One councillor – now joined in support by others – has called for the state Secretary of the Commonwealth to look into a long list of alleged “irregularities” from the Nov. 3 City Election and to bring in observers to monitor future Chelsea elections.
Meanwhile, the focus of most of the complaints, the Chelsea Collaborative, said this week that the call is sour grapes and any advocating they did was on their own, personal time and not associated with their organization.
The situation toes a very thin line, as the non-profit is not allowed to take political stands on candidates, but prominent members did take an active role personally outside of work in backing several candidates during the recent election – all but one of whom was Latino. One issue cited frequently are hand-delivered letters using Collaborative Director Gladys Vega’s name and suggesting what candidates to vote for. The letters were apparently hand-delivered primarily to registered voters with Hispanic surnames.
“We did that all on our own personal time and with our own resources or, with the letters, they were paid for by Roy’s (Avellaneda) campaign,” said Vega this week. “The reason I endorsed them was because the people who are elected weren’t doing anything in the City. People are upset about the status quo and that’s why I worked to bring change. People wanted that because the elected officials were doing nothing for the people…I’ve been doing those letters for years and have been holding signs since I was 18 and Juan Vega ran for Council. I grew up here and have been politically active for 20 years. I backed Latino candidates and others back then. Did they complain? No. That’s because there wasn’t a Latino majority…We did the things these candidates didn’t do and we did it on our own time. We went door-to-door to make sure issues weren’t taken for granted. [Some incumbents] thought they were going to walk into office without doing anything and they didn’t. That’s what really happened.”
The issue was boiling prior to the election, but since Nov. 3, the pot has exploded into what has become a very divisive situation in the aftermath of a huge wave of upsets – mostly, again, by Latino candidates who are new to the political arena and, in most cases, not associated with the Collaborative.
That complicates the matter even more as most of the Latino candidates ran on their own accord, as people first and Latinos second, and never asked for any help from the Collaborative, yet were endorsed by Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega in the ‘Dear Friend’ letters that she said she has been doing on her own time for years – and this time were paid for by Councillor-elect Roy Avellaneda’s campaign.
On Monday night, the issue came to a head when Councillor Clifford Cunningham – who was defeated by political newcomer Yamir Rodriguez – called for a state investigation into a list of “irregularities” he had submitted to City Clerk Debbie Clayman and for the state to monitor future Chelsea City Elections.
Following the meeting, he said he had no intention of upending the results of the election and he accepts defeat, but he doesn’t accept the activities he saw during and before the election.
“To be clear, one should not blame any candidates for what occurred,” he said. “Though many were beneficiaries of questionable actions, I believe the blame lies fully with the organization that flirted with the bounds of better judgment, if not the law, to advocate on behalf of certain individuals…I believe anyone who values an electoral system free from corruption by special interests should be bothered by what transpired on Nov. 3. The notion that a non-profit organization, in this case the Chelsea Collaborative, its director being the author of the document (the Dear Friend letter), would use a supposedly non-partisan voter initiative as cover to not so subtly advocate directly on behalf of, or against, specific candidates runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the law and possibly rules that govern their status as an entity that is the recipient of money from both this City and the state…The accusations made here are, disappointingly, nothing new to Chelsea politics, but this year, I feel, simply went so boldly and unapologetically far that they cannot and must not be ignored.”
He was joined afterward by Councillor Paula Barton, who lost to long-time advocate Enio Lopez. She said one of her tenants who has a Hispanic surname got the ‘Dear Friend’ letter from Vega, yet no one else did. She said she didn’t like the tenor of the letter and is also disturbed by things she saw at the polls.
“I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw happen,” she said.
Councillor Chris Cataldo, who was defeated by long-time resident Luis Tejada, said he would support Cunningham’s effort of an investigation.
“I have always been for transparency in all aspects of the City, and feel as though it would be hypocritical for anyone who preaches transparency to stand in the way of any reasonable Council order calling for an investigation into City business,” he said. “I fully believe that the outcome of the Secretary of State’s office will show that the candidates did nothing other than hard work to get themselves elected. It is for this reason that I will vote to support the order should it come before Council at the next meeting.”
Newly elected Councillor-elect Damali Vidot said this week that she has been troubled by the talk about race during the campaign. She said she is proud to be part of the first Latino-majority Council, but is focused first on all the people of Chelsea.
