When the results were confirmed and Springfield Ward 1 City Councilor Adam Gomez Sr. was declared the winner of the Democratic primary for the Hampden District state Senate seat, his father could not help but think back to the years of protests, community organizing and sacrifice of family time that led to this moment.
“This is about more than my son or my family. This is about a fight we have been fighting for 30 years to get representation for the Black and Latino community in Springfield,” said Gumersindo Gomez, who serves as executive director of the Massachusetts Bilingual Veterans Outreach Center of Massachusetts Inc., and who was part of the Springfield Coalition for Ward Representation. The latter organization fought for the right to have ward representation on the city council in 1992.
Adam Gomez said he will be the first Afro-Latino to serve in the Massachusetts senate and only the second person of color joining current Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. The primary also saw a victory for Ward 8 City Councilor Orlando Ramos, who will succeed current state Rep. Jose Tosado in representing the 9th Hampden District. Both men are Puerto Rican.
Samantha Pettey, an assistant professor of political science at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, said it can be hard for women and people of color to win voter support — especially in a challenge to a current office holder.
“You are trying to convince people that you are qualified for the job. Going up against an incumbent is very intimidating, especially when this person has been on the ballot year after year,” said Pettey, whose research includes looking at the successes of female candidates in state elections. “The Latino population in Springfield has continued to grow and I think it’s the right time and moment for people of color and for women, especially seeing this trickle down role model effect of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. These young people of color and women candidates are inspiring other folks lower down the political ladder to give it a try, too.”
Adam Gomez said he is grateful to his wife and three children, as well as his parents and siblings, for standing by him while he first ran for a seat on the New North Citizens Council Board of Directors and later the Ward 1 City Council seat. He also credited his political success to his two close friends Zulmalee Rivera-Delgado, an organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor, and his close friend and fellow community activist Jafet Robles, who was killed in 2017. His murder remains unsolved.
“They believed in me when a lot of people didn’t. We went out there and knocked on doors and we listened to people and their concerns and what they wanted from their elected officials,” he said. “I grew up seeing my dad work with veterans who were homeless and hungry, going with him to community meetings where he was fighting for people’s basic rights and their quality of life. This has been my life whether I liked it or not, it all led to this moment.”
Gumersindo Gomez’s efforts and advocacy for fair and diverse representation came to fruition when Mayor Charles Ryan, joined by councilors including Jose Tosado, placed the question of ward representation on the ballot in 2008. Voters overwhelmingly approved the change, overturning the “strong mayor” form of government that had been in place for 46 years. That system included a nine-member council and seven-member School Committee, including the mayor, elected at large.
“At that time a Hispanic or Black candidate was not going to be able to be elected into the city council because we didn’t have the funding to cover the whole city,” he said. “This gave our Black and Hispanic brothers an opportunity to represent their ward and make decisions for the residents of the city.”
Ramos said Tosado first made him believe he could serve in public office. A carpenter by trade, Ramos went to the city for guidance about a responsible employer ordinance when he noticed he was often the only person of color on large construction sites in the region.
“I started advocating for the enforcement of that ordinance and one of the people I met and talked to about it was Jose Tosado. I was inspired by him. He was the first Latino to serve on the city council and I had never seen someone like me in politics. Had I not met Jose I don’t think I would have believed that I could do this job,” he said.
Ramos ran for a council seat in 2009, once ward representation was in place in Springfield. He lost that race and another race in 2011 before his 2013 election to the Ward 8 seat. He followed a similar path to Tosado, becoming vice president and then president of the council. He will take over Tosado’s district office location on Page Boulevard.
“It’s humbling to hear that you have had an effect on someone. I always say that you have to get into this job for the right reasons. It’s not because of the money or status, it’s because you care about the issues facing your community and you want to make a change for the better,” Tosado said. “When I was growing up there were no Latinos in politics, but I saw my parents and other Puerto Rican families working hard establishing businesses, advocating for the community.”
Both the Gomez and the Tosado families are well known in the Latino community. The Gomez family is recognized for a long history of military service and social justice activism — advocacy for veterans and for the city’s poorest residents.
