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Edwards reflects on diverse needs of district

Anna Lamb
Edwards reflects on diverse needs of district
Lydia Edwards, surrounded by supporters after winning the December primary in the special election for the Suffolk and Middlesex Senate seat. PHOTO: Avery Bleichfeld

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards won the Jan. 11 special election to fill the 1st Suffolk and Middlesex Senate district seat vacated by John Boncore. As District 1 City Councilor for the past four years, she has represented East Boston, Charlestown and the North End; now, she will represent East Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop at the state level.

The Banner caught up with Edwards last week for a discussion of her priorities on Beacon Hill. The following interview has been edited for clarity.state

What will be your priorities in the state Senate?

At the front of my mind right now, it’s the pandemic. And honestly, as a senator for this district right now, I have four cities, and each are dealing with the pandemic differently in their education system, in their restaurant industries or local businesses, and in general, with how they are treating indoor or outdoor mask mandates. I think the pandemic is number one.

And then, what policies are allowing us to really equitably recover from this? I don’t believe there’s a city out there or a person out there who believes what we had before was working just fine. So we have a double duty to truly be honest about how the system was failing before, and then to be truly honest about how we’re going to heal prior injury, and also lead towards preventing injury in the future. And that takes a regional approach. I hope that there’s going to be policies and regulations that reflect that honesty, and I hope to lead on that. They are going to be in areas such as housing, education, environmental justice and access to the outside and access to clean air. So I’m excited about that.

The district is heavily Latino and working class, and you touched on some of the broad areas needing attention. What are some of the unique needs your district has?

Well, my district, as you mentioned, is heavily Latinx and working class, and I would say a lot of my experience with both populations has been as a legal services attorney for many years. I learned Spanish and Portuguese. And I would say that many of the needs of my clients then are the needs of many people today. That’s access to a driver’s license, that’s passing the Secure Communities Act, and separating immigration from local law enforcement. Everyone should feel safe to call law enforcement. These are big policy ideas I’ve been working on for years, for well over a decade. Bilingual education, making sure we have literate individuals first in their own language at home, but also in English. You could do both and should do both. That’s the way of the future.

I think that there’s a real need in terms of working-class and workers’ rights — two deeply connected things. And what we have done to gig workers, many of whom are immigrants, many of whom are Latinx, we basically allowed them to make what should have been a side-hustle became a primary source of income with very few protections. They are not considered employees; they’re not given unemployment [benefits]; yhey don’t have workers comp; they don’t have discrimination protection. These things are concerning to me. We are taking the gig economy to be something that I don’t think it ever was meant to be, and I think the best thing I could do is to fight for worker protections in that economy. I cut my teeth fighting for domestic workers, nannies and house cleaners, many of whom are Latinas, Brazilian and from other parts of Latin America. And they’re deeply connected, fighting for the rights of workers … the rights of the working class.

What housing policies do you think can help stem the tide of gentrification that we see happening to these working-class neighborhoods?

There are policies pending that need that extra push. For example, the Tenant Protection Act, lifting the ban on rent control. The protections that we have for condo conversion only go to buildings with four units and above; that state law needs to be brought down to three units, two units. There’s a massive amount of gentrification that goes unchecked because there’s no protections for the tenants. We’re talking about five-year leases. If you’re a senior or if you’re low income or if you’re disabled and they convert your four-unit building into condos, you should have right of first refusal. We have to pass the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act so that people aren’t purchasing up buildings to flip them so fast, with people in them. And sealing eviction records. I want to remove the scarlet letter ‘E’ and the stigma that a tenant carries for the rest of life because these records are permanent and public.

It’s those kinds of things that I think will make a difference on housing at the big level. But it’ll hit granularly.

What impact can the Legislature have on immigration policy?

We can’t really do immigration law, right? It’s more federal, but I did mention driver’s licenses and the Secure Communities Act. I think the state’s moral obligation should be to assure that anybody living in Massachusetts feels that they can express and reach their greatest God-given potential. That means good education; that means being able to move around, whether it’s driving or being on the T without fear; that means access to food and housing. Immigration status should not be a barrier to any of that.

What are your plans for criminal justice reform in this new role?

Well, I don’t plan on doing something new. I think that there’s been a huge amount of work and advocacy [by] people who came before me, and so my goal for criminal justice reform is to immediately start sitting with them. I’ve met with the ACLU. I’ve met with officers from the Massachusetts Association of Women in Law Enforcement and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. I’m not confused about their thoughts on criminal justice reform. There’s the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) commission members that I’d love to talk to. I believe in POST. I’m excited for POST to succeed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think I’m in an interesting position. For at least one year, I’ll be the only African American or Black senator we have. For a lot of Black people, that means I’m their senator, regardless of where they live. I think that’s the beautiful thing about being Black, and I’m proud of that.