“Personally for me, as proud as I am of my Nuyorican heritage; it is only a fragment of what I represent as I am also a homeowner, former at-risk young person, concerned resident, but most importantly, I am a mom,” she said. “Throughout this campaign, I have heard many divisive conversations with respect to race, gender and ethnicity that I often ignored. Since our historic elections, those conversations have intensified leaving me with no choice but to address it…My message is and has always been that of ‘One Chelsea’ as I feel that residents from every corner of this city united is the only way we’ll be able to get anything accomplished.”
Meanwhile, members of the Collaborative said there are a lot of misconceptions about how their organization operates during elections – whether federal, state or local.
Vega and Collaborative organizer Roseann Bongiovanni – who is also a frequent political activist in the city – said that about 10 years ago their Board agreed to make all election days a holiday at their offices. Employees get a paid holiday on election days as many in the past wanted to be politically active and had to take vacation days to do so. Instead, the organization closes its doors. Some, however, do perform work on election days and that is via their non-partisan voter registration and Get Out the Vote work. That, they said, is non-partisan and not associated with any candidates.
“It fires us up and makes us very angry that people think we’re not allowed to do this,” said Bongiovanni. “Many of us are part-time here and I only work 25 hours a week, so I have a lot of free time and I choose to be politically active. Nobody’s complaining when I’m paying my taxes or water bills or fighting to block [Ethanol] trains. Yet, if I’m supporting a candidate who is a friend or who I think is a good fit for the office, then I’m doing something wrong. It’s my prerogative to do that on my time. It’s on my own dime and on my own time and I can prove that…What Gladys and I do on our own private time is what we do on our own private time. I’m not going to hide from my actions.”
Bongiovanni said she paid for a lot of her personal electoral activities, but some were also paid for by the Damali Vidot and Roy Avellaneda campaigns.
The ‘Dear Friend’ letters – which seemed to spark most of the controversy – were written in Spanish and were mostly sample copies of the actual ballot with information about when the polls opened and closed. There were no references to ‘Latino Power’ as some have contended, but Vega writing that it was important for “our community” to have a voice in the City. Lines were drawn on the ballot to indicate Vega’s endorsed candidates. All but one of those candidates were Latino, with the lone endorsement coming for Henry Wilson, who is African American, over Judith Garcia, who is Latina, is District 5.
Vega said such letters and endorsements are nothing new, and she wasn’t endorsing people by their ethnicity. However, in a copy of the letter reportedly written by Vega that was obtained by The Chelsea Record for District 8, Vega specifically writes, “VOTE Por los candidatos Latinos este Martes, 3 de Noviembre (translated, Vote for the Latino Candidates this Tuesday, November 3.). Vega added that she was endorsing the challengers because she and a group of leaders decided that the incumbents weren’t getting the job done. She said she and that group of Latino leaders met at Tito’s Bakery two months ago and agreed on who the best candidates would be in each contest, a decision that defined who would be endorsed in Vega’s ‘Dear Friend’ letters.
One of those endorsed was Henry Wilson, she said, over Judith Garcia.
“Henry has been a good friend for 10 years in Chelsea and has been active here for a long time and we decided to endorse him because we didn’t know anything about Judith,” said Vega. “We have every right to endorse who we want on our own time.”
Vega, Bongiovanni and Collaborative organizer Rita Falzarano said many see the faces of the Collaborative and often think everything that employees of the Collaborative do is also associated with the Collaborative’s official actions.
It isn’t so, they said.
“If you work here you almost don’t have the right to a personal life,” said Falzarano, who was collecting signatures for a ballot initiative next year on Election Day. “I felt there was some serious hostility going on here on [Election Day].”
Added Bongiovanni, “Just because we work at the Collaborative doesn’t mean the Collaborative is backing X, Y or Z. There are 168 hours in a week and many of us are part-timers at the Collaborative and have a lot of free time. People drive by and see us holding signs or something and think everything we do is for the Collaborative. If we decide to knock on doors in District 7 in our free time, that’s our prerogative.”
Cunningham’s two orders passed the Council Monday night and will likely come back for more discussion in two weeks. He said the orders are largely symbolic, but would send a message for the future if passed.
“These orders will send a message that Council believes there were a sufficient number of inappropriate actions that took place leading up to and on Election Day that warrant notice and possible action,” he said. “Second, the role of the Secretary of State would be for the purpose of recommending solutions aimed at preventing like issues from reoccurring.”