The Tosados are one of the original Puerto Rican families to settle in Springfield in 1955. Jose Tosado arrived from Puerto Rico as a 1-year-old. His family went on to establish a successful business, and in 2003 he became the first Puerto Rican to serve on the City Council. He was the first Latino to serve as president of the council.
Before Tosado’s historic win, only a few Latinos in the city had served in elected office. Cesar Ruiz was elected the city’s first Latino School Committee member in 1980. Carmen Rosa became the first female Latina School Committee member when she was elected in 1993. It took another ten years for Tosado to become the first Latino on the City Council.
Many of the city’s Puerto Rican leaders were stunned by Gomez’s win over a five-term Irish-American incumbent James T. Welch. They said it was the culmination of decades of social justice and advocacy work on the part of organizations like the New England Farm Workers Council and Women on the Vangaurd, the Urban League of Springfield, the Springfield Chapter of the NAACP and Arise for Social Justice.
Maria Perez, a member of the Springfield School Committee and longtime community activist, called it a “battle for representation” dating to 1981, when Miguel Rivas ran for city council. “Rivas didn’t win that year, but we have been fighting for this since then,” said Perez, who founded Women on the Vanguard as an advocacy group for women and children in the city.
Heriberto Flores, president and CEO of New England Farm Workers Council, said seeing Latinos elected to the state legislature makes the early struggles worthwhile.
“Back then we had to struggle even to cast a vote. If we wanted to vote we had to bring identification and proof of any land or business ownership and taxes we paid. They would try to make us prove that we could speak English,” he said. “You look at these things now and think that’s illegal — and the courts back then agreed, but they still did this to the Latino and Black community for years.”
Martin Espinosa never ran for public office, but for more than 30 years he has been behind the scenes educating Latino voters about their rights, helping them register to vote, driving them to the polls and holding signs for Latino candidates on election day. On Wednesday he called Gomez to congratulate him.
“I am proud of him and his family, of the work they have done for this community, but more importantly what this means for Latinos in Springfield,” he said. “Gumersindo has always done right by our community and by our veterans, and he passed on that legacy to his children.”
‘A Springfield seat’
It has been more than 20 years since the Hampden District senate seat has been held by a Springfield resident. That last was Linda J. Melconian, who held the seat from 1995 through 2004. Stephen J. Buoniconti of West Springfield was the district’s senator from 2005 through 2010. He was succeeded by Welch, also from West Springfield and a former aide to Buoniconti. Welch served five terms, twice running unopposed in Democratic primaries.
The Hampden District includes all of West Springfield, along with Wards 2, 3 and 4 in Chicopee, and more than half of Springfield — including the city’s more racially diverse neighborhoods. Welch won by large margins in 2010 and 2012. He won a closer race in 2018 against Amaad I. Rivera winning with 5,909 votes to Rivera’s 4,198 — a margin of about 17 percentage points.
While Welch had a strong showing in West Springfield, where he won just over 75% of the 4,466 total votes, and in Chicopee, where he won 63.3% of the 2,908 total votes. But Springfield voters came out in droves for Gomez. The councilor won 9,278 votes to Welch’s 5,142, for a margin of 64.3% to 35.7%.
Anthony Cignoli, a political consultant who helped with Carmen Rosa’s School Committee election and remembers Ruiz’s historic win, said this is another history making moment — not only for the Latino community, but for Springfield as well.
“This had always been considered a Springfield seat. The majority of the people represented in this senate district live in Springfield,” he said. “It somehow became a West Springfield seat with Senator Buoniconti and later Senator Welch, but I can tell you a lot of people throughout the city are happy that Adam has brought it back home. He broke a lot of barriers with this election. Not only barriers of race, but barriers of age and neighborhoods.”
Cignoli said both Gomez and Ramos have a likability factor and used a grassroots approach to campaigning that relied on personal connections and hard work instead of money.
“I’ve seen Adam at community meetings in Sixteen Acres, and that’s not even his district. Orlando worked his way up as a ward representative to become vice president and then president of the council. They took a stand on issues that affect more than just the residents of their wards, but the city as a whole,” he said.
