Peter Lucas: Elugardo Must Decide Between Herself or Her Constituents
A generation ago, the burning issue before the state’s Democrat-run House of Representatives was whether to allow newly elected black community-activist Mel King of Boston to enter the House chamber dressed in a flowing dashiki.
House rules required all male members to be dressed in suits and ties, and the rules were strictly enforced.
Mel King back then (and now) was a well-regarded community activist who today would be called a progressive. He at one time took a leave to cut sugar cane in Cuba. How many progressives would dare do that today?
He led by example. It was never about him, but about the people he represented. While a man of few words, when he spoke people listened.
It was 1974 and King’s colorful apparel, which he wore during his campaign, became an issue that attracted a lot of media attention.
Then House Speaker David M. Bartley of Holyoke, a traditional Democrat, was inclined to bend the rules and welcome the dashiki-clad King into the House chamber. However, a handful of his more conservative committee chairmen were opposed to Bartley “caving in” to King and the black activists he represented.
Bartley, in his wisdom, sided with King. He knew the gesture was important to King and his constituents. He also knew he had to defuse a potentially explosive issue. So, King arrived in his dashiki and after a couple of days nobody noticed or even cared.
King appreciated the gesture. He got along with Bartley and the Democratic leadership and was able to get things done for his district and the people he represented. King served three terms and then ran for mayor in 1983, becoming the first African American to reach the mayoral finals. He was defeated by Ray Flynn.
The story comes to mind in the wake of remarks from just elected state Rep. Nika Elugardo of Boston (Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Brookline), an outspoken African-American activist who defeated veteran Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez in the Democratic primary.
Her controversial comments accompanying her win are a clear indication how things have changed in a generation. Where King sought compromise, Elguardo sought conflict.
The Elugardo victory sent a shockwave to Beacon Hill, not only because of her outlandish comments about racism, but also because Sanchez was House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
As such Sanchez most recently oversaw passage of the state’s $41 billion budget, in which he made sure that his district was well cared for when it came to budgeted earmarks for non-profit organizations and for other entities.
These are now all at risk as a result of Sanchez’s defeat and Elugardo’s unrelenting attacks on DeLeo and the “racist” Democratic leadership at the Statehouse and in the Democratic Party. “What needs to be said in a very straightforward way is that the Democrat Party is straight-up racist,” she said.
Elugardo, a former aide to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, said that DeLeo, a moderate who often seeks consensus and compromise, “is the greatest obstacle to bold progressive change in Massachusetts.”
She compared DeLeo, who next month will be re-elected speaker, to a slave master in charge of a racist slave institution. America, she said, has “never renounced the racial hatred of slavery and enslavement.”
In post-election remarks reported by the State Houses News Service, Elugardo said, “So what we need to do in renouncing slavery is to also renounce the conception that here is a master and the rest of the people are enslaved, or somewhere between, like an overseer, the slave and the master.
“This is how the House of Representatives works in Massachusetts. This is why it’s been acceptable to amass power toward a central figure like the speaker of the House, regardless of the person who’s in it
“The infrastructure is structurally racist, structural poverty is supported by it and structural oppression is supported. So, you can have wonderful progressives enter into it, and it will produce the same results if you don’t change the structure.”
This is what Elugardo has been saying even before officially taking office. Legislators will not be sworn in until January. So, you can imagine what DeLeo is bracing himself for.
The bottom line is this. Upon taking office a legislator faces a choice. A legislator can choose to represent the constituents responsible for their election, like Mel King, or a legislator can simply represent themselves.
Elugardo, so far, has chosen to represent herself. And if she keeps on calling DeLeo and everybody racist, she can kiss those earmarks goodbye.
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