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Massachusetts Dominicans savor newfound political clout

Yawu Miller | 8/20/2014, 11:57 a.m.
The political clout of the state’s Dominican community was on display at the Boston Dominican Parade, as Mayor Martin Walsh, ...
Among those leading the annual Dominican parade in Boston were Grand Marshal David Suazo Ortiz, Lawrence state Rep. Marcos Devers, Mayor Martin Walsh, former City Councilor Felix D. Arroyo, Ramona Barros and Jackeline Peguero. (Banner photo) Banner photo

The first Dominican Festival was held back in 1985 in Mozart Park on Centre Street in what was then the heart of the city’s growing Dominican community in Jamaica Plain. There were no elected officials present. And few people who were not Dominican.

“There were two or three thousand people — no more than that,” said Enerio “Tony” Barros, one of the event’s founders.

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Walter Gonzalez and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins enjoy a moment during the Dominican parade. (Banner photo)

On Sunday, thousands lined the Dominican parade route, which stretched from Hyde Square to Franklin Park. Mayor Martin Walsh, former City Councilor Felix D. Arroyo and Lawrence state Rep. Marcos Devers led the parade. Trailing behind were candidates for local and statewide office including Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, candidates for attorney general Maura Healey and Warren Tolman, candidate for state treasurer Barry Finegold and Mike Lake, who is running for lieutenant governor.

There are now an estimated 103,000 Dominicans living in Massachusetts. While they constitute little more than one percent of the state’s population, political strategists increasingly see them as an important demographic, as evidenced by the abundance of elected officials in attendance at the Boston parade.

“Dominicans are truly a powerful bloc,” said Finegold, who is relinquishing his state Senate seat in his bid for treasurer.

Finegold noted that when Attorney General Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown in her bid for a U.S. Senate seat in a 2010 special election, only 5,000 people turned out in Lawrence, which has a majority Latino electorate.

“The reason we lost that race was a lack of interest in the Dominican community,” he said, noting that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was able to oust Brown from the seat with a strategy that included a get-out-the-vote effort in communities of color.

Turnout in Lawrence the year of Warren’s 2012 victory was 22,000.

Politics runs deep in Dominican communities in Massachusetts. In Boston, political parties active in the Dominican Republic maintain storefront offices, raise funds for candidates and court the support of local ex-pats, who are allowed to vote in Dominican elections.

“They’re very active at home, and when they come to this country, they stay active,” Mayor Walsh said. “Last year, in the same parade, every one of us who was running for mayor marched. That shows how influential this community is.”

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Novelist and MIT Professor Junot Diaz, candidate for attorney general Warren Tolman, Victoria Devers (wife of state Rep. Marcos Devers and Cambridge City Councilor Dennis Benzan. (Banner photo)

While gentrification has pushed many of Boston’s estimated 13,300 Dominican residents out of Jamaica Plain, Dominicans still dominate the businesses on Centre Street and make up the majority of the youth organizers at the Hyde Square Task Force.

“It’s hard to match the vibrancy and civic engagement of the Dominican community,” said Task Force Executive Director Claudio Martinez. “They’re making Boston and Massachusetts stronger with their dedicated and inspiring young people.”

As in Jamaica Plain, the Dominican population in Cambridge has declined since the end of rent control in the ’90s. But those remaining in the city provided first-term City Councilor Dennis Benzan with critical support.

“It’s a small community that almost instantly became involved in my campaign,” he said. “I didn’t have to convince anyone. This is a community that has a lot of faith in its people.”

In Lawrence, where the mayor and five of the nine city councilors are Dominican, that support could soon translate into Massachusetts’ first Dominican state senator. School Committee member Pavel Payano is taking on former state Rep. Barbara L’Italien in the race for the Second Essex and Middlesex District Senate seat.

Benzan says he’ll be door-knocking for Payan next weekend. Active in the Massachusetts Latino Democratic Caucus, Benzan is working to expand Latinos’ influence in the state. Part of that work is supporting other Dominican candidates. Part of that work is supporting candidates who are not Dominican, said Benzan, who is supporting Warren Tolman in his bid for attorney general.

“What we have to start doing is to take a more regional approach,” he said. “We have to work more with African Americans and other communities. We have to change the way we do business. And our community is already starting to do that.”