Springfield alone saw an unusually high voter turnout, with 26.9% of voters casting ballots. Including Republican ballots, this year’s state primary saw the most ballots cast in such an election in Springfield since 2006. Over that period, which includes 34 elections total, the 2020 primary ranks as the eighth highest in terms of total ballots cast. The only higher totals were three presidential elections, three governor elections and the Jan. 2010 special Senate election.
Pettey, the political science professor, said an interest in larger races like the contest between Richard E. Neal and Alex B. Morse for the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate matchup between Edward Markey and Joe Kennedy III drew larger crowds, which in turn could have affected state races.
“The state in general had some pretty competitive primaries, which we don’t normally have — and competitive elections most of the time will increase turn out,” she said. “It has a trickle down affect where it makes those lower level primaries also competitive. Realistically turnout in primaries is usually less than ten percent.”
Pettey said having multiple options, from mail-in ballots to early voting, may have contributed to the turnout.
“Massachusetts had the luxury of watching other states deal with primaries during the pandemic and I think the secretary of state did a great job of mass mailing everybody, which was very helpful,” she said, adding that she believes the pandemic will force secretaries of states to think about election laws and the best way to do things — especially given that turnout is higher among older voters, who are in the age group at higher risk during the pandemic.
‘These two will make that noise’
In January, Gomez and Ramos will join state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, as the newest members of the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus. Gonzalez, the caucus president, also holds a seat historically held by white representatives, until Cheryl Coakley-Rivera became the first Latina to serve in the Massachusetts House. She won election after Anthony Scibelli, the longtime representative for the Springfield-based 10th Hampden District, died in 1998.
Gonzalez saw Adam Gomez grow up in the city’s North End neighborhood, where they still both live. He said the Gomez and Ramos wins are significant at a statewide level.
Gonzalez said diversity is one of the city’s strengths, and said having more members who represent diversity is “extremely exciting and important.”
“I think we’ll bring about a sense of better understanding about the issues that are important to the communities of color, particularly in cities like Springfield, and we talk about it from the personal perspective — not only from outside looking in,” he said.
While both councilors have different backgrounds — Gomez’s family has been involved in social activism and politics since before he was born, and Ramos grew up a self-described “church boy” with no political affiliations or aspirations — both men have been very vocal about issues including police reform and racial equality in local government.
“There is still a strong sentiment that Western Massachusetts is the forgotten part of the state, and that we need legislators who will go to Beacon Hill and really make a noise,” Cignoli said. “And there is the thought that these two will make that noise. As they have already governed on city council, it’s expected they will govern at the statehouse.”
As for the future of Latinos in politics, many of the founding leaders of the movement are hopeful for even more progress.
“I have been here for 38 years serving this community and seeing the political changes, and I feel so proud because we have a new generation of leaders that was born of that struggle, of that fight we started so many years ago,” Perez said.
She said when they began fighting for a seat at the table in politics the demographics were much different than they are now. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, Latinos now make up 44.7% of the city’s population.
“Back then it was very difficult because we didn’t have the demographics we have now, but we fought and we did that work so that our children and their children would have the opportunities they are finally having now,” Perez said.
Gomez and Ramos both said they are ready to work, network and represent their districts when they are sworn in as the city’s newest legislators.
“I think the city of Springfield right now is reflective of what diversity really means, and diversity is not only about race, it’s about age and gender too,” Gomez said. “Now what we are seeing is that the way government was written, the structures that were in place years ago, is not what people want. They want more inclusivity, they want more access to what what we are making decisions on and what we are voting on and this election reflects that desire the people have.”
Ramos said he is excited to serve his constituents on a larger scale.
“Back when I was advocating for access for tradesman of color on big construction jobs I fell in love with the idea of being able to help my community and to help people better their lives,” he said. “I hope that I can inspire other young people and people of color to run for office by leading by example and just putting in the work when I get to Boston, just like I have put in the work right here in Springfield.”
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