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In Chelsea and beyond, Latino politicians take center stage

Andy Vargas (center) campaigned outside the Haverhill Public Library on Election Day. Vargas, 22, was elected to a council-at-large seat.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Andy Vargas (center) campaigned outside the Haverhill Public Library on Election Day. Vargas, 22, was elected to a council-at-large seat.

CHELSEA — On a recent windy morning, the newly elected Latino members of Chelsea’s City Council and School Committee gathered in front of City Hall to thank voters, snap some group pictures, and celebrate their election earlier in the week.

For these victorious candidates, this month’s election represented a significant change in the political landscape. In a city where at least 62 percent of the population is Latino, the 11-member council will transition from zero Latino members this year to six next year, paving the way for a Latino council president. And on the nine-member school board, five Latinos were elected, two more than the current Latino membership.

“You want representatives on the council that can understand the community, empathize with the community, communicate with the community,” said Roy A. Avellaneda, 44, who was elected councilor-at-large. “It just makes more sense if you have a high Latino population that you would have Latinos on the council.”

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Chelsea is part of an uneven trend that played out on Election Day, where Latino candidates, several of them recent college graduates, won in cities with significant Latino populations. But in many municipalities, Latinos are still not elected at rates comparable to the size of their communities. Issues of particular importance for Latinos, such as wage disparity, incarceration policy, and the strength of public education are typically discussed without input from Latino policy makers, analysts said.

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“I don’t think you can have a genuine public policy debate without having everyone there who is impacted by the policy to say what’s being done, what needs to change,” said Ann Bookman, director of the Center of Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

In Massachusetts, about 10 percent of the population is Latino, but Latinos are generally underrepresented in elected office. In the state House of Representatives, which has 160 seats, only six are held by Latinos, or 3.75 percent. In the 40-member state Senate, there is one Latino member, or 2.5 percent.

But interest among younger candidates and voters in becoming involved is giving hope to Latino residents that decades of underrepresentation could become a thing of the past, and that the power of Latino voters will be broadly recognized.

“I think the Latino population is a sleeping giant,” said state Representative Jose Tosado, a Democrat from Springfield. “The new generation is recognizing the importance of being counted and being represented.”

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This year’s wave of Latinos elected in Chelsea shook up the political scene, forcing primary races for the first time in more than a decade. But this was not the first time they have run in large numbers or been elected there. In the early 1990s, Latinos, upset with the state of the schools, ran and won. But that was followed by pushback from white families who were the traditional political power brokers, and Latinos lost their seats, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, academic scholar and author of “Latino Politics in Massachusetts.”

This year, several factors prompted Latino candidates to run in Chelsea. There was a feeling that City Hall was not listening, that neighborhoods were not safe, and that more needed to be done about the heroin crisis. The arrival of a new city manager also brought a sense that change was possible in government.

“We want to make sure this new leadership is representative and authentic of the people we’re serving,” said Judith Garcia, 24, the daughter of a Honduran immigrant. Garcia was elected to represent the city’s Fifth District, and was also the top vote-getter in the first preliminary election in the district in 12 years.

John Blanding/Globe staff
Judith Garcia campaigned in Chelsea. Garcia, 24, was elected to the City Council. She was the top vote-getter in the first preliminary election in the district in 12 years.

Damali Vidot, 37, said she ran because she didn’t think City Hall had much regard for regular citizens. In a preliminary election for at-large seats — also the first one in 12 years — she was the top vote-getter, and was successful in the general election.

“I’m not looking to represent any one community, but they all should be represented,” Vidot said.

Some candidates decided to run on their own and ran their own campaigns. There was also a concerted effort by five activists to identify candidates and do what needed to be done to win, from knocking on doors to reaching out to specific voters, said community activist Gladys Vega.

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“I’m shocked because the people finally, families finally, came out and voted,” Vega said.

Since the election, there has been some pushback on social media, with complaints about the way the candidates reached out to Latino voters, sending them sample ballots with directions on how to vote.

“I don’t understand why there’s criticism of a Latino telling another Latino to vote for a Latino,” Avellaneda said. “Why is it any different than Irish Catholics coming out for Kennedy?”

Elsewhere, Latinos’ success has been uneven.

In Lynn, there is just one elected Latino across all municipal elected offices, though at least 32 percent of the population and 58 percent of students in public schools are Latino. The Lynn City Council has both ward and at-large seats; the school board is elected at-large.

“You have to know the right people and have to have a connection with power in the city,” said Maria Carrasco, who serves on the school committee.

In Springfield, which has a population that is 39 percent Latino, Tosado was the first Latino on the City Council. Once elected, he fought for the council to have ward seats, which allows candidates who could not win citywide to represent a segment of the city. Ward systems for councils and school committees have been pursued in cities such as Chelsea and Lawrence as well, as a way to allow people of color to run and win.

The reasons Latinos have not been as successful in securing elected office as the size of their population suggests they would are rooted in law, habit, and economics, experts say. Though there are undocumented immigrants who cannot vote, there are many legal residents who don’t believe their vote matters. For people who are working two jobs and have families to take care of, getting to the polls on Election Day can be difficult, said Kendrys Vasquez, 28, a Lawrence city councilor. If people aren’t voting, they aren’t thinking about running for elected office, either. And moving on to higher office requires a network of donors, which can be difficult for people coming from low-income or immigrant backgrounds.

“The real issue in our community is lack of civic engagement,” said Andy Vargas, 22, who was just elected to a council-at-large seat in Haverhill. The Hispanic population there is at least 15 percent, though he was the first Latino to run. It’s not just voting. Calls for service to the city, for such things as potholes and broken street lights, don’t come from the center of the city, where the needs are great and which is home to a sizable Latino population, Vargas said.

But the election of so many young Latinos this year has engaged a younger generation of voters and offered some hope that more equitable representation is sustainable.

“It’s just a matter of time until those young people mature and enter the electorate,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The future impact of Latino voters does not rest on immigration reform, he said, noting that two-thirds of Latinos in the United States are US citizens, and 93 percent of Latinos under age 18 were born in the United States.

And the evolution of the political landscape here in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, will continue.

“I think the young generation, second-, third-generation Latinos are more involved,” Tosado said. “I think it bodes well for our communities.”

Elected officials in heavily-Latino cities and towns
City 2015 incumbents Since November election
Lawrence (73.8% Latino)
Mayor 1 of 1 1 of 1
City Council 6 of 9 7 of 9
School Committee 4 of 6 1 of 6
Chelsea (62.1% Latino)
City Council 0 of 11 6 of 11
School Committee 3 of 9 5 of 9
Holyoke (48.4% Latino)
City Council 3 of 15 3 of 15
School Committee 2 of 9 2 of 9
Springfield (38.8% Latino)
City Council 3 of 14 2 of 13
School Committee 2 of 6 2 of 6 (no election in 2015)
Lynn (32.1% Latino)
City Council 0 of 11 0 of 11
School Committee 1 of 6 1 of 6
SOURCE: Interviews with elected officials, published 2015 election results, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials

Jill Terreri Ramos can be reached at jill.ramos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillterreri.