The Purpling of Massachusetts
The true-blue Democratic establishment has long had a lock on Massachusetts politics. Talk to voters, though, and you’ll hear stories of alienation and frustration over a whole range of issues. Inside the making of a purpling Massachusetts.
In many ways, Daniele Lantagne of Somerville just might be the platonic ideal of a Massachusetts progressive. A Tufts University professor of community health, Lantagne’s impeccable credentials include years spent battling infectious diseases and evaluating water treatment programs in developing countries; a postdoctoral fellowship in sustainability science at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and hobbies including yoga, vegan cooking, and hosting the occasional asylum seeker. The “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” she says, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “I have always considered myself a progressive Democrat.”
Until, that is, progressive Democrats in her progressive city government dropped an f-bomb of contempt on her.
When the pandemic shut down Somerville public schools in spring 2020, Lantagne, a mother of two young children, was especially worried about how families with fewer resources would cope. So she decided to use her experience as a former public health engineer for the CDC, researching the data on school safety coming out of Europe. She believed it offered a blueprint for at least a partial reopening the following September.
City officials had other ideas. Then-Mayor Joe Curtatone, well known as a progressive’s progressive, along with the local teacher’s union leadership, were vocal hardliners for keeping the schools closed. When Lantagne formed a group with other alarmed parents and approached officials with their concerns, they were told “we were advocating for our children, not the children of Somerville,” Lantagne says. Presenting administrators with her research on reopening tactics used in countries where the pandemic broke out before it hit the United States, she again was met with “a very adverse reaction,” she says. “I didn’t understand how averse many people here would be to using international data.”
Averse and often openly hostile toward parents pleading for relief from their families’ pandemic nightmare. Julia Toof, the mother of a young son with autism spectrum disorder who struggled with remote learning, also pressed the case for reopening to Somerville officials. To her shock, she says, “I was told that I just wanted to go to brunch,” as if she was only interested in having the schools reopen for babysitting.
The situation came to a head in March 2021, when the Somerville School Committee convened via Zoom to discuss the long-awaited reopening plans. With both Toof and Lantagne listening in, the meeting made poignantly clear residents’ dismay over the city’s reluctance to fully bring students back to classrooms. “I am feeling empty and lonely,” said a ninth-grade girl named Anna during public comment. “I feel abandoned by the city and completely forgotten.” Added Rachael Evans, the mother of two Somerville High School students: “Somerville has been reacting to the demands of the teacher’s union, and I ask you to make in-person learning [for all students] a priority.”
Except for one unidentified official caught on an open mike during a committee roll call, the struggles of local families weren’t the takeaway. Instead, it was the annoyance of “fucking white parents in my life,” the person said. For Lantagne, that was just the latest slap in the face, she says, “from people I had considered myself politically aligned with. It was both surprising and difficult for me to hit this wall of very progressive thinking that just said we cannot go back to school.” Likewise, Toof, a self-described liberal, found it “very shocking to have people not want to hear the impacts this was having on vulnerable children. I view many progressive Democrats differently now.”
These stories of alienation and angst brought on by misplaced government priorities, tone-deaf ideology, and straight-up arrogance will likely be dismissed by a smug, secure, Democratic establishment as isolated incidents during a stressful time. Yet Massachusetts political elites should instead see them as a flashing neon warning sign that our ultra-blue political culture is bleeding purple at the grassroots—a slow-but-steady drip, drip, drip that seems likely to be accelerated by fallout from the pandemic and economic pressures.
Even as Democrats consolidated their near-total governmental control over the past few decades, Massachusetts was never an impregnable liberal sanctuary. The property-tax limitations of Proposition 2½ have survived many challenges in the four decades since voters installed them. Popular distaste for broad-based tax increases and liberal immigration policies have acted as a constant brake on Beacon Hill even under Democratic supermajorities. And in a state with only 460,000 registered Republicans, Donald Trump won more than a million votes—twice.
Given the flaccid condition and hard-right turn of the state Republican Party, it is unlikely to be the beneficiary of this purpling anytime soon. For now, at least, the fissures in Massachusetts don’t cleave along conventional Democrat vs. Republican lines. Instead, we’re a state of insiders vs. outsiders, suburbs vs. cities, and haves vs. have-nots. And the unease of the Democratic base—along with independents who make up the majority of the Massachusetts electorate—left cold by leadership’s response to their most pressing concerns reflects the fact that the arc of Massachusetts politics is bending all right—toward payback.
The surveillance video shows a young man walking into a convenience store on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury and demanding a box of cigar wrappers from a store clerk. Clearly frightened—and under strict instructions from store owner Humayun Morshed to avoid arguing with potentially armed thieves—the employee hands it over, and the robber leaves. The confrontation is over for today, but what will happen tomorrow? Morshed, a Bangladeshi immigrant who came to Boston 25 years ago and now owns seven convenience stores in Dorchester and Roxbury, can’t say for sure.
Life was good, he says, until 2019, when the progressive Rachael Rollins took office as Suffolk County District Attorney and began fulfilling a pledge not to prosecute certain offenses, including shoplifting, larceny of less than $250, and wanton and malicious destruction of property. When we talked in early summer, Morshed expressed anger about the latest in an ongoing wave of incidents in his stores. A young teenager had entered his Rosario Grocery at the corner of Washington and Ashmont streets in Dorchester five times over the course of one Sunday, alternately shoplifting candy and throwing merchandise on the floor in a screaming tantrum. “Young kids come and grab stuff and vandalize,” Morshed says. “The police know their limitations, and the young kids know what they can get away with. They know the law cannot touch them.”
The situation is even worse at the Humboldt Avenue store, which he says has become a magnet for criminal activity. “Stealing some candy, that’s nothing for us there,” Morshed notes. “I did talk with the [police] captain of that area, but he says, ‘Oh, I’m going to send community police over.’ What the hell are community police going to do? Nothing.”
A longtime Democrat, Morshed reports he and other city store owners feel “abandoned” by a government that doesn’t seem to want to help: “It’s terrifying,” he says. “We are helpless.”
Across town, a similar sentiment is heard in the tonier aisles of Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill, an upscale kitchen shop where co-owner Jim Hill’s frustration with city government is palpable. The brief spasm of downtown looting and vandalism that followed George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 “came very, very close to where we live and work,” he says, which helped persuade Hill that the policy of not prosecuting shoplifters and vandals is “resoundingly ineffective.” Between that and the sight of homeless encampments around the Boston Public Library that “trash the place,” he says, Hill—a former independent turned registered Republican—wonders if Boston is heading the way of San Francisco, where rampant so-called nuisance crime tolerated by the Democratic establishment sparked the recent recall of the ultra-liberal district attorney there. “We see folks from San Francisco in the store,” Hill says, “and they are ashamed of what they see out there.”
Shop owners aren’t the only ones feeling alienated; it’s parents of school-age kids, too. In an echo of the Somerville mothers’ Zoom-fueled awakening, private school mom Ashley Jacobs, a Harvard MBA who lives in the Back Bay, was outraged by the independent schools groups that she felt were peddling one-sided race-based agitprop. “It’s great that you’re focusing on diversity, but we’d like diversity of thought,” she says. “We’d like our kids to learn how to talk about these things instead of being made afraid to speak up.”
Alongside other parents, Jacobs formed the group Parents Unite, writing to two major private-school accreditation agencies asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns. The feedback they received from school officials was underwhelming, to say the least. “Basically, their response was ‘You guys are crazy, we got this, thanks very much,’” she recalls. Now, the former self-professed “left-leaning” Brown University graduate considers herself “politically homeless,” she says. “The Democratic Party has moved so far left, but [a large portion] of the country is moderate.”
There’s also been backlash among parents against long-standing efforts to bring sexual health education to public schools, a topic that began bubbling up again after Boston and Worcester adopted new curricula last year. Mayra Diaz of Charlestown, a Democrat who runs the immigrant support group Manos Unidas Saliendo Adelante (“United Hands Going Forward”), says she was left angry and frustrated by the cold shoulder that Charlestown High School officials gave her when she sought details of the sex education her daughter was receiving there. “Parents are excluded from information because the students have rights, so they don’t tell me anything,” she says. “They don’t know how to work together, and they don’t care anything about the parents.”
That sounds a little bit like the pitch of Rayla Campbell, the presumptive GOP nominee for secretary of state, who spoke at the state party convention in May and said that sex education teachers were “telling your five-year-old that he can go and suck another five-year-old’s dick” (in reference to explicit illustrations in a graphic novel, written to help those struggling with gender identity). In a later interview, Campbell said, “When parents are requesting to know what’s going on with the sex education within the school system, their voices are being suppressed. They’re being labeled as domestic terrorists for just inquiring about what their children are being taught.”
