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'The power of incumbency is very real': Only 10% of Beacon Hill lawmakers have a primary challenger04:35
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Twenty-one sitting state legislators in Massachusetts face challengers in Tuesday's primary election. That's just about 10% of all State House seats.

The low number's not unusual. While there are some competitive statewide races on the ballot, legislators often get a free ride to retain their seats.

"The power of incumbency is very real," said UMass Boston political science professor Erin O'Brien.

There are many obstacles for a newcomer to mount a challenge: "One is name recognition," she said. "Of course, you know, once you voted for someone, once you kind of know their name, and especially if it's in a long-term incumbent, then it's more apt that that state legislator has done some constituent service for you."

She noted another key challenge is to get voters to pay attention to local races — voters care more about choosing the governor, president or U.S. senator.

"Elizabeth Warren represents each person in Massachusetts. That's millions of people. Whereas your state rep. is responsible for a much, much, much smaller number. So they might be more responsive to you. They know your local issues better because they live in a very small district or a relatively small district," O'Brien said.

State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, who represents the 15th Norfolk District, leaves a flyer at a house as he campaigns for re-election on a street in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, who represents the 15th Norfolk District, leaves a flyer at a house as he campaigns for re-election on a street in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

She says running against an incumbent is especially hard in states like Massachusetts that are dominated by one party. But O'Brien notes that some challengers are given a hand by progressive organizations seeking to change the makeup of the Legislature.

That's what's happening in the 15th Norfolk District, which covers much of Brookline. Progressive group Act On Mass is supporting Raul Fernandez, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Tommy Vitolo in the Democratic primary.

Vitolo, 43, is asking voters to send him back to Beacon Hill for a third term. Fernandez, 45, was formerly the vice chair of the Brookline select board.

State Rep. Tommy Vitolo on his way from door to door as he campaigns in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
State Rep. Tommy Vitolo on his way from door to door as he campaigns in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Raul Fernandez, a candidate for Massachusetts state representative, talks to a supporter at a campaign rally in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Raul Fernandez talks to a supporter at a campaign rally in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Fernandez claims his opponent too often sides with House leadership, who keep their actions shrouded in secrecy.

"What our community needs is much more important than what the leadership of the House needs and what our community needs is someone when it comes down to it, whether or not they're going to listen to leadership or listen to folks right here that have elected a representative to be up on the Hill on their behalf, they want to make sure that you're going to be there for the community, not for the leadership," Fernandez said.

But Vitolo counters that what his constituents want are results, and he believes he has delivered for his district.

"What matters is whether or not their legislator is going in to work every day and working hard for their community and their values. And I've been doing that and I think people appreciate that," Vitolo said.

Act On Mass is supporting eight candidates for the House this election, including five who are challenging incumbents.

Raul Fernandez, a Massachusetts State Representative candidate, talks to supporters at a campaign rally in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Raul Fernandez, a candidate for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, talks to supporters at a campaign rally in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Act On Mass Executive Director Erin Leahy said the vast majority of incumbents are not fighting for their constituents the way voters think they should.

"They're not fighting to change the system. And we are very grateful that a handful of challengers, just wherever they live, in whatever districts they come from, who are willing to fight that status quo, have come out and announced that they were running," said Leahy.

Ultimately, it will be up to Brookline voters to decide.

Resident Matt Kramer said he hasn't made up his mind who he will vote for. He listed affordable housing and infrastructure as top priorities. But he said the state Legislature could be more efficient.

"They seem to wait till the last minute to get a lot of things done. And they also could be more open and transparent," he said. "I think a state Legislature is one of the only places maybe the governor's office, too, that's exempt from the public records laws. And so I find that really, you know, a problem."

Kramer is among a small group of Massachusetts voters who will have a choice when voting for their state representative in next week's primary.

The winner in Brookline will be ensured a seat in the Legislature, since the Republicans are not fielding a candidate in the general election. Nearly three-quarters of all legislative candidates will face no opposition in November, so the makeup of the Legislature will not change much in 2023.

This segment aired on August 31, 2022.

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Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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