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Climbing the Hill

A Cuban American makes his way in Boston politics.

May-June 2003

In the fall of 2001, students supporting a "living wage" for Harvard's janitors and other low-paid employees held rallies to keep the pressure on the University. For Priscilla Orta '05, one event in particular stands out: a clean-cut state representative from Cambridge, addressing the crowd alternately in English and Spanish, who revealed genuine passion in describing the workers' plight. "He was almost crying, he was so upset with what was going on. That impressed me," says Orta, 19, a Mexican American. "That was very honorable. There aren't many people who still bring emotion to politics."
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In customary style, Jarrett Barrios visits with neighbors in his Inman Square, Cambridge, neighborhood.
Photograph courtesy of Jarret Barrios

The young politician was Jarrett Barrios '90. Last fall, after two terms as a state representative, he became the first Latino and first openly gay state senator in Massachusetts. His district spans seven cities and towns, including the heav-ily working-class Revere, Saugus, and Everett, and his home base, Cambridge.

Interest in conventional politics came relatively late to Barrios, a Florida-born Cuban American. As an undergraduate on scholarship, he had to work at various jobs to help pay tuition, including one as night supervisor at the University Lutheran Homeless Shelter, and another at the Plough and Stars, a bar/club where he did everything from clean the toilets to cook brunch. But if "the political stuff" — like Harvard College Democrats or student government — "just wasn't my world at that point," as Barrios says, he was already an activist. He helped Central-American refugees as a member of Centro Presente, served as cochairman of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Association, and helped lead opposition to ROTC's return to campus, citing the group's policy against admitting homosexuals.

Barrios describes his relatives — manual laborers who immigrated from Cuba between 1896 and 1925 (his grandparents rolled cigars and worked in a cigar-box company in Tampa) — as primarily "Roosevelt Democrats" who believed that government existed to help those in need, in contrast to the many, wealthier, professional Cubans who fled to Florida after Castro's 1959 victory and tended to vote Republican. His father is a carpenter, his mother a social worker for the state of Florida. It was quite a leap — cultural, geographic, and social — from his life in Tampa to Harvard Yard. By the end of his sophomore year, with paid work depleting his energy for schoolwork, he wondered if he had made the wrong decision. "I thought of dropping out," he says. "I felt directionless."

In search of a deeper mission, he headed, in the summer of 1988, to Mexico to work for Los Ni — os de Baja California, an organization that promotes economic development and improved nutrition. He taught English in the slums of Mexicali and was disturbed to find children playing in a trash dump every day because their parents squeezed out a living by selling bits of other people's refuse. "That's what got me interested in politics," he explains. "The politics of hunger and food: who's got it and who's not getting it. In Mexicali, Mexico."

The social-studies concentrator was so affected by his work in Mexicali that he stayed on into the fall of his junior year and returned the following summer. Armed with a new belief that politics would enable him to improve people's lives, in his senior year he replied to an ad in the student-employment office for a political internship focusing on environmental issues. The job was with then-Boston city councilor David Scondras '67, the city's first openly gay councilor. Scondras's example while in office, Barrios says, "showed me that [being gay] shouldn't be a barrier" to holding office.

It wasn't long before Barrios launched himself wholeheartedly into politics, campaigning for Scondras and another liberal-leaning Boston city councilor, Rosario Salerno. In 1991, the 23-year-old Barrios managed Scondras's successful reelection campaign before leaving Boston to attend Georgetown Law School. After graduating in 1995, he returned to Boston with a job at the law firm Hill & Barlow. (When the firm folded, he joined Piper Rudnick.)

Plans for a political run of his own were soon in the works. In 1998, Barrios defeated a five-term incumbent to win a Massachusetts House seat representing several Cambridge neighborhoods. His campaign, though well-financed by colleagues and friends in the legal world, was nevertheless driven by his own incessant door-to-door campaigning and a focus on affordable housing, expanded healthcare coverage, and investment in public education. During that term and the one that followed, he helped create a statewide low-income-housing tax credit and a state-sponsored affordable-housing trust fund. He also counted among his legislative victories a law that required interpreter services in hospital emergency rooms. For a change of pace, he held evening salsa dance classes at the statehouse.