Indeed, school administrators sometimes struggle to hide their impatience with parents’ demands, especially when confronted with vulgar, fact-free rhetoric like Campbell’s. Still, when officials get testy and dismissive, it can be like lighter fluid on the fire. “When you act like you have something to hide, parents get nervous, and you leave space for bad actors to come in and claim they’re grooming our kids,” says Keri Rodrigues, a member of the Democratic State Committee and president of the National Parents Union. “A lot of my parents are a hell of a lot more conservative than liberals think.”
Beyond school-related issues, there’s also the question of support for Israel, something that’s left even avowed progressives such as Democratic state Senator Becca Rausch of Needham feeling the heat. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, her support of vaccination and mask mandates was met with anti-Semitic attacks from right-wingers incensed by her work, before and during the pandemic. But in an era of increasingly aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric from the left and a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Massachusetts, Rausch finds herself “outwardly attacked,” she says, by “former supporters” for her qualified backing of the Jewish state.
Case in point: When a shadowy left-wing group recently posted an interactive online map highlighting the addresses of Jewish institutions and others deemed sympathetic toward Israel “so we can dismantle them,” the site said, Rausch was appalled that people she had worked with and considered friends didn’t share her horror. “We have to stop and think more critically,” she says. “If you want to advance political discourse about a political issue, this is not the way to do it.”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Rausch won’t be turning Republican. But it’s worth noting she occupies the Senate seat once held by Republican Scott Brown, who shocked the Democratic establishment in 2010 by surfing voter discontent with liberal policies and entitlement to an upset victory in the race to succeed the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. Brown couldn’t duplicate that feat in a 2012 re-election fight with Elizabeth Warren, but his breakthrough may have been the canary in the coal mine of things to come.
Or perhaps something that’s already been here for a long time.
To a great extent, Massachusetts has always sported a blue veneer concealing some less-than-progressive values. And right now, it seems like that veneer is wearing even thinner.
Driving through Weston, past lush green lawns and sprawling homes, is like taking a ride through a storybook version of suburbia. Then a sign pops up, then another, and another. Featuring a demonic image of a red high-rise building with menacing yellow eyes, it pleads with passersby to “STOP the Weston Whopper!”
So what, exactly, is this “Whopper,” and why is it so unnerving to residents? The terrifying monster would add 180 apartments to the wealthy town’s housing stock, which as of last year included just 331 low-to-moderate-income units, well below the 10 percent threshold set by state law. (Cities and towns that fall beneath that level lose some of their authority over developers willing to build affordable housing.) On their website, preserveweston.org, “Whopper” opponents make a claim supporters of the project say is a whopper of its own: that the new housing would “harm our town for decades to come.”
Opposition to affordable housing in the state’s suburbs isn’t new, nor is it contained to one town. Over in Newton, where Republicans make up a mere 6 percent of the electorate, locals waged a relentless battle of attrition against a mixed-use development near the Riverside MBTA stop. The type of transit-accessible project that state government has been promoting for decades, the Riverside development would yield a paltry 44 apartments for families earning $60,000 a year. Yet after years of delay and multiple efforts to appease residents’ objections, final approval in October 2020 had to clear one last hurdle: a letter from the nearby tony Woodland Golf Club complaining that “reflected sunlight” from the project could “impose burdensome watering and groundskeeping strategies.”
The consequences of such NIMBYism are not lost on people such as Jarred Johnson, a Black housing activist and executive director of the group Transit Matters. “Communities that do not support multi-family housing are less diverse,” he says. “The Westons of the world need to build affordable housing. [That they won’t] is the fear of a lot of Black and brown folks.”
Johnson, for his part, says he also feels like a “disaffected Democrat” because of Beacon Hill’s glacial progress in promoting affordable housing, long a progressive priority. But a 2017 study by three Boston University political scientists suggests the foot-dragging actually starts at the well-manicured grassroots. They reviewed the minutes of citizen comments at planning and zoning board meetings about multi-unit developments in 97 cities and towns and found 63 percent of them were in opposition, with just 15 percent expressing support. “Traffic” and “environment” were the two most common reasons for opposing a project. Not far behind: “safety,” “aesthetics,” and “neighborhood character.” Those are terms that evoke Trump’s stark warning from the 2020 campaign that Democrats want to “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe, and your housing values will go down.”
