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Caucus struggles without agenda

Activists see missed opportunities as Black/Latino caucus flounders

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Caucus struggles without agenda
State Rep. Chynah Tyler during the Sept. 2016 primary. BANNER PHOTO

Back in February, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to ravage Black and Latino communities across the state and the nation, advocacy groups were pressing Gov. Charlie Baker on the state’s sluggish rollout of COVID vaccines, which initially appeared to bypass predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods and cities.

The Baker administration had dispensed with the state’s pre-planned method of distributing vaccines through local public health agencies, instead turning over the task to a year-old California startup that initially focused its efforts on providing vaccines at large venues such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, rather than making them available in local communities.

Although Black and Latino communities in the state were hardest hit by the pandemic, a key group that provides representation to those communities across the state seemed conspicuously silent. While individual state representatives and senators pressed for better vaccine access, the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus never weighed in on the crisis.

Activists and elected officials in the Black community pressed the governor in February to make vaccines available at local venues like the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, yet the Caucus was absent from such advocacy. When the group finally held its quarterly meeting with Gov. Baker in March, its requests — laid out in an agenda generated by Caucus Chair Rep. Chynah Tyler — were curiously tepid.

“Can you commit to opening a few vaccination sites in the 20 gateway communities in the Commonwealth?” read one request in an agenda typed up by Tyler’s legislative aide. “Can you create a trust fund for seniors to be actively involved when accessing vaccination information? Ex: Technology, ipad, etc.”

The apparent lack of a coordinated response from the Caucus left many who were fighting for expanded access to vaccinations frustrated.

“The highest rates of infection in Boston are still in Mattapan and Hyde Park,” said Louis Elisa, of the Boston Black COVID-19 Coalition. “It would be nice to have some help.”

Advocates and legislative aides who worked with Caucus members blame the lack of action squarely on Tyler, who took over as chair in January under the body’s rules, which confer leadership on a rotating basis based on seniority. Tyler did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. Other Caucus members the Banner contacted refused to comment.

Since Tyler took over the Caucus, many of the body’s longstanding practices have been upended. The body has not agreed on an agenda for the year, has not held regularly scheduled meetings and has passed up opportunities to weigh in on key issues.

“They have completely stalled progress at a time when the House and Senate are looking to the Caucus for leadership,” said one former State House staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A history of solidarity

The Caucus was founded in 1973 when seven Black legislators were in the House — the greatest number of Blacks elected to the body at that point in history. While members of the group lobbied to redraw House district lines to help Nelson Merced become the first Latino elected to the House in 1989 and allowed Latinos to join, it wasn’t until 2009 that the group changed its name to the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

Currently, the group has seven Black members and nine Latino members.

The power of the Caucus has long been its ability to present a united front in the Legislature to push issues of concern to communities of color in Massachusetts. The list of legislative priorities Caucus members agree to work on at the beginning of every year has served to focus the group’s firepower on such issues.

The fact that the group has not agreed on a 2021 agenda at a time when Massachusetts and states and cities across the country are grappling with racial inequities that were highlighted by the George Floyd murder and the COVID pandemic has some activists frustrated.

“Massachusetts is majority white. Communities with people of color are underserved,” said Anthony Collins, a political organizer who lives in Roxbury. “We really need a united front among our representatives.”

Internal dysfunction

However acute the need for a strong Caucus is, the group’s power suffered a temporary setback May 3 when its executive director, Kyéra Sterling, resigned the position.

While Sterling did not cite a reason for her resignation after just eight months on the job, her departure fits a pattern unique to Tyler: In little more than four years in office in the 7th Suffolk District seat vacated when Gloria Fox retired, she has gone through eight legislative aides — a remarkable rate of turnover in the State House.

Sterling’s resignation letter did imply the Caucus is struggling with poor management and communication under Tyler’s leadership.

“I hope that all future Executive Directors are granted the clarity, support, and direction needed to aid the Caucus in building organizational power,” Sterling wrote.

A series of emails between Sterling and Tyler that has circulated among legislative aides of Caucus members shows Sterling struggling in vain to obtain Tyler’s consent to schedule meetings, obtain consensus for meeting agendas and poll members for their legislative priorities — the usual business of a Caucus executive director.

In one chain of emails that circulated among State House aides, Sterling seeks Tyler’s approval for Caucus members to weigh in on a proposed Department of Corrections policy that would require all mail to be photocopied before being passed along to inmates.

The policy change took effect without a letter from the Caucus.

In February, Sterling wrote to Caucus members with a list of policy changes Tyler implemented for the executive director’s position, including a “weekly report of how I’ve used my 40 hours,” “All Member requests/meetings/questions/ noted on a Google Tracking sheet for her review” and “No communication with members until she has given me the clearance to meet/respond.”

In her email to the Caucus members, Sterling warned that the limitations on her ability to communicate with them would be made all the more difficult by her relationship with Tyler.

“There already exists a wide communication gap between myself and the Chair and I believe the need to wait a week to respond to Member questions/concerns/needs will severely hinder efficiency,” she wrote.

Following Sterling’s departure, some are questioning the ability of the Caucus to function effectively. The group Black Boston sent a detailed list of concerns and policy recommendations, including ending qualified immunity for police officers, increasing protections for undocumented workers and a having a more transparent process for the Caucus itself to determine priority legislation.

But Collins, the Roxbury organizer, questioned how any of that will happen, with the Caucus appearing to be operating with the greatest degree of dysfunction in recent years and Tyler seemingly unable even to schedule regular meetings.

“She’s not even able to put out an agenda,” Collins said.