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Jeff Sánchez, Jamaica Plain Democrat, is getting challenged from the ‘super left’

Jeff Sánchez and Nika Elugardo at a candidates forum at the First Baptist Church earlier this month.
Jeff Sánchez and Nika Elugardo at a candidates forum at the First Baptist Church earlier this month. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Now that the $41 billion state budget has been sent to the governor’s desk, state Representative Jeff Sánchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who serves as the House’s fiscal chief, will face another battle — for his seat.

Sánchez, who was tapped for the House Ways and Means chair in 2017, just shepherded the colossal budget through Beacon Hill’s more conservative chamber — excluding, much to the dismay of immigration advocates, a provision meant to protect undocumented immigrants from President Trump’s continued crackdown.

And, in just over six weeks, he’ll face a primary challenge from Nika Elugardo, who has questioned Sánchez’s priorities on Beacon Hill and describes herself as “super left.”

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State Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said he doesn’t envy Sánchez’s position.

“There’s a lot expected of him from our very progressive districts, and trying to balance that with other representatives from other districts is always a difficult thing,” said Holmes, who added he plans to stay neutral in the primary.

Elugardo, who is aiming for Sánchez in the Sept. 4 primary, has accused him of following House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, rather than leading himself. She’s also criticized him as not progressive enough to represent the 15th Suffolk District, which includes Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roslindale, and part of Brookline.

“He has one of the highest-ranking seats in the House, but he doesn’t do anything without the permission of the speaker, it seems,” said Elugardo between canvassing stops in Mission Hill recently. “I’d say he doesn’t have power, he has permission.”

Sánchez said he doesn’t agree with Elugardo’s characterization of his work, citing times when he’s split with DeLeo, such as his vote against bringing casinos to the state in 2011. In an interview, Sánchez emphasized the importance of collaboration in his role.

“I’ve been able to work with everybody,” Sánchez said. “There are times that you agree and there are times that you don’t.”

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Sánchez said he’s “proud of everything I’ve done” as a representative, and highlighted his work on health care, education, gun control, and LGBTQ rights.

The son of Puerto Rican transplants, Sánchez, 49, grew up in public housing in the neighborhood he now represents, attended the University of Massachusetts Boston, received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and entered politics working for former mayor Thomas M. Menino. He won his House seat in 2002, and he hasn’t faced a primary opponent since 2010.

Sánchez said he welcomes the challenge.

“This seat isn’t mine, it belongs to the people,” he said in an interview. “It’s given me an opportunity to go out and talk to people and remind them of everything that we’ve done together.”

Elugardo, 44, grew up in Ohio before receiving degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Boston University Law School. She worked as state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Jamaica Plain liaison and as a senior policy adviser in 2011, and for a number of state and local advocacy organizations. Chang-Diaz said she will not endorse a candidate in the race.

Jeff Sánchez and Nika Elugardo during a candidates forum on July 9.
Jeff Sánchez and Nika Elugardo during a candidates forum on July 9.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

It’s rare that primary challengers defeat incumbents in Massachusetts, but Holmes said Elugardo is a tough challenger for Sánchez, and he will have to work hard to keep his seat.

“I can tell you I would not want a well-educated lawyer from MIT and Harvard running against me any day of the week,” Holmes said.

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Elugardo had berated Sánchez throughout the budget negotiations for not pushing a Senate-passed provision to stop supporting US Immigration and Customs Enforcement with state taxpayers’ dollars, something Elugardo has supported.

Sánchez said “there’s a lot in the budget” that he must consider as chairman, and did not say whether he’d ensure that provision made it into the final version. It was not ultimately included in the bill.

“My support for immigrants, including the Safe Communities Act, has been unwavering,” Sánchez said. “At the same time here, I have to work with everybody and find out what people’s concerns are.”

Although Democrats control both chambers in Massachusetts, the House is generally more conservative than the Senate. As a result, the Senate often passes more liberal legislation, such as the immigration provision, that stalls out in the House. This leaves Sánchez, in his leadership role, balancing his more liberal constituency’s interests with negotiations with colleagues from more conservative districts.

At a forum this month in Jamaica Plain, Elugardo criticized Sánchez on his approach to health care and funding for education.

Sánchez spent much of that night citing his record on key community issues, including work he’s done on affordable public housing and on reaching a national low, 2.5 percent of state residents, without health insurance as of Sept. 2017.

Many “¡Nika!”-shirted attendees at the July 9 event — where about 50 people were turned away for lack of space — cheered loudly for their candidate as she walked in the room, but Sánchez’s backers were not to be outdone, welcoming him with chants of “Jeff-rey, Jeff-rey.”

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As Elugardo went door-to door in Mission Hill recently introducing herself to voters, she often repeated that “Jeffrey Sánchez will never lose my affection, he’s just lost my vote.”

Elugardo said she’s seen progressive leaders stray from their values in the House, based on experiences from her time working for Chang-Diaz, and promised to avoid that if elected.

“I met people on the House side as well, and I think their progressive values are suffocated by leadership,” she said. This is something, she suggested, that has befallen Sánchez.

While Elugardo was on the campaign trail, Sánchez was on Beacon Hill, continuing to meet privately with House and Senate leadership to hash out the details of the state budget. Later that week, as Sánchez strolled down Smith Street with his young daughters, passersby leaned out of car windows to say hello or stepped off bicycles to offer hugs.

Sánchez, one of the House’s top leaders, said he’s made it a priority to uphold “values that serve everybody in my community” during his time in office.

With the budget passed, Sánchez must look toward the rest of the legislative session and his upcoming race. He said he’s ready for it.

“People have always expected results from me, and I take that to heart, and that’s what I’m focused on now.”


Jamie Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper

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