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 Councilwoman Lydia Edwards won the Jan. 11 special election to fill the first Suffolk and Middlesex District Senate seat vacated by John Boncore. As Councilman for District 1 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 sat down with Edwards last week for a discussion about his priorities at Beacon Hill. The following interview has been edited for clarity.state
What will be your priorities in the State Senate?
At the forefront of my mind right now is the pandemic. And honestly, as a senator for this district right now, I have four cities, and each is dealing with the pandemic differently in their education system, in their restaurant industries or local businesses, and in general, with the way which she deals with inside or outside mask mandates. I think the pandemic is number one.
And then, which policies make it possible to rely on it truly equitably? I don’t think there’s a city or a person who thinks what we had before worked very well. So we have a double duty to be really honest about how the system was failing before, and then to be really honest about how we’re going to heal past injuries and also help prevent injuries in the future. And it takes a regional approach. I hope there will be policies and regulations that reflect this honesty, and I hope to be the leader in this. They will concern areas such as housing, education, environmental justice, access to the outdoors and access to clean air. So I’m excited about that.
The neighborhood is heavily Latino and working-class, and you’ve touched on some of the big areas that need attention. What are some of the unique needs of your district?
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. It’s access to a driver’s license, it’s the passage of the Safe Communities Act and the separation of immigration from local law enforcement. Everyone should feel safe calling law enforcement. These are great political ideas that I have been working on for years, for over a decade. Bilingual education, ensuring that we have individuals literate first in their own language at home, but also in English. You could do both and should do both. This is the way of the future.
I think there is a real need in terms of working class and workers’ rights, two things that are deeply connected. And what we’ve done to gig workers, many of whom are immigrants, many of whom are Latinx, we’ve basically allowed them to do what should have been a side hustle turned into a primary source of income with very few protections . They are not considered employees; we don’t give them unemployment [benefits]; yhey has no workers comp; they have no protection against discrimination. These things concern me. We take the gig economy as something I don’t think it was ever meant to be, and I think the best thing I can do is fight for the protection of workers in this economy. I cut my teeth fighting for domestic workers, nannies and cleaners, many of whom are Latinas, Brazilians and other parts of Latin America. And they are 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 we see happening in these working-class neighborhoods?
There are pending policies that need an extra boost. For example, the Tenant Protection Act, which lifts the ban on rent control. The protections we have for condo conversions only apply to buildings with four units or more; this state law must be reduced to three units, two units. There is a massive amount of gentrification that goes unchecked because there is no protection for tenants. We are talking about five-year leases. If you are senior or low income or disabled and they convert your four unit building to condos, you should have the right of first refusal. We need to pass the Tenant Opportunity to Buy Act so that people don’t buy buildings and flip them over so quickly, with people in them. And seal the eviction records. I want to remove the scarlet letter “E” and the stigma that a tenant carries for the rest of their life, as these records are permanent and public.
It’s those kinds of things that I think will make a difference for large-scale housing. But it will hit granularly.
What impact can the legislator have on immigration policy?
We can’t really make immigration law, can we? It’s more federal, but I mentioned driver’s licenses and the Safe Communities Act. I believe the moral obligation of the state should be to ensure that everyone living in Massachusetts feels they can express and achieve their greatest God-given potential. It means a good education; it means being able to move, whether by car or on the T, without fear; that is, access to food and shelter. Immigrant status should not be a barrier to any of this.
What are your plans for criminal justice reform in this new role?
Well, I don’t plan on doing anything new. I think there has been a tremendous amount of work and advocacy [by] people who came before me, and so my goal for criminal justice reform is to immediately start sitting down with them. I met with the ACLU. I met with officers from the Massachusetts Association of Women in Law Enforcement and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. I am not confused about their thoughts on criminal justice reform. There are members of the Police Standards and Training Commission (POST) that I would like to speak with. I believe in POST. I’m glad POST is successful.
Do you have anything else to add?
I think I’m in an interesting position. For at least a year, I will be the only African American or black senator we have. For a lot of black people, that means I’m their senator no matter where they live. I think that’s the beautiful thing about being black, and I’m proud of it.