Sánchez held a variety of roles in the Menino administration, from liaison to the Hispanic community to census director. He is an encyclopedia of the city’s textured history, its demographic trends and political backstories, floods in Roslindale, gas leaks on Tremont Street. Along with his UMass degree and master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School, he is, he says, an alumnus of “Menino University.”
‘Jeffrey knows how [state programs] work . . . and how they serve people.’Rich Giordano, a Mission Hill activist
Interviews with more than a dozen people who have worked with and against Sánchez, both at the State House and in his district, reveal a suddenly prominent lawmaker intimately tied to the neighborhoods he represents.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo recalled a visit to Sánchez in his home precincts. “What I saw was someone who, when he walked in . . . people of all ages, even the children, they ran up to him and hugged him and whatnot,” DeLeo said.
Those ties, though, will likely complicate Sánchez’s job as the House’s budget chief. He will immediately face the competing imperatives of clutching the purse strings during a revenue slide and the appetite of a district hungry for public services.
Rich Giordano, a Mission Hill activist who ran against Sánchez for the open House seat in 2002 but has long considered him a friend, said Sánchez would likely try to resist some of the more conservative lower chamber’s stingier proclivities.
“Jeffrey knows on the ground what the different programs mean, the different line items in the budget; he knows how they work and how they serve people,” Giordano said. “My bet is, where he can, he’ll push back.
Already, Sánchez knows his new job — marked by spreadsheets, revenue projections, and long-slog negotiations within the House and with the Senate — will pull him away from the neighborhood activities he loves. He worries about spending time with his wife and their two daughters. Those tugs factored into his decision not to run for mayor when Menino stepped down in 2013.
“That’s the hardest part,” he says, standing outside the children’s center. “I’ve always tried to make sure I have face here, because I want people to always know how much I think about them.”
Four years ago, Sánchez had to cajole a reporter to walk with him around the projects, then known as Bromley-Heath. On Tuesday, there are no fewer than five members of the media tailing him. On Thursday, he steps out of one interview to do a radio hit.
“Jeffrey being here shows his commitment to the community,” says Carol Miranda, who oversees The Family Exchange, a mother’s boutique in the Hailey apartments, after presenting Sánchez with mini-cupcakes celebrating both his 48th birthday and his promotion. “It gives motivation to the other Latinos who are probably thinking about doing something.”
Sánchez shrugs off talk that he could be next in line whenever DeLeo leaves.
“My ambitions are with what’s before me right now,” he said. “For the benefit of what the speaker has asked me to do, my ambitions are to understand what I can and that I hit the ground running hard.”
In the projects, Sánchez points to two buildings near where children were injured recently in separate shootings. He greets each passerby by name, knows the folks grilling hot dogs, and calls the guy at the restaurant in cut-off shorts and workboots “my stats guy.”
“This place is in my DNA, literally. That’ll be the biggest challenge for me,” Sánchez says.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.