Five freshman lawmakers to watch on Beacon Hill
They’ve yet to lodge a single vote or be assigned an office. But Beacon’s Hill incoming class of lawmakers has already sent reverberations through the Massachusetts political scene with surprising victories and, in some cases, blunt commentary.
Here are five faces to watch come Jan. 2, when they’re sworn in for the first time as state legislators:
State Representative-elect Nika Elugardo
Democrat, Jamaica Plain
Few incoming first-year lawmakers have attracted as much attention as Nika Elugardo, an outspoken progressive who toppled House Ways and Means chairman Jeffrey Sánchez, a close ally of the powerful speaker of the House, in the September primary to represent the 15th Suffolk District.
But Elugardo, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with advanced degrees from Harvard University and Boston University to boot, doesn’t want anyone thinking she’s trying to make this all about herself. “The first thing for me is, it’s never ‘I,’ ” Elugardo said when asked what she hopes to accomplish. “It’s always we.”
The lawyer and former State House aide promised in her campaign to be a more aggressive champion of the progressive positions — particularly on immigration and climate — on behalf of the district, which includes Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roslindale, and parts of Brookline. She and her supporters argued that Sánchez was more concerned with party leadership than with his constituents.
Elugardo has already attracted headlines for provocative comments, including saying that “the Democratic Party is straight-up racist,” and that the state House operates under a plantation model. Elugardo said her comments in both cases were meant to describe structural problems in both institutions, not criticize individuals.
“As leaders, we have to make that effort to understand how institutions, even when individual leaders are good, well-meaning people, perpetuate some harmful elements of the status quo,” she told The Boston Globe.
Her plantation comments, for instance, were a metaphor to describe how the House currently prioritizes the interests of the wealthy and powerful, rather than serve all people equally, she said. She was not speaking about race, or suggesting that Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is racist, she said.
“There are no mustache-twirling villains at the House of Representatives,” she said, and without conscious effort, it would function the same way regardless of who is in charge.
Elugardo, 45, also talked repeatedly about being excited to forge coalitions with colleagues across the ideological spectrum on Beacon Hill.
“When your federal government is not functionally optimal, local politics is where we lead,” she said. “I’d just love for Massachusetts to take the reins and lead out on climate, lead out on education, lead out on justice issues in general in ways that are exciting for everybody, not just for people who identify as liberal.”
Democrat, South End
Jon Santiago’s resume is the stuff of a job recruiter’s dream. He was a Fulbright Scholar and served in the Peace Corps. He attended Yale School of Medicine before becoming a physician in Boston Medical Center’s emergency department. And he said he followed a line of family members into service by joining the Army Reserves.
But there’s only one job that had direct roots in the representative-elect’s next role: State House intern, in the office, no less, of the man he would later challenge.
Yes, before beating 35-year incumbent Representative Byron Rushing in September’s primary, Santiago said he worked in the South End Democrat’s office. That experience in early 2015, he said, helped teach him that delivering as a legislator takes more than what “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons would lead you to believe.
“It’s a complicated ecosystem of interests,” Santiago said. “It requires a lot of work, a lot of consensus building. It was all very fascinating to me.”
Now Santiago, 36, is diving back in as the Ninth Suffolk District’s incoming representative. The district, he said, is “ground zero” for the state’s opioid epidemic and its deadly fallout, which literally spills into Santiago’s day job at BMC.
“One job informs the other,” said Santiago, adding that he intends to keep one to two shifts a week at the hospital after he takes office. “The ER is essentially where failed public policy presents itself.”
Door-knocking in Whitman one day, Alyson Sullivan said she quickly found reaffirmation for why she sought the Seventh Plymouth District seat. A woman who answered the door recounted how it was Sullivan’s father, former Plymouth District attorney Michael Sullivan, who sat in her family’s living room years earlier when the woman’s brother was killed by a drunk driver, promising his children that he would fight for them.