It’s a theme parroted by Geoff Diehl, the state GOP’s Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate, who claims “high-density multifamily housing would significantly change the traditional look and feel of these communities against their will.” Still, for the most part, our region’s affordable-housing haters aren’t sporting MAGA red. In fact, the BU study found “no differences in partisanship” among the naysayers: “Democrats, Republicans, and Independent/Unaffiliated voters do not participate at different rates.”
Then there’s the issue that’s always seemed to unite most Massachusetts residents against the political establishment: taxes. Efforts to install a graduated income tax here—a pet project of liberals—have been rejected by voters five times since 1962. Until the push to get the so-called Fair Share Amendment on the 2022 ballot, state officials hadn’t even tried since 1994.
Perhaps clever rebranding as the “Millionaire’s Tax” will get the ballot initiative over the hump this fall, but surveys show resistance to tax hikes persists. Amid a push by Governor Charlie Baker for broad tax relief in a state that was already one of the nation’s most expensive before inflation hit the fan, an Emerson College poll pegged his job approval at 67 percent—among Democrats. In early May, meanwhile, at a moment when Beacon Hill was preoccupied with enacting its progressive agenda to authorize drivers’ licenses for non-citizens, a 43 percent plurality of voters in the poll felt the economy was the “most important” issue.
Are Democrat leaders out of touch with the public’s current economic anxiety? “Kelly from the Cape,” a young-sounding female caller to Dan Rea’s top-rated WBZ News Radio nighttime talk show thought so. During a late-March discussion about the legislature’s refusal to pass a temporary lifting of the state gas tax, she complained about the pandemic-era government attention lavished on “people who lost their jobs. They got stimulus checks, they got unemployment, they got all these benefits. If I can get the benefit of a suspended gas tax, go for it. It’s about time the working class got a little help, and I don’t care if you make $75,000 or $200,000”—inflation and soaring gas prices “still impact you.”
Despite a push by the White House to give beleaguered drivers a break by suspending the federal gas tax for the summer, top Democrats on Beacon Hill remained ice-cold to the idea as of late June. They do so at their own peril: Sky-high gas prices are an especially regressive tax on working-class people who use their vehicles for work, and polling suggests large swaths of the Democratic base potentially share Kelly’s anger. A recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey found the percentage of Hispanic voters expressing concern about their financial situation or employment running seven points ahead of the overall result, 54 percent to 47 percent. Fifty-five percent of voters overall told the pollsters inflation was causing them a lot or some financial hardship; in Suffolk County, 70 percent said the same. Meanwhile, when asked if state taxes should be raised, kept the same, or lowered, 75 percent of Black voters opted for tax cuts, surpassing the 48 percent support for cuts among whites.
No doubt, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer believed it when he predicted a few years ago that “when middle-class families see their taxes go up, they’ll know Republicans are to blame.” But to Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin, that’s wishful thinking. The seasoned observer of Massachusetts politics was an eyewitness to the purpling of the local electorate during the personal signature gathering for his re-election campaign. He watched in amazement as Rayla Campbell, of five-year-old oral-sex fame, racked up more than 11,000 signatures to make the ballot and run against him; in her failed 2020 bid to run against incumbent Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, “she couldn’t get 2,000,” he says. The people Galvin says he saw expressing unhappiness with the Democratic party “were not wearing MAGA hats. Many were younger people, some with children. They weren’t obnoxious—just reserved and determined.”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
In another time, all of this might add up to opportunity for Massachusetts Republicans. The party’s positions on tax relief and denying licenses to undocumented immigrants are in sync with large swaths of voters. Yet they seem intent on pouring too much bright MAGA red into the color mix.
Party chair Jim Lyons spells out the party’s banner message as the four I’s: “inflation, immigration, indoctrination [in schools], and infanticide.” In a state where 74 percent of adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, that last one is a self-own. But that doesn’t deter the state GOP from mucking up its own brand with it. “The Democrats on Beacon Hill voted against a temporary suspension of the gas tax,” reads a post on the party’s Facebook page. “However, they voted to spend an additional $500,000 to provide more funding for abortions! Shameful!”