But legislative success in the tightly controlled House depends heavily on Speaker Thomas Finneran's beneficence, and Barrios was never a favored son. In 2001, he sought clout outside the House by serving as spokesman for the state Democratic Party's "shadow government initiative," which highlighted policy differences between the Democrat-controlled legislature and the acting Republican governor, Jane Swift.

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Jarrett Barrios meets with constituents: (top) at the Everett Armory; (above) at a Latino community center in Chelsea.

Below, Barrios talks with Noel Johnson, a member of a neighborhood crime watch group in Cambridge.

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Photographs courtesy of Jarrett Barrios

Despite that high-profile post and backing from Finneran's opponents, a jump to the more powerful state senate seemed unlikely. The 33-year-old Barrios would have to win a district that included some of the most blue-collar communities in eastern Massachusetts. The district did include Cambridge, and its previous senator was another Harvard graduate, Thomas Birmingham '72, J.D. '78, who gave up his post as senate president to run for governor. But Birmingham, a Chelsea native and labor lawyer, enjoyed solid support among trade unions.

Barrios nevertheless decided to take the chance. His sexual orientation came up only near the end of the race: one of his two opponents took out full-page advertisements in local newspapers reminding voters that Barrios was gay and claiming that he had received contributions from "a gay special-interest group that supports gay candidates throughout the country" and had described his life partner, Doug Hattaway, as his "spouse" in a financial document.

On election day, Barrios won in a landslide, taking six of the eight districts. That made him the first gay Latino elected to any state senate in the country, according to the Washington-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. The win also came in a district in which only eight percent of registered voters were Latino, proving that his support extended far beyond his ethnic base. Some supporters cited his four years in the House; neither opponent had any statehouse experience. On victory night, Barrios gave part of his acceptance speech in Spanish and hugged Hattaway (a former spokesman for the Gore presidential campaign) on stage.

For Orta, whose great-great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico and who now heads RAZA, the College's Mexican-American student association, Barrios's election underlines the need for minority candidates to convince voters in increasingly mixed communities that they can represent everyone. Yet Orta, who grew up near Toledo, Ohio, could barely imagine Barrios's victory back home. "Being Hispanic would have been one strike against him, and being gay would have just finished him off," she explains. "But he won!"

Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the United States, outpacing even African Americans, according to the most recent census data. Barrios says he is part of the rising tide of Hispanic political influence. "We are in a place now where, rather than being on the outside protesting, we are increasingly on the inside," he says. But ethnicity, like his sexual orientation, is only part of his thinking when it comes to choosing issues and casting votes. "I don't view myself as 'the Latin legislator,'" he says. "I view myself as a legislator who is informed in part by my Latino background, who is informed in part by my sexual orientation, but also by a host of other values."

Barrios says he's lucky to be able to represent his "communities," whose voices often go unheard. "There will always be people for whom I am the butt of some joke," he concedes. "There will always be people who focus on a negative stereotype, whose principles put us all in the gutter. But my preference while standing on the street or in the gutter, with apologies to Oscar Wilde, is to keep looking at the stars. I'm proud of what my parents made in me."

 

Although a Boston newspaper has suggested he may be destined for Congress, Barrios says only that he'll decide whether to run for reelection to the senate before the end of his current two-year term. His focus is on the 40-member Senate, which offers individual members a better chance to effect change than does the 160-member House. He chairs the public-safety committee and is vice-chairman of the healthcare committee. His legislative priorities include childcare, schools, housing, and access to healthcare — traditional Democratic issues. He has already endorsed proposals that would raise wages among human-service workers, protect consumers from unwarranted bank fees and unfair lending, and lower the cost of prescription drugs. How this agenda fares with a new Republican governor and a fearsome state deficit remains to be seen.

Despite the general public's often cynical view of politicians, political life makes sense to Barrios because he has identified clearly in his own mind just why he is there. "If you've ever worked with a child who goes to bed hungry, if you've ever helped a family unable to provide the things for that child that we might consider basic — like food, or vaccinations, or primary education — you know the answer to that question," he says. "You know that through your efforts you can revolutionize their world."

~John McElhenny

 

John McElhenny is a freelance writer in Somerville, Massachusetts, and a former political reporter for the Associated Press in Boston