As History Has Shown, Don’t Bet Against Ivette…
UPDATED 9/8/14 2:00AM: For grammar.
SPRINGFIELD—The campaign for state representative in the 10th Hamdpen District differs greatly from the last time it was open. There has been no truly open race for the seat in its modern incarnation. When Anthony Scibelli took the seat in 1950, the House had 240 members. When he died after the 1998 primary, the House had 160 reps and party activists not voters picked a new Democratic nominee.
Today, voters will decide in a political era that blends data with old-fashioned door knocking. If done right, this new campaigning can provide tremendous leverage especially in a low turnout primary that will effectively decide who the next rep will be.
Enter Ivette Hernandez, “You have to stand up and speak up. A lot of people are not able to achieve many of their goals because they have so many barriers going against them.”
Outside of labor and community activism circles and the Department of Children and Families where she works, Hernandez was not particularly visible. Yet, over the course of only a few months, Hernandez has stormed onto the stage armed with a message likely to resonate in the district, one of the commonwealth’s poorest.
“From day one it has been knocking on doors, knocking on doors,” Hernandez said during a recent interview over lunch “and that’s what I do best.”
The 10th Hampden runs along Springfield’s western edge encompassing downtown, the North and South Ends and much of Forest Park including the area surrounding the park itself.
In March Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera resigned her House seat to take a job in the Hampden County Courthouse. That left a wide open race to succeed her. Carlos Gonzalez, the head of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce and Springfield Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards entered the race with Hernandez jumping in not long thereafter.
Hernandez, whose activism belies a touch of shyness, has positioned herself as the progressive in the race. Although she denied references to “the same people” targeted any opponent specifically, she has drawn a contrast with Gonzalez with whom she will likely share most of the Latino vote.
“Really!?” she punctuates her bemused frustration at those who oppose common sense changes and investments that would, in her estimate, help many people escape poverty.
“If you get a job at the Holyoke Mall, you can’t work on a Sunday,” she said noting limited PVTA service on that day. “How am I supposed to get out of poverty?”
“She is just…her heart pours out whenever she talks about the issues that prompted her to get into this race,” Ross Kiely, political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, said.
On the trail, Hernandez has shared her story of fleeing domestic violence in Puerto Rico with a child in tow. She told WMassP&I that she bounced around with family, first to Georgia and then eventually in Massachusetts, living in a Boston area shelter. She earned her GED in Spanish, but later attended classes at Roxbury Community College and got her associates degree.
She got her bacherlor’s degree at Fitchburg State and had no particular interest in DCF. The department hired her after college, however its mission did jive with a broader pattern of community involvement, including volunteering at a battered women’s shelter and at rape-crisis centers.
Showing off her award and diplomas in a scrap book, Hernandez said her education continued beyond that point including a certification as a social worker, a masters degree in social worker and training as a steward with her union as DCF, Local 509 of SEIU, the latter two after she moved to Springfield. Hernandez worked in the Worcester, Leominster and finally the Springfield DCF offices.
“Her story alone is wonderful,” said Ron Patenaude, president of the Hampshire/Franklin Central Labor Council and who has served on boards with her. “Where she came from and we she is today,” he remarked on how educational programs made her current life possible.
Indeed on the trail she focuses heavily on preservation of those programs, which have faced cuts since used them. It has led to some criticism that her emphasis on child care, training programs and the life is one-dimensional, but these are also some of the most pressing issues in the district itself.
“Something special needs to happen with the 10th Hampden,” Kiely of UFCW 1459 said referring to crime, teen pregnancy and other ills. “Whoever does get the nod has a herculean task.”
Although some sources say Hernandez needed convincing to enter the race, campaign staff and the candidate herself say she maintains a grueling, daily door-knocking schedule after work. Hernandez said after being active in community groups and the Patrick and Obama campaigns, “This was a perfect opportunity to extend the work that I am doing and be able to advocate at the state house for the whole district.”
Hernandez called being a candidate herself a “major learning experience for sure.” She described some of the voters she met on the doors: the disappointed voter; the woman who cannot get the remainder of her cancer treatment; and the mother whose kids play in an unsafe street because he could not get into a summer programs.
Asked how she keeps going in the face of such discouragement and despair, Hernandez seemingly ascribes it to sheer will. Even after working her way up the socioeconomic latter, there were still personal hurdles.
After her biological mother was found dead in Puerto Rico, it fell to Hernandez to ID the body. Not long after, her stepmother, whom she described as the only grandmother her children knew, died of pancreatic cancer. The pall cast over her household was broken with somewhat nervous anticipation, when her grandchild was born to her still-teenaged son.
“It gets overwhelming when you don’t have that extra support,” she said of young parents like she was once.
As far her potential role as State Rep, Hernandez promised to continue her advocacy, “I am going to do what I am doing today and that is to fight and advocate for everybody: the veteran, the elder, the children, the single parent.” At the Armoury-Quadrangle forum last month, Hernandez also called on voters to hold her to her own standard if elected.
She advocated for more funding for programs for youth, but also parenting classes and mental health and addiction clinics. In prior debates Hernandez has criticized, without naming anybody, how grants lack transparency and are only given to a select few. Hernandez did not say so, but that might be an allusion to criticism among some Latinos that social service organizations associated with Herbie Flores receive a disproportionate share of grants and moneys intended to serve poor minority communities.
On jobs, Hernandez suggested government entities needed to do a better job hiring within poorer communities. Paid sick leave will be on the ballot, but Hernandez expressed an incredulous dismay that it had to go to the ballot to even hope to pass. And the minimum wage still may not, in her estimate, be enough for people to live.
If people are working that much,” she said of people working 2-3 jobs, “they should be able to earn a little more and be happy with their earnings.”
Responding to a question about how she would work through the political muck and disagreement of the legislature, Hernandez laughed, “I work at DCF. That is my response.” The agency itself has been in the spotlight of late following the death of Jeremiah Oliver. Although the agency was largely exonerated, it was perceived as dysfunctional, but, more to Hernandez’s point, it also serves the whole spectrum of humanity. “Piece of cake,” she said of the legislature.
On the ground, Hernandez has had a lot of help. SEIU 1199’s Political Action arm has been spending heavily on Hernandez’s behalf. Her own local SIEU 509 has provided staff time and other resources. A laundry list of groups have endorsed her campaign, some spending money on her behalf, including a California PAC called Progressive Kick. Hernandez said her own campaign knocked on some 15,000 doors and claimed about 1700 voters ID’d for vote for her. If those numbers hold up Tuesday, it would represent a huge surge in what is otherwise set to be a low turnout affair.
“I’ve been very humbled with the amount of support I have received,” Hernandez said.
In the final analysis, however, Hernandez does not want to give the impression she is straying from her organizer roots. “Part of being an organizer and being a part of a group, [you] get a chance to hear from every member.” Whatever a person’s background or their weaknesses (her kids still tease her about her English), Hernandez said all have something to offer and she is willing to hear them out.
“At the end of the day I want to improve the quality of life of Springfield,” Hernandez said, “and if that is your goal as well, then I guess we have something to work on.”