“People remember, even if it’s for a small thing,” said Alyson Sullivan. The woman, she said, “couldn’t wait to tell her mom” that she met the daughter of the prosecutor they so fondly remember. “It’s those impacts that my father had, that I hope one day I’ll have,” said Sullivan, an Abington Republican.
It’s part of what drove Sullivan, 30, to run. Her father once held the same seat before serving as district attorney, then the US attorney for Massachusetts, and running for US Senate. This year, he led fund-raising efforts for his daughter, currently a student at New England Law, as she sought the seat held by fellow Republican Geoff Diehl.
Diehl’s decision to not seek reelection and mount an unsuccessful challenge to Senator Elizabeth Warren opened a path for Sullivan, who ran on lowering taxes, advocating for infrastructure funds, and fighting the opioid crisis.
She is one of just three newly elected GOP lawmakers in the Legislature, and the only woman Republican entering her first term. Given her father’s experience, serving in the public arena is a path for which she’s long prepared. “It’s something I’ve thought about my whole life,” she said.
Jo Comerford pulled a neat trick this past September. She didn’t just win her Democratic primary in the Hampshire, Franklin & Worcester District — she was also the top Democratic vote-getter in another Senate primary.
Oh, and she did both without her name even being on the ballot.
A write-in candidate in the race for former senator Stanley C. Rosenberg’s seat, Comerford captured high-profile endorsements; drew, by her count, 600 volunteers to her campaign at one point; and put the political skills she’s honed for years to work.
It all helped lift her to more than 14,000 votes in her primary, topping Chelsea S. Kline, who was on the ballot, and two other write-in candidates. Her campaign was so effective, apparently, she also secured 214 votes in a district for which she wasn’t even vying, the Second Hampden and Hampshire. It was the most of three write-in candidates there, but below the threshold needed for the nomination.
“I’m certainly a political creature,” said Comerford, a 55-year-old Northampton Democrat who most recently worked for MoveOn.org. “I know campaigns, I think about strategies. It’s one of the things I hope to translate into good legislating.”
She enters the State House amid what she calls a “wave” of female, progressive, and young candidates. She’s also part of crop of new, Western Massachusetts candidates replacing outgoing legislators with decades of experience. In her case, she’s replacing Rosenberg, who resigned his seat in the wake of a damning ethics report.
“I think it’s a highly charged moment in Western Massachusetts,” Comerford said. “I do sense though, amid all of it, that people are excited.”
Like many women across the country, Tram Nguyen’s interest in politics intensified after President Trump’s 2016 election and the Women’s March. The Andover legal aid attorney started advocating for legislation on Beacon Hill she thought would benefit her clients. As she dug in, she learned that her state representative, Republican James J. Lyons Jr., opposed every bill she and her colleagues cared about “and realized just how conservative he was,” she said in a recent interview with the Globe. He refused to meet with her when she reached out to discuss her policy priorities. “I e-mailed, I called, I sent letters. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” she recalled.
There were some steps in between, but long story short, the 32-year-old Nguyen decided to challenge Lyons. Residents of the 18th Essex District deserved a representative more accessible to them, she said.
Tram drew support from reproductive rights organizations and other liberal activists eager to defeat Lyons, one of the most conservative lawmakers in the Legislature and champion of causes such as eliminating state funding for abortion and overturning transgender protections.
She won endorsements from Emily’s List, former president Barack Obama, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. She beat Lyons by 10 points.
Nguyen came to the United States as a political refugee with her family when she was 5 years old, and grew up in the Merrimack Valley. She will be the first Vietnamese-American woman to serve in the Legislature.
“I’m going to deliver on the issues that were a central part of my campaign,” Nguyen told the Globe. That includes working on reproductive rights, common sense gun safety, the opioid crisis, health care, and addressing the Merrimack Valley gas explosions to make sure a disaster like that never happens again in the Commonwealth. Even before being sworn in, she started discussing with her soon-to-be colleagues on the latter topic, she said.