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Black and Latino Caucus growing in clout, membership

Members coordinate legislative initiatives

Yawu Miller | 2/11/2015, 11:28 a.m.
The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus has undergone a renaissance of sorts, with more members than at any point ...
Members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus meet with Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. (l-r) Reps. Evandro Carvalho, Aaron Vega, Byron Rushing; Polito; Reps. Benjamin Swan and Carlos Gonzalez; Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz; Baker; Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry; Reps. Marcos Devers, Frank Moran, Russell Holmes. Banner Photo

At A Glance

Key events in the history of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus:

1867 – First African Americans elected to Mass. Legislature begin terms: Edwin Garrison Walker of Charlestown and Charles Lewis Mitchell of Boston.

1973 – Massachusetts Legislative Black Caucus forms

1973 – Doris Bunte becomes first African American woman to serve in Massachusetts Legislature

1975 – Bill Owens becomes first African American to serve in Massachusetts Senate

1989 – Nelson Merced becomes first Latino to serve in Massachusetts Legislature

1999 – Marie St. Fleur becomes first Haitian American to serve in Massachusetts Legislature

2003 – Jarrett Barrios becomes first Latino elected to Massachusetts Senate

2009 – Caucus changes name to Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus

Last week members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus met with Gov. Charlie Baker, discussing their legislative priorities and weighing in on the mid-year budget cuts the governor is mulling to bridge a deficit estimated at $768 million.

After a closed-door huddle in the governor’s office, the caucus members, along with Baker, fielded questions on their priorities.

“The biggest issue we talked about was the Springfield office,” Rep. Russell Holmes, chairman of the caucus, told reporters. “We have four members from the area. The concern by many of the delegation was to make sure that office is a vibrant office, one where folks from the western part of the state don’t have to come into Boston to solve their issues. The governor and his staff were very attentive to make sure that is addressed.”

The meeting was remarkable not only because of the issues discussed — budget cuts, the caucus’ legislative priorities — but also for the fact it took place at all. In the not-so-distant past, caucus members were fewer in number and not always well-disposed to work together.

A unified beginning

When the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus was established in January 1973, its founding members — Representatives Royal Bolling Jr., Doris Bunte, Bill Owens and Mel King — found common ground on pressing issues facing the black community in the Greater Boston area: employment, affirmative action, housing, human services and economic development.

By the 1990s, however, the unity of the early days had fractured in the wake of divisive electoral cycles that pitted past members against each other.

“At the beginning everybody had pretty much the same politics,” said Rep. Byron Rushing, who began serving in 1983. “What created the most tension is when we began beating each other.”

The electoral divisions were alive and well in the 1992 race for the 2nd Suffolk Senate District in which Dianne Wilkerson unseated former Sen. Roy Owens. The divisions proved fatal for the Black Political Task Force, a community organization that effectively folded after that election.

Caucus unity hit a low point when Wilkerson, then the highest-ranking member, quietly exited the body amid the infighting of the 2000s.

Expanding unity

In 2009, the Caucus expanded its name to acknowledge the Latino representatives who were then members — Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Reps. Cheryl Coakley Rivera, Jeffrey Sanchez and William Lantigua.