Supporters saw inclusive leaders in political newcomers
WORCESTER – Richard Boateng said the first time he heard about Etel Haxhiaj was when he took his West African restaurant Anokye Krom to Coes Square and heard about the work Haxhiaj had been doing in the neighborhood.
He said city council candidate Haxhiaj’s commitment to District 5 and providing federal funding for projects in the district was a major selling point for him.
“She wants to make sure her district gets part of the federal cake,” Boateng said.
Boateng shared with his restaurant diners about Haxhiaj and their investment in community development in their district. When she won, Boateng said he expected her to emerge victorious and her victory celebration was held in Anokye Krom.
“Everyone was happy, it was an unforgettable night,” said Boateng.
This month’s local elections brought several new faces to Worcester city council and school authorities, and behind those candidates were supporters and organizers who believed in their candidates and a more inclusive city.
In the local elections on November 2, five new candidates were elected to public office, two to the city council and three to the school committee. In the city council, Thu Nguyen was elected to a seat on the Grand Council and Haxhiaj was elected to the seat of District 5. The school committee will include the new members Jermain Johnson, Sue Coghlin Mailman and Jermoh Kamara.
Some supporters and those who gave the candidates their time have known the soon-to-be-elected officials for a long time, while others became aware of them through the election campaign.
Ann Lisi, former President and CEO of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, has known Haxhiaj for many years through Haxhiaj’s work at the YWCA and other initiatives.
After leaving the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, Lisi said she was trying to stay active in the city and saw potential in the 2021 election, which saw multiple seats open and she participated in Haxhiaj’s campaign.
“I saw added value in her because she cares about equality and asks, ‘Will this work for the most disadvantaged?” Lisa said. “She thinks of the vulnerable first, and when you do that as a leader you will likely to make things better for everyone. “
Lisi helped raise funds for Haxhiaj’s mailing support campaign and helped prepare debates and public speeches.
Working with Johnson in the state’s Department of Children and Families, Meghan Rhondeau said she knew Johnson would make a good member of the school committee that would be fully dedicated to the position.
“Jermaine is someone who is a natural leader. So when he asked me to take part in his campaign and help him, I was really honored that he came to me because I look up to him so much, ”Rhondeau said. “It was an honor for me to have that kind of mutual respect. He’s a natural leader here, he’s a union leader in the office, he is very supportive of his colleagues and that really attracts people.”
Rhondeau has been a team member in Johnson’s campaign since he started running. She said her roles included volunteer gathering, door knocking, and social media.
Johnson’s campaign planks on youth programs and social-emotional support for students have been pillars that Rhondeau believes will be beneficial to Worcester Public Schools.
“He has this knowledge firsthand and sees the direct impact youth programs have on these children, especially on youth at risk,” said Rhondeau.
After months of campaigning, Johnson’s team was confident they would finish in the top six candidates, Rhondeau said. Johnson was the front runner in the vote count.
Sarah Callinan said she usually didn’t pay much attention to local elections and usually only voted for candidates she knew, but made her decision this year amid the growing controversy facing school authorities across the country over COVID-19 protocols.
“I realized the importance of local elections and how much more immediate they affect our lives than anything Congress does or doesn’t do,” Callinan said.
Just before the election, Callinan downloaded her ballot and began looking for candidates. She was impressed with Johnson’s website and stated priorities, including student mental health and safety. In addition, Johnson’s focus on assisting the arts caught on with Callinan, a music teacher on Worcester’s Joy of Music program.
James Leo Bedard
James Leo Bedard, a former city council candidate and member of the Massachusetts State Democratic Committee, said he was immediately involved in Mailman’s campaign because he said Mailman has a good track record and is attuned to student needs.
“Sue deeply understands students’ need for support because of the impact the past year has had on their learning and social development,” Bedard said. “Sue has an excellent track record of serving city residents through her work on many boards and a clear vision of how Worcester public schools must focus on the future success of our children in a rapidly changing work environment.”