It may be a while before Republicans stop gratuitously pissing off people who might otherwise give them a look. In the meantime, the various tentacles of establishment Democrat control in Massachusetts are cultivating potential future alienation. Over the course of a brief interview with Toof, the Somerville mother crudely dissed by her own government, she offered a bleakly repetitive summary of her interactions with local and state officials. “They didn’t have much to offer…. I really felt like no one cared…. I called Maura Healey’s office, got nothing back…. They didn’t want to hear about it…. The president of the teacher’s union ignored me…. They focus on national issues while crosswalks need to be repainted…. Leadership is not paying attention.”
As the national Democratic Party lurches toward potential midterm devastation in November, local elites insist it’ll never happen here. After all, they’ve built an edifice of power with a bright blue veneer that seems impervious to any changes in the weather.
That’s likely what San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and three school board members in one of America’s most liberal cities thought as they brushed off mounting public criticism of their left-wing agendas. All four have been recalled by voters this year. And we’ve seen this movie before in Massachusetts, in 1990, when years of unacknowledged anger at tone-deaf Democratic rule erupted in an unexpected spasm of Republican gains on Beacon Hill. Since then, independent voter registration has grown by 90 percent. Democratic enrollment is up by just 11 percent.
It seems unwise for Democrats, a group that believes in the damage climate change can do, to ignore gathering storm clouds. Discontent is in the forecast in all directions: from parents like Toof, who says she finds the establishment “more focused on childless adults, not so much parents with children,” as well as from the “young childless friends” of Johnson, the transit activist, who he says are “in their 30s and wonder when they won’t have to have roommates” because of the lack of affordable housing. The status quo Democrats might also reflect on what especially frustrated Johnson when he saw a photo on Twitter of three signs outside a Newton home: two opposing the Riverside project and one in support of Black Lives Matter. “I just felt a real cognitive dissonance,” he says. “The commitment to social justice has to be more than a sign.”
Yet if Massachusetts Democrats want to staunch the purpling, their definition of who deserves justice might need to be more expansive. Consider the saga of legacy-Democrat-turned-Republican-activist Maureen Maloney of Milford: One night in August 2011, her 23-year-old son Matthew Denice was hit by a truck driven by Nicolas Guaman, a drunken illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Matthew was trapped, alive, in the wheel well, then dragged to his death as onlookers screamed at the driver to stop. Guaman was eventually convicted of motor vehicle homicide and manslaughter. But his mother’s pursuit of justice “opened my eyes to the fact that many politicians here in Massachusetts, Democratic politicians, were very complacent about the issue of illegal immigration and even facilitated it,” says Maloney, a formerly unenrolled voter who had been raised in a Kennedy Democrat household.
Guaman had a criminal record prior to killing Denice, which might have kept him off the road had then-Governor Deval Patrick allowed local officials to participate in a federal program that tracks such information. But he didn’t, and Patrick—who didn’t refer to the victim in the widely publicized case by name—bristled at questions about that decision, insisting that “illegal immigration didn’t kill this person; a drunk driver killed this person.” Recalls Maloney: “To me, as a mother, it was infuriating.”
As a result, in 2016 Maloney joined a group of survivors of similar crimes who appeared at Trump campaign events. She became active in a national group, Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime. And now Maloney is spending her summer overseeing the signature drive to repeal the new state law allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. “Even Democrats are surprised by this,” she says. “They do have concerns about the vetting process.”
The failure of the Democratic establishment to even lend a sympathetic ear turned Maloney red; she became a registered Republican a few years ago. And she still can’t comprehend why the party of her youth can be so oblivious to an agonizingly real problem that galvanizes so many voters, essentially driving one of their own into the arms of their political adversaries.
“It is baffling,” Maloney says, “that they haven’t caught onto it.”
The Coming Purple Wave
Think Massachusetts is true blue? The numbers tell a different story. By Kyle Paoletta
Number of registered Republicans in Massachusetts.
Number of votes Donald Trump received here in the 2016 election.
Number of votes Donald Trump received here in the 2020 election.
Number of Democrats who have been elected governor in the state since 1990.
Percentage of Massachusetts parents who said they wanted their children to return to in-person schooling full time following the 2020 to 2021 academic year, in direct opposition to the plans of schools in Boston, Worcester, and several other cities to continue operating virtual classrooms.
Rank of “Taxachusetts” among other states in terms of highest tax burden on residents (below Utah, Mississippi, and Nebraska).
Percent increase in the number of firearm background checks in Massachusetts in 2020.
Number of stores selling “Let’s Go Brandon” merchandise that have opened in Massachusetts since 2021.