New group changes political landscape

August 14, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

JP seen as city election bellwether

Jamaica Plain Progressives, a powerhouse community group focused on local politics, came out of nowhere in recent weeks to stage hard-hitting candidate forums—including this year’s first candidate forum appear-ance by incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino.

The very existence of JP Progressives—whose politically connected membership includes several State House and Boston City Council aides—underscores the key role JP will have in this year’s election, and challenges a neighborhood forum system that in recent years has been dominated by incumbent-friendly Democratic ward committees.

“JP is a very progressive community, but there’s not really a centralized voice for that,” said JP Progressives co-chair Melissa Threadgill about the forming of the group this spring.

Threadgill is an aide to state Sen. Jamie Eldridge. Co-chair Heather Ross Schwab is an aide to state Rep. Byron Rushing. The group’s core membership of about 20 people includes Reuben Kantor, chief of staff for City Council President Mike Ross, and Georgia Hollister Isman, director of the union/advocacy coalition Mass Alliance.

Inspired by the grassroots organizing that put Gov. Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama in office, JP Progressives formed to put similar effort into local politics. Its regular meetings at Doyle’s Café have addressed such topics as the Forest Hills redevelopment and youth violence.

Its first meeting was spent on the task of trying to define “progressive,” which historically has meant liberal reformers. The group came up with a general statement addressing such themes as equality, privacy, transparency and rights to housing and health care.

“We know it’s popular to run as a progressive,” Threadgill said. “A lot of candidates are going to be saying it. I take them at their word, but a lot of us probably have a narrower definition of it.”

The group decided to do candidate forums to “inject some substance” into the race, Threadgill said. At the first forum, held last month at Doyle’s, she said, “A lot of us realized we’re undecided voters for maybe the first time ever.”

The group gave all candidates a detailed questionnaire, then used the forums to cross-examine their an-swers. In a sign of the group’s political pull, all but three of this year’s 19 citywide candidates—including all of the mayoral contenders—submitted to the grilling, even though the group will not endorse anyone.

The group drew praise from Menino and others, while City Council candidate Tomás Gonzalez questioned its mostly white membership, saying, “You guys need some people of color in your room.” Threadgill told the Ga-zette that the group took the comments to heart and will attempt to diversify.

“I think it’s the perfect forum [for] getting to know a candidate,” Menino told the Gazette. “Jamaica Plain’s absolutely important [in this election]. It’s very active, lots of civic engagement. You really get a sense of what the issues may be.”

“If I’m fortunate enough to win Jamaica Plain, I win this race,” mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty said at one forum. “That’s how close this race is going to be. I can’t stress enough the importance of the community in this election.”

“This is a really, really important exercise that we don’t see enough of in other neighborhoods,” mayoral candidate Sam Yoon said at a forum. “And I think you know that as JP progressives.”

“There are not many softballs being tossed there. That was live batting practice,” said local City Coun-cilor John Tobin of the first forum, which he attended but did not participate in because he is not a city-wide candidate.

Tobin said the group is a bellwether of what he believes will be massive voting by progressives and com-munities of color.

“I think the [voter] turnout is going to be a lot bigger than people think it is,” he said.

JP Progressives plans to canvass the neighborhood with its candidate questionnaires in September. The documents, as well as full video footage of all of the candidates’ grillings, are on the group’s web site at www.JPProgressives.com.

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