The candidates also bring new diversity to the city administration. Haxhiaj will be the first Albanian refugee and the first Muslim on the city council. Nguyen will be the first Southeast Asian American and also the first non-binary member of the council. Nguyen uses the pronouns sie, ihr, and sie. Johnson will be the first black on the school committee and Kamara will be the first African-born member. Urban policy observers also believe the election results will strengthen the progressive faction in the city government.
Some supporters of the Newcomer Campaign said they felt their candidate was campaigning for a more inclusive city.
Ora Ming Lin
17-year-old Ora Ming Lin had never dealt with urban politics before reading a mailer about Nguyen’s campaign and being impressed by the “intersectionality” of Nguyen’s identity as a Vietnamese immigrant and a non-binary person. Lin is partly Taiwanese and also non-binary using the pronouns she, her, and she. Nguyen also seemed like an approachable person who listened to her constituents to help advance a particular agenda, Lin said.
“I didn’t expect that kind of representation in local government at all,” Lin said. “When I saw this, I found it really exciting and I reached out to them and asked if they would like to work with me to do an ad.”
Lin helped Nguyen with her campaign video, which Lin said was a change for her as a video producer as she is more used to producing personal YouTube videos. The number of views Nguyen’s video received over the course of the campaign gave Lin confidence that Nguyen would emerge victorious.
Being part of a victorious campaign felt “empowering” to Lin and helped them get a taste of local politics. You plan to get more involved in the city administration and learn more about the school committee.
“I’ve been into politics for a while, but DC has always been a long way off,” said Lin. “Actually speaking to people who may have power in your local government was really cool to see and really brought it to real life for me.”
Marianna Islam first contacted Nguyen last summer to raise awareness of issues that were important to both and through Nguyen’s work with Mutual Aid Worcester. Nguyen later contacted Islam, who led Linda Parham’s 2015 councilor campaign, for advice on running.
“I’m just someone who ask a Facebook group how to fix my street because I didn’t want to use connections to fix it. I’m someone who wants my government to work for us, and I have that Feeling that it is so. ” Thu offered in their campaign. ”
Islam served in the “kitchen cabinet” of Nguyen’s campaign. Her role included managing relationships for the campaign, fundraising, and providing organized care for those working on Nguyen’s behalf. Islam said Nguyen’s team tried to achieve political success while maintaining the integrity of its participants.
“We have asked ourselves how do we do this and maintain our integrity and how do we do this while we truly emerge with love and care and develop trust,” said Islam.
The campaign worked to get voters to understand Nguyen’s non-binary identity and its connections with Worcester residents, particularly youth development, Islam said.
After Nguyen’s victory, Islam said that the future city council would spend the days leading up to her swearing-in meeting with the congregations to hear their concerns and wishes from the city government.
As the newcomers prepare to be sworn in for two years, their supporters are optimistic that they will work to improve the city and respond to the needs of a changing Worcester.
Callinan was not only pleased with the results of the school committee, but was delighted with Nguyen’s victory and believed that the handily re-elected Mayor Joseph M. Petty did a great job for the city.
“I think Worcester is on a really good way, I’m optimistic that the city will make a real turnaround in a more permanent way,” said Callinan.
Rhondeau said she was relieved to see the election results and the new diversity in the city government.
“The City of Worcester obviously wanted a change in how things were, and that change will come with the election,” said Rhondeau.
Bedard hopes that city policy can better benefit families and students who need help with new officials.
“I think we have an excellent opportunity for positive change in this next term because our newly elected candidates truly represent the image of our entire community,” said Bedard. “In particular, I hope that policies will shift in favor of working families and students who need additional support.”
Boateng said the city will continue to improve in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you look at how tough the pandemic was, when you say that some of the small businesses have been really bad, and you look at Etel and some of this new crop on board, we think things are not going to go well too improve, “said Boateng.
Islam said that there was still work to be done with the city government and that listening sessions in the community should be a priority for